Inside the Castle
By Gillian T.W. Ahlgren
Historical circumstances kept Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) from becoming the world’s first female Jesuit. But reflection on her life and works reveals her concern for establishing a balance between contemplation and action that, like Ignatius, not only offered new vision to her contemporaries, but continues to inspire today. One of three female doctors of the Roman Catholic Church, Teresa overcame numerous obstacles to educate herself theologically and to reform her religious order, the Carmelites, thus becoming one of the key 16th century Catholic Reformation figures. Also like Ignatius, she survived numerous investigations by the Spanish Inquisition, and was canonized in 1622 (along with Francis Xavier). This canonization was Rome’s clear endorsement of both her and Ignatius’ determined exploration of mystical prayer that led them both to discover and teach about the indwelling of God in all things.
In order to understand the historical context of this remarkable woman and to establish an fitting space to enter into the depths of her most insightful theological work, The Interior Castle, 13 of us visited Spain this summer. Our study seminar began in Avila, where Teresa’s resourceful grandfather resettled his family after being prosecuted and fined by the Spanish Inquisition in Toledo in 1495. Avila is a tranquil town still surrounded by its 12th century medieval walls and proved a most appropriate space for our entry into the Castle text, which describes the soul as “a castle made entirely out of a diamond … in which there are many rooms, just as in heaven there are many dwelling places.” These dwelling places are arranged concentrically in seven layers, and our personal exploration of these seven mansions is a lifelong process toward self-knowledge and the gradual entry into the place where God resides in our own deepest centers.
We spent several days working through the first five mansions, with careful attention to the fourth, where Teresa claims one enters into a more intimate relationship with God. This transition, however, is predicated upon our willingness to be transformed, to begin to understand ourselves as soulful subjects of a life story that goes far beyond our own individuality. Rather than seeking to control our circumstances, Teresa encourages us to fully live in their depths and complexities, being present to the ways in which the sacred can reveal itself in and through them. Such a way of life means opening our heart to caring passionately about all that we do, nurturing and supporting ourselves and others in companionate, not distanced, relationships. This process makes us aware of both our limitations as individuals and of our deeper capacities in collaboration with God and in prayerful collaboration with others. For Teresa, this gradual transformation of the soul is conveyed through the metaphor of a caterpillar preparing, entering into, and finally emerging from its cocoon as a butterfly.
Our days in Avila ended after a visit to the Encarnación, the Carmelite convent that Teresa entered at the age of 19. As Teresa gradually dedicated herself more fully to contemplative prayer, she grew to have a very different understanding of her religious vocation, one that she could not develop within the convent structures of her day. In 1562, she and several of her spiritual companions moved from the Encarnacion to found the convent of San Jose, beginning the discalced (shoeless) Carmelite reforms. The decrees of he Council of Trent (1545-1562) declared that women aspiring to the religious life should embrace contemplation in enclosed convents. Teresa did so willingly, developing manuals for prayer for her nuns, who had few resources after the Valdés Index of Prohibited Books made it impossible to read scripture or most mystical treatises in the vernacular. But Teresa always saw prayer as a way of being deeply present to the world around her; she and her nuns directed the power of their prayers and correspondence outward to play a part in the pastoral and missionary efforts of the Jesuits and others who lived a more active religious life. The same claustration did not keep Teresa from founding, in person, 11 convents of discalced Carmelite nuns throughout Spain. Indeed, one of her contemporaries called her an outright “gad-about,” yet even at the same time, he had to acknowledge that she was a woman of exalted prayer. Our travels allowed us to appreciate the significant challenges Teresa faced as she rode about Castile and Andalucia in her mule-drawn cart, relying on the kindness of strangers to establish centers of prayerful space throughout a country that was engaged in multiple wars and on the brink of bankruptcy.
After our tour of Toledo, we made our way to Seville, the city where she had her most pervasive Inquisition difficulties. Inquisition representatives arrived at the small discalced Carmelite convent in early 1576, interrogating Teresa and her nuns for several days. As a result of the investigation and subsequent public scandal, she was ordered by her religious superior to retire to her convent in Toledo. Undaunted, she spent much of 1577 composing Interior Castle to replace her earlier autobiographical work, The Book of Her Life, which was sequestered by the inquisitional tribunal.
In Seville, we worked through the most difficult passages of the Interior Castle, which covered Teresa’s descriptions of unmediated experiences of God in the mysterious depths of the soul. Such repeated encounters gradually prepare the soul for a form of mystical union in which the soul is continually conscious of the indwelling of God in its deepest interior. For Teresa, such experiences do not lead the individual into reclusion, but rather to move beyond the self and through service and accompanying presence to others, become mediators of God in the external world. Thus the journey toward union with God leads the soul both into its interior depths and back out of itself. It stands somehow with one foot in the reality of a world torn apart by strife and suffering, and another in the equally real world where God is continually present, forming bridges throughout the human community that leads all to the greater good.
The culmination of the experience, for us, was a visit to the discalced Carmelite convent in Seville, where the nuns keep the manuscript of The Interior Castle in the sacristy of their chapel. I had met these nuns as a graduate student some 15 years before, when I spent a month in Seville working with the original manuscript. I had not returned to Seville in the intervening years, although the nuns remembered me well. They had offered us the chapel for some reflective time at the end of our journey. The chapel keys awaited us in the turnstile when we arrived at the convent on our final day of the trip. Settling into the chapel again, I wondered at the God who had led me back to Seville, now with students and theological insights of my own. And I recalled with gratitude the people who had accompanied me over those 15 years, as well as the love and good wishes of all those who had surrounded our group with prayers on our pilgrimage. As we breathed in the profound peace of the chapel we heard, too, both the sounds of birds and the driving beat of rock music from a shop across the street, reminding us of the juxtapositions of human life. We had surely glimpsed—as Ignatius and Teresa certainly saw clearly—how contemplation and action are simply two sides of the same coin that spins, sometimes gently, sometimes uncontrollably, through the trajectory that is our lives.