In answer to a number of requests, this article comprises some advice on how to approach a reading of St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. (see: this version or this other one two different translations)
It is difficult to do so in a short text, but given this, I will say a few things that hopefully will help.
When some of us start to read St. Teresa of Avila, they usually choose the Interior Castle to begin with. It is true, this is her “Masterpiece”, but it does not naturally follow that we can understand her right away. Therefore, for those just starting to become acquainted with St. Teresa’s writings, my suggestion would be to read her autobiography entitled Life. Then follow it up with: Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle. It takes more time to do it this way, true, but it might be easier in the long run, more fruitful and more faithful to her thought and to the chronological process of her thought. The Interior Castle (Castillo Interior or Las Moradas) is, in the final analysis, the mature St. Teresa (1577).
A number of people, however, might choose to go about an examination of St. Teresa’s writings by reading a commentary on her thoughts or her terminology.
Others might prefer to read a Biography of Teresa of Avila. There are various good ones by authors such as: Marcelle Auclair and Ephren de la Madre de Dios-Otger Steggink.
One caveat to bear in mind is that her thought is not systematic, even if the book The Interior Castle looks systematic. Thus, it would be advisable, while reading any of her books, to look out for the following:
1- What God wants to do in the Soul (in general and in yours in particular): His goal, His aim. The holy project of God for you.
2- What the advice is that St. Teresa gives in order to know what to do in order to grow. The obstacles to avoid (temptations, sins, bad habits, …), the acts to undertake, the virtues that need to grow – with the grace of God….
3- What would happen if I did what I had to do (at the stage which I have reached): a description of the action of the Grace of God in us, the transformation that it provokes. What you would feel, what experiments you would undertake.
In this light one could read the book once, just to get a general idea. Then, re-read it again, with a pen and a notebook handy, writing down, for each stage, the three points mentioned above.
It will be interesting to note that now while reading the Interior Castle, the “temptation” is to try to know where one is in the journey, namely, if one is in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth mansions…. If we are motivated by the true desire to know what we are supposed to do in order to grow, this means that our conscience is pure, and that we will make a good use of this knowledge of knowing where we are. We will focus on the useful advice given to us by St. Teresa, at the stage we have reached.
Another piece of advice she gives to the reader who reads her for the first time is: accept what God gives you, what “speaks” to you (regardless of where you are on the journey). This could actually assume the role of looking over what is lacking in one’s spiritual make-up.
A point well worth remembering is that a normal “fervent Christian” or “charismatic person” (one who belongs to the charismatic movement in the Church) has already crossed the border between the third and the fourth mansions, namely, has already entered what Teresa calls the “supernatural” realm where the “specific help of the Grace of God” is given that does not depend on us. So, please, let us not spend all our lives reading the first three mansions. Let us go rather swiftly through these first three mansions and focus more on the Fourth and the Fifth.
The majority of fervent people (charismatic certainly) are in these two mansions. The art would be to practise with constancy the advice given in these two mansions, especially the fourth, so the will becomes rooted in God, and one reaches the fifth mansions. The journey in the fourth mansions is like climbing an incline and the fifth is like being in a stable “state” – the “Union of Will”.
Furthermore, after this, God starts to “talk” to us differently. Here we need the help of St. John of the Cross and his description of the deep purification of the spirit or the upper part of the soul. St. Teresa of Avila does not really mention it in an obvious way, although it is important. Please note how Father Marie Eugene in his book I Want to See God, intended to be a comment on her book The Interior Castle, added the description of the deep purification of the spirit explained by St. John of the Cross. The two books of the saints in fact complement each other.
This change of behaviour of God toward us is in fact fundamental. We need to be aware of it. This is why St. John of the Cross wrote his books in the first place.
He sees beautiful and fervent souls who reach the end of the fifth mansions and stop their growth, and the reason is that while God is starting to change His behaviour with us, the change is sadly perceived as a “regression”, a going backward in the spiritual journey. The reason for this is because one has perceived that God is far away from us, seems against us, and that all the “milk” we used to receive disappeared.
In sum, St. John of the Cross underlines that on the spiritual journey a point can be reached where one perceives that God is distant from us, and that the “milk” we used to get has disappeared, with the result that one thinks one is regregressing, hope fades and some may even give up trying altogether.