A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Interior Castle of 
St Teresa of Jesus of Ávila

Fr Carl Telford SM

Fr Carl Telford SM

Part 1 of 7


The Interior Castle is St Teresa’s masterpiece and one of the greatest books ever written about prayer. It is her most ordered and mature work, written in 1577 and taking six months to complete. It was said that those who observed her during this time saw a glowing radiance about her -- the Holy Spirit was very close. In fact, though, it was not written in a monastic retreat from the real world but during the most troubled time of the Discalced Reform.

What distinguishes The Interior Castle is that it is a sublime description of the prayer journey from the beginning, to fulfilment in deep prayer. It is based on the prayer journey she had herself already made. So, as a good teacher, she looks back on her own experience to help us. She uses the image of seven Mansions, from the First Mansions of the inquirer / beginner, to the seventh Mansions of the spiritual marriage.

She gives a picture of her spiritual life as the journey from the outside courtyard of a crystal, global castle, to the central room where the King lived, full of light and in greatest splendour. The Castle is our soul. She was always fascinated with the Divine Indwelling of God within us. God takes delight in being within us. We have this capacity to be the home of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The First Mansions

Outside the Castle, it is dark and cold and noisy, but inside, the King invites us to go deeper. The First Mansions are the beginning of the prayer journey. We, of course, are not to follow her path slavishly, but with inspired wisdom she points out the opportunities and dangers of the beginnings of a prayer journey.

Within each of the seven Mansions there are many Mansions or rooms. St Teresa is aware of the great variety of people: “many Mansions, some above, some below, others at each side”. It is an image to describe the indescribable. But this first Mansion is foggy and dangerous, full of nasty, deceiving creatures. It is difficult to see reality.

The First Mansions, on the outer edges of the castle, are the furtherest away from the centre where the King lives. Consequently, they are the darkest. They are the place of superficial life, not necessarily evil, but concerned with things that do not last, such as fame, honour and mere appearances. How foolish! The person is the centre of their world. The egodrama rules. I did it my way!

Today, with its excessive stress on the body beautiful, there is a great silence about the more important, the beautiful soul. It is said that Mother Teresa of Calcutta was not beautiful in the conventional sense, but she was filled with God’s beauty and her face brought joy to so many.

The darkness of sin

However, St Teresa is aware of the darkness of sin, especially mortal sin. She describes the horror of deadly sin that causes the supernatural death of the soul. She writes that it is like a small spring that is black and foul-smelling. Nothing good comes from a soul trapped in sin.

But God’s grace has touched the person. They have a taste for God, but not so as to be giving all to God. God is calling them from within, strongly and with persistence. St Teresa writes, “the door of entry to this Castle is prayer and reflection”. They do not realise the dangers they are in, so they must first give up their attachment to unnecessary things. The aim is self-knowledge and humility, and practical love for others. St Teresa is insistent that we wake up and realise the great gift of the King dwelling within.

Statue of St Teresa
by Gregorio Fernández, c.1625
Photo: Rubén Ojeda, Wikipedia

The person journeying must first spend much time in the Mansion of humility, as she explained in The Way of Perfection. She refers to true humility, not its counterfeit. The counterfeit shadow of humility is restless and self-concerned –sorry, for example, but because of not being perfect, rather than sorry for offending God.

God must increase

The person aiming to move on to other Mansions must also be seeking self-knowledge. A person meditating on the greatness and goodness of God is making progress. God increases and they decrease. They become gently more aware of their sins and the gift of freedom God wishes to give them. This is painful, as the false self dissolves. The false comfort of error and selfishness is taken away and God’s mercy is called upon. The black waters of sin are being pulled away to reveal the beauty of the soul, but the false self struggles not to die!

It is worth noting that the First Mansions are not overly concerned with prayer, but rather with the essential qualities that make prayer possible. Beginners are not aware of how tenuous their relationship with God is. Wake up. Get ready for a long difficult struggle because the vices we bring into the First Mansions are deceiving us. Avoid mortal sin and surrender to God, as she writes frequently. The important thing is not to think much, but to love much. So, today, be truthful, kind, gentle and dutiful.  

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