Lacking the formal theological study that routinely was denied women in sixteenth century Spain, Saint Teresa of Ávila was an unlikely candidate to lead a thoroughgoing reform of the Carmelite order and write masterpieces of mystical literature. After twenty years of spiritual vacillation as a nun, a stunning conversion was the beginning of a journey in prayer and religious reform. The Catholic Church canonized her in 1622, and in the twentieth century she, with Catherine of Siena, was declared the first woman doctor of the Church.
Experiential rather than theological in tone and written in a style that is lively, anecdotal, and rich in imagery, the Interior Castle has appealed to countless pilgrims on the inner way. That Teresa was not trained in the Scholasticism of her day is to the reader’s benefit, for her experiences are not cast in the theological jargon that obscures many treatises written in her time.
The image of the soul as a castle came, Teresa says, in answer to prayer when, in obedience to her confessor, she sought to begin an explanation of the soul’s journey to God. She holds firm to the image throughout the work, returning to it again and again when she strays from the subject to comment on a matter that has just occurred to her.
Teresa perceives the interior journey in terms of prayer. One cannot even begin the journey unless one practices mental prayer, which requires concentrating on the meaning of words said aloud or to oneself. In affirming the necessity of mental prayer, Teresa was bold, for mental prayer was associated with the heretical alumbrados, many of whom were women. In the eyes of the Inquisition, the practice and teaching of mental prayer by a woman was sufficient grounds to call her before the church officials. Yet Teresa insisted that no true inner journey could take place without thinking about the words one said; thus she urged her nuns—for whom she wrote—to use their minds.
In the first three mansions (the purgative way), mental prayer, devotional reading, edifying conversation, and good works are means of actively purging imperfections and building virtues. Progress is discernible by the degree to which the soul is humble and charitable and the senses and faculties are quieted in prayer. In charting the soul’s journey, Teresa referred to the lower part of the soul with its five exterior senses and interior senses of imagination and fancy and the higher part with its faculties of memory, understanding, and will. In the beginning stages, the soul enjoys spiritual sweetness, which consists of the good feelings that come during devotion, prayer, reading, conversation, and doing good works. Toward the end of the third mansion, however, spiritual sweetness dries up, with the result that the soul cannot understand what is happening and fears that it is not progressing. Teresa assures us that times of aridity indicate progress in that God is speaking to the soul in ways that are too subtle to register on the senses and emotions.
The Prayer of Recollection, which Teresa treats in the third chapter of the fourth mansion, marks the transition from the purgative way of beginners to the illuminative way of proficients. The major difference in consciousness between the purgative and illuminative ways is that in the former the soul is primarily aware of striving to please God whereas in the second, the subject of mansions four and five, it is aware of being made pleasing to God. Note that Teresa treats the Prayer of Recollection out of order, placing it in the third chapter rather than the first; the error is not unexpected given the fact that she wrote hurriedly and often late at night or in the midst of other business.
Recollection, like mental prayer, is a term that appears harmless, but in Teresa’s day it was fraught with polemic. Earlier in the century arguments between advocates of the prayer of recollection (recogimiento) on one hand and...
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