St Teresa and the ‘Interior Castle’

+JMJ

Imagine a beautiful princess who marries a prince. As in all fairy-tales, this prince is a real Prince Charming: courageous, kind, and loves the princess more than life. He builds her a magnificent castle and she is unspeakably happy to share her life with him. However, on the first day of their marriage as he is waiting to have supper with her inside the castle, the princess is outside in the garden. She has completely forgotten her prince, and is spending all her time thinking about what she sees outside: the city, the castle walls, and what people think of her as they are walking past the garden gate. As she is admiring herself in the reflection in the pond, or talking to visitors, she forgets that somewhere inside the castle, her husband is waiting to spend some time with her.

I think if I read a fairy-tale like that, I would be very puzzled and wonder why this princess is acting in such a way. I would probably wonder if she has been placed under some spell by an evil witch in the story. However, – as I thought about this image, I decided that maybe it’s not too different from the reality that has often occurred in my soul.

St Teresa of Avila was a Spanish Carmelite nun who helped to reform the Carmelite order at a time of great laxity. One of her greatest works is a book called the ‘Interior Castle’, in which she describes the soul as a castle, in the center of which dwells the King – Jesus. Our spiritual growth consists of going through various mansions in this castle until we reach to the very center. Each mansion is characterized by different ways of prayer and levels of virtue and love for God.

The journey starts somewhere outside the castle or in the first mansion, where the soul is more in danger from the allurements of the world and the enemy. This soul does not yet have a strong interior life or strong virtue. In this way, she is much like the fictional princess in the fairy-tale: she is living outside, forgetting that God is waiting for her in the center of her soul to commune with her.

St Teresa herself experienced distraction and temptations to vanity in her youth. She struggled with not going into the castle deeply. In her autobiography, she writes that as a young lady in the world, she spent hours reading books on chivalry, seeking to please others, and adorning herself. She met and talked with a lady who was described as being very “frivolous” in her conversation. The amount of time and effort that she spent on these things, and the way her heart was perhaps attached to them, caused her to not progress as much spiritually as she did later in life. Even as she entered the convent, at first she continued spending time in more worldly pastimes, and speaking often with people in the parlour.

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For those living in the world, the question may arise – is this really all that wrong? Is it wrong to spend some time caring for our appearance, or having more casual conversations with others? I think what St Teresa was trying to say is that having an attachment to these things and spending an inordinate amount of time with them, could become a distraction. We begin spending all our time facing ‘outward’ from the castle, instead of being attentive of God. The better solution would be to spend time in prayer and learn to continually be aware of His presence within us, even as we live in the world. This might also require giving up some attachments, as the Holy Spirit prompts us during prayer. This can be a very challenging area of growth.

St Teresa found that over time as she continued living in this way, she lost her taste for prayer and spiritual things, and found less joy in them. She also began to feel ashamed and guilty, and began to avoid prayer while seeking to please others. Eventually, God lead her deeper into prayer and she began to advance far beyond the first ‘mansion’ in the castle, until she became a Saint.

As I thought about her life, I began to remember the ways in my life in which I’ve been forgetful of God within me and instead focused on myself and others in ways that were distracting. This way of focusing on others by trying to get their approval, is different from charity and is in the end, only about the self. I also thought about the ways in which this is promoted in our society today.

One way I’ve noticed we can lose focus on God’s presence within, is by being inordinately anxious about how others perceive us. It can even be little things such as: “What will they think if I wear the same sweater as yesterday? Why didn’t enough people ‘like’ my picture on Facebook?” There could be an obsession over ‘likes’ on Facebook, on selfies, or on spending an extremely long time on appearance. In this state, we don’t really think what God’s view of us is, and others’ approval seems much more important. We are also not being honest in relationships with others that become tinged by jealousy and competition instead of self-giving and charity.

Another form of vanity is not so much about others’ approval as it is about use of time. Spending days reading ‘escape’ novels or watching romance movies that present an unrealistic view of women and relationships, can distract from God’s plan for us and from building healthy relationships with others. At one point in my life, by spending all my time being focused on externals – media, uninterrupted talking, checking my phone every ten seconds to escape silence – I had no more time to give to God and to simply listen to Him. I was risking making my life all about the world’s expectations instead of His will for me.

In reading St Teresa’s book the ‘Interior Castle’, we see a beautiful life with God in an inner world that is captivating in its variety of ‘mansions’ or levels of knowing Him. It is never dull or repetitive and it brings peace and joy to the soul. I believe that God is calling each of us to spend time with Him inside the ‘castle’, and to forget what is outside as we go deeper into our relationship with Him in prayer. I do not think this is something selfish because in the end, it allows us to face our relationships with others in a more Christ-centered way. In the center of a soul in grace, Christ is waiting to be discovered, to show us His healing love in a deeper way.

Also posted on Made4More

He desires your heart

+JMJ

There is a picture of Jesus I have that I really love. As I was looking at it one day, I wondered – what is it in His expression that helps me to pray? As I looked more closely, I saw that there was great longing in His eyes. What does Jesus long for? I believe it is to love us and to be loved in return. As Jesus’ Heart is more loving and thus more sensitive than ours, He suffers greatly when His love is met with rejection or indifference – especially in the Blessed Sacrament; the Sacrament of His love, where He is often left alone.

It is when we begin seeing more of Jesus’ love for us that we begin to really love Him. His thirst to have all of our hearts rather than just a part, satisfies our desire to love as well. Each soul is called to an intimacy with Jesus that is interior, strong, and consuming. How beautiful life becomes when we fall in love with Our Lord. I believe He longs for this too, but how?

How do we turn our faith into such a close relationship? G.K. Chesterton once said something that may sound surprising: “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair”. If this is what Our Lord wants, how do we get there? I struggled with this question myself. I worried if I was being too bold with Jesus. I wondered – does He even want me to be that close? I am not a saint, far from it.

At first, our faith is something that is more theoretical. I think as we begin to pray and discover God more, we begin to know God by loving Him. Knowledge of Him becomes something deeper and it inflames the soul with love.

When we fear a close relationship with Jesus, perhaps sometimes it’s a fear of presumption, but I think it can often be a lack of trust. At the same time, the soul intensely wants to be loved by Jesus.

While I was wondering if Jesus would love me as much as I longed for, He loved me beyond all understanding. I forgot that Jesus wants to be one with each soul. He is jealous for our hearts and doesn’t want just partial intimacy with Him. Have we understood His Heart?

Have we understood how even little things we do for Him touch Him deeply? How attentive He is to our every thought, every heartbeat! If we only understand His love more, that would transform our relationship into something so beautiful. Each soul is unrepeatable. There will literally never be another like you, and you can give Jesus what no one else can. Your place in His Heart cannot be substituted by another. Let this bring you to total trust and confidence. Jesus already wants to love us more than we want to be loved, – we just need to let Him.

There is a beautiful poem by the Spanish Saint, St. John of the Cross. It is called the Spiritual Canticle and it is a loving dialogue between Christ and the soul as between a Bridegroom and bride. St. John also wrote a book explaining the meaning of his highly mystical poem. Each verse has some sort of hidden and very spiritual meaning. There are some verses in the poem that I believe show the level of closeness Jesus wants with souls:

“In the inner wine cellar / I drank of my Beloved, / and, when I went abroad through all this valley, / I no longer knew anything, / and lost the herd that I was following”.

St John describes this as the goal of spiritual growth, in which the inner wine cellar is the “most intimate degree of love” where Jesus infuses His own love into our souls. The soul forgets everything else, because Jesus becomes everything to it. If this is indeed the goal of holiness, then Jesus must very much want us to discover more of His love.

How do we even begin? Though I’m still learning, there are some ideas that I found helpful. I’m sure there are more.

  •  LET Him love you. Surrender any fear or distrust! Jesus wants your heart.
  •  Spent time with Him. Imagine an engaged couple: do they not rejoice to speak together?
  •  LET Him act. This can be hard. If while speaking to Jesus you find yourself recollected in His presence, just love Him back, open your soul and let Him do what He wishes. Be generous in responding to Him. We can never out-do Him in generosity! What do we get in return for our little efforts? His own Heart, the Heart of God.

One day as I was standing at a bus stop waiting to get home after work, I was struck by how ordinary I am and how extraordinary it is to know Jesus. As women we’re pressured to compare ourselves with others. Maybe by the standards of the world around us we all fall short. I looked at myself as another face in the crowd. Nothing extraordinary. But I realized that I’m happy, because Jesus is in my life. He can fill everything we need with Himself, and He can be who we need Him to be.

For Jesus, we are not a crowd. His gaze centers on each person. He sees YOU – as no one else sees you -and desires your heart. This relationship is not a theory, neither is it a shallow romantic notion. It is love shown through the Cross, stronger than death; a divine love that will not be content with anything but total union with the beloved.

(This article is also posted on the Made4More blog)