It is no small pity, and should cause us no little shame, that, through our own fault, we do not understand ourselves, or know who we are. Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters, if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or his mother was, or from what country he came? Though that is great stupidity, our own is incomparably greater if we make no attempt to discover what we are, and only know that we are living in these bodies, and have a vague idea, because we have heard it and because our Faith tells us so, that we possess souls.Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Part One Chapter One, Page 16
Hello Readers, hope all’s well. Today I present another Christian book for The Christian Book Corner.
Once again, like last time, I’m introducing a classic book in the realm of Christianity. A well-known and important piece of Christian writing that influenced Christian theology. Today’s book is Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila.
And once again, I don’t feel great about “reviewing” a book like this. Who am I to “review” a classic work of Christianity? This book, it is what it is. What does my opinion about it matter?
Well, I’ve found a way to ease that guilty feeling. From now on, anytime I feature a classic book in The Christian Book Corner, I’ll call it a “book report” rather than a ‘review.’ This makes sense to me and feels right. Like last time, with The Confessions of Saint Augustine, my goal with this post is to introduce Interior Castle to Readers who don’t know it. A book report is a perfect way to do that; it doesn’t need to be a review.
When I read a modern Christian book, published in the 20th or 21st centuries, then I can do a review.
So today’s book report is Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila. A very famous book, like I said. If you don’t know anything about it, read on and you can find out.
What’s in the Book
Teresa of Avila was a Catholic nun in Spain in the sixteenth century. She belonged to the Carmelite order, which devotes itself to contemplative prayer. So prayer is a topic she knew well, and a topic she wrote about. Interior Castle has much to say about prayer. But it says enough about other things too that I won’t say it’s a book entirely about prayer.
In Interior Castle, Teresa describes how a soul can grow closer to God, the goal of this being union with God. But for Teresa, growing closer to God meant finding God’s dwelling inside one’s own soul.
Note that both Teresa never says or even implies that humans are God. She makes it crystal clear that humans are not. But she does say God lives in the deepest part of the human soul. So if we want to get ‘closer’ to God, it’s not a matter of traveling any physical distance. It’s a matter of going deeper inside our own souls, and finding a union with God in the deepest part within. This is a journey of self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is what we should seek on our Spiritual path to union with God. Self-knowledge is the way to advance on that path.
For Teresa of Avila, growing closer to God is a journey of self-knowledge into our own soul.
Teresa starts her book by emphasizing the importance of self-knowledge. She says it’s a great pity that we don’t know who we are, as in, we don’t know our own souls. She compares that to someone who doesn’t know their parents or where they came from. (And I suppose she means someone who could find those things out if they wanted to. Some people don’t know who their parents are and can’t find out, but it’s not their fault at all.) She calls it the greatest stupidity to not learn who we are inside, who our soul is.
It is no small pity, and should cause us no little shame, that, through our own fault, we do not understand ourselves, or know who we are. Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters [the nuns], if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or his mother was, or from what country he came? Though that is great stupidity, our own is incomparably greater if we make no attempt to discover what we are, and only know that we are living in these bodies, and have a vague idea, because we have heard it and because our Faith tells us so, that we possess souls.Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Part One Chapter One, Page 16
What do you think about that, Reader?? I think it’s a pretty good point that she makes. Our soul is who we are, it’s the essence of us. So it would be a tragic mistake, and foolish, to go through life without making any attempt to learn about our soul. Who are we?? What are we about?? What do we stand for?? What do we think about God, what do we feel toward God?? How’s our relationship with Him, and how can we seek and serve Him??
Those kinds of questions. If we go through life without asking those—and looking for some answers—we could call that foolish.
Teresa laments that we don’t often think about our own soul. Who we are, Who made us, and Who lives within us. Thinking about mysteries like this will bring us closer to God, she says. We can all agree that we should know who we are, the qualities we have in our souls, and who’s in there.
As to what good qualities here may be in our souls, or Who dwells within them, or how precious they are—those are things which we seldom consider and so we trouble little about carefully preserving the soul’s beauty. All our interest is centered in the rough setting of the diamond, and in the outer wall of the castle—that is to say, in these bodies of ours.Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Part One Chapter One, Page 16
That castle metaphor is the theme for the rest of the book. Interior Castle describes the soul as a castle, made up of seven layered “mansions.” The mansions are always referred to in the plural, because there are an infinite number of rooms in each one, and there are an infinite number of mansions that can make one layer of mansions. Every soul is different.
The mansions are layers of the soul. The first layer is the outer layer, and the seventh layer is the most inner layer, where God resides in us. And the mansions are not only layers, they’re stages of progress on a soul’s Spiritual journey. The mansions are the stages of a soul becoming Spiritually mature. Moving through these mansions is the journey of self-knowledge and growth the soul must undergo. Prayer is the way it makes progress deeper inside.
Viewing the soul this way, as a castle that we need to penetrate deeper into, is an interesting way to look at it. I suppose it works, though it may not for everyone. It’s easy to envision the image of a soul having many layers we need to dig through. But it’s harder to understand what, specifically, each layer is as she describes it. Especially the later layers of progress, which I know I’ve never progressed to in my life so far.
Anyway, the soul is a castle, and at the center of the castle is God. On the outer layer, where we start, it’s cold because we can’t feel God’s warmth which is deep in the center, in the seventh layer. Venomous snakes and reptiles (which represent demons) assault us freely while we freeze outside in the courtyard of the outermost layer. If we’re to have any hope of peace, we need to go inwards, toward God, toward the warmth, away from the demons.
And if we’re going to do that, we need to go on this soul journey of self-knowledge and contemplative prayer.
Is that Really Necessary??
And now for the ‘criticism’ section. But, like last time, I’m nobody to criticize such a classic work of Christian writing as Interior Castle. Still, I’m a human being with a God-given brain and opinions of my own, and there are things about the book I didn’t enjoy. Which I’ll share with you now.
First, the book is hard to read. Of course I can’t hold that against an author from the sixteenth century. The proper style of constructing a sentence was much, much different back then. I understand that, and I don’t criticize it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it can be hard to follow along with her writing sometimes.
Hey!! It is what it is. Different people will have different thoughts on that. I’ll only say if you want to read Interior Castle, be prepared for a challenging read you must concentrate on. That’s all.
Other than that, sometimes I was put off by Teresa’s old-school Catholicism. She only mentions Mary and saints once as far as I remember, which is good. I went ahead and disregarded that paragraph. But despite writing a whole book on the beauty of the soul, Teresa has this old-school Catholic attitude that looks down on us all (herself included).
The more the soul goes on this journey of self-knowledge, leading to where God dwells within, the more it becomes aware of our human condition. When she explains how good God is for even bothering to commune with us or think of us at all, she says He is so inconceivably good for communing with us “miserable worms.”
She says this a few times. It’s very self-denigrating and seems to be violate the dignity of the human soul … something she spent much of Part One writing about.
Now in one sense she’s correct. As long as we’re separated from God, we’re miserable. This fallen world is full of suffering, and we’re miserable here. No matter how hard we try, no one can stop sinning; we’re miserable and weak. Our bodies grow old, decay and die; we’re miserable. We can never hope to achieve perfection here on earth, and we will never have true rest until we reunite with God in Heaven. That only happens when we die here on earth, leaving our physical bodies behind so we can receive our true, exalted Spiritual bodies.
Yes!! All that is true!! We are miserable here!! But do we have to be “worms” too, like Teresa says?? Is that necessary??
I will never agree with the self-denigrating attitude of old-school Catholic thinking. God created us and our souls, and Genesis says God saw that what He had created was good. So we are good too. Our human condition here on this fallen, corrupted planet is miserable. But every soul has indescribable dignity and beauty, something Teresa herself says in the beginning of her book. We don’t need to be ‘worms’ on top of being miserable. So I can’t agree with excessive self-denigration.
I guess I would sum up my complaint with this warning. If you want to read this book, know you’re getting into something written from a sixteenth-century Catholic perspective. That’s all.
The Final Word
So let’s wrap this book report up. Should you read Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila??
If you want to learn something about prayer, some ways to do it and the benefits of it, and if you want to learn about progress on the Spiritual journey of following Christ … then the answer is: Yes!! You should read Interior Castle.
As for reading this specific version of Castle, I like how this Dover Thrift Editions version has notes about the translation into English. Alternate translations and more background can be found in the helpful footnotes. This provides some helpful context in certain parts about what Teresa meant in the original Spanish text.
Teresa of Avila, along with her student John of the Cross, were very important Christian writers. Even though they were Catholic, both had great insights on the Spiritual journey we take as followers of Christ. Both of them do an excellent job of describing the stages of Spiritual growth and maturity in Christ, using their own metaphors. John has his Dark Night of the Soul, while Teresa has her Interior Castle with its seven layers of infinite mansions.
And both of these authors help with deeper understanding of the Spiritual path and further Spiritual growth. So no one can go wrong with reading either author. And if you want to get started with Teresa of Avila’s writings, Interior Castle is an excellent book to start with.
by Teresa of Avila. Dover Publications, Inc., 2007.
Buy Interior Castle on Amazon (This is an affiliate link. I receive a small commission if you buy through this link.)
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