Overview


More than four centuries have passed since Teresa of Avila's birth in Spain, and she is still celebrated as one of the world's great spiritual teachers. Her endearing human qualities, mystical insights, love for God, and refreshing candor all contribute to her legacy as a cartographer of the soul and a master of contemplative prayer. Her mystical writings are well known in religious circles and have nourished the souls of the most advanced in the spiritual life. They also touch the hearts of people everywhere ...
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The Interior Castle (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


More than four centuries have passed since Teresa of Avila's birth in Spain, and she is still celebrated as one of the world's great spiritual teachers. Her endearing human qualities, mystical insights, love for God, and refreshing candor all contribute to her legacy as a cartographer of the soul and a master of contemplative prayer. Her mystical writings are well known in religious circles and have nourished the souls of the most advanced in the spiritual life. They also touch the hearts of people everywhere who may never have heard of contemplation, but who long to grow closer to God. In her texts, she creates a body of mystical literature astounding in its depth and wisdom and comforting in its humanness and common sense.
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Product Details

Meet the Author


The first woman Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda was born in Avila, Spain, on March 28, 1515. A descendent of converses (Jews converted to Christianity) on her father's side, Teresa maintained an acute awareness of social injustices all her life. Teresa entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in 1535, but it took over twenty years for her inner transformation. She went on to become a spiritual author, mystical theologian, contemplative teacher, and founder of the reformed, or discalced, Carmelites.
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Introduction

More than four centuries have passed since Teresa of Avila's birth in Spain, and both in her own country and others around the globe she is still celebrated as one of the world's greatest spiritual teachers. Her endearing human qualities, mystical insights, intensity of love for God, and refreshing candor all contribute to her legacy as a cartographer of the soul and a master of contemplative prayer. Her mystical writings are well known in religious circles and have nourished the souls of the most advanced in the spiritual life. But they also touch the hearts of people everywhere who may have never heard of contemplation, but who long to grow closer to God. In her texts, she creates a body of mystical literature astounding in its depth and wisdom, and comforting in its humanness and common sense.

The Interior Castle was one of the most important spiritual books in sixteenth century Spain, and remains today an enduring classic of world mystical literature. An autobiographical narration of Teresa of Avila's journey toward union with God, The Interior Castle chronicles a profound longing for the divine that is unparalleled in religious literature for its complexity of thought and its simplicity of style. The immediacy and intensity of Teresa's writing conveys a soul impassioned by grace. The Interior Castle is an astute and trustworthy companion for anyone seeking to understand and live a spiritually sensitive life. While written from within a Christian context, The Interior Castle appeals to readers from any religion or no religion, who find Teresa's personal journey of struggle and triumph to be of universal relevance. In her own day, as well as today, there is an urgent need for spiritual masters, like Teresa, who do not pander to mediocrity but who write in a down-to-earth and unaffected manner about the most subtle and profound aspects of the interior life.

The first woman Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda was born in Avila, Spain, on March 28, 1515. A descendent of conversos (Jews converted to Christianity) on her father's side, Teresa maintained an acute awareness of social injustices all her life. This sensitivity was no doubt related to her family history and to the public confession her paternal grandfather was forced to make in 1485 over his secret practice of Judaism. The early death of her mother-who died in childbirth when Teresa was thirteen-combined with her mixed ancestry, left on the young Teresa an indelible imprint that sensitized her to the ravages of social injustice and to the suffering of women. While lively and vivacious, Teresa was drawn to religious life and, against the wishes of her father, entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in 1535. According to her own account, the early years of her profession were marked by severe illnesses and a longing to overcome her attraction to friendship, gossip, and vanity in order to devote herself completely to God. This situation changed in 1554 when, during the season of Lent, Teresa experienced an inner transformation as she stopped to meditate on a statue of the wounded Christ on her way to the oratory. Aware of her own insufficiency and lack of commitment, Teresa was transfixed by a spiritual understanding of how much God suffers for us and how little we do in return. This experience marked a radical turning point in her life and signaled the beginning of what would later become her fame as a spiritual author, mystical theologian, contemplative teacher, and founder of the reformed, or discalced (from the Spanish descalzo, shoeless, to indicate the wearing of sandals), Carmelites.

An intense yearning for union with God propels Teresa's life and texts. The center of her spiritual contribution, and the core around which her spiritual journey revolves, is her experience and articulation of contemplative-or what she often calls "mental"-prayer. Part of Teresa's genius was her ability to recognize that contemplative prayer-the prayer of surrender and openness to the divine Other-was far from an ascetic practice reserved for an elite few. Rather, in her able soul, contemplation becomes the fount from which God's activity overflows into every aspect of life in this world. In Teresa, we find that rare individual who is able to integrate the highest states of mystical consciousness with the work of transforming concrete human conditions, in a manner that lifts everything up to its own highest possibility. Applying her spiritual acumen to the most practical of human needs, Teresa tackled legal documents, affairs of state, and acquisition of properties, as well as social and spiritual condemnation, in her tireless efforts to teach others about the great benefits of mental prayer. Nurtured by this wellspring of inner silence, Teresa was an ardent champion of women's religious life, and a reformer of her Carmelite Order, founding seventeen discalced monasteries throughout Spain.

Large shifts in cultural history were working themselves out during the formative period of Teresa's life. In Spain, the forces of Renaissance humanism and Reformation thought were vying for dominance and control, as the full thrust of the Catholic Counter-Reformation was being played out during her lifetime. Most compelling was the gradual shift toward greater lay participation in reading scripture and democratization of worship that characterized the idealism of Christian humanists, who defended the rights of women to study the Bible. The traditional Catholicism of Teresa's day looked at mysticism with great suspicion, and imposed certain unwritten guidelines that it must follow to be tolerated. Included among these conditions was that mysticism had to be performed within the framework of traditional church hierarchies. For most of its history, contemplative prayer had been viewed as an arduous path followed by cloistered members of religious communities. But in the religious renewal that swept through sixteenth-century Spain, contemplative prayer was adopted as a lay path, with practitioners outside the established Church hierarchy claiming to reach mystical union with the Divine. Meeting in private homes, men and women who belonged to this movement-given the derogatory name alumbrados or Illuminists-held in common the belief that Scripture could be understood through the Holy Spirit without the mediation of clerical authorities. In this often hostile climate, Teresa's practice and support of contemplative prayer subjected her to intense and ongoing criticism from her spiritual directors, who were concerned she was deluded by "the devil," from the Inquisitors, and even from members of her own community.

Under obedience to her confessors, Teresa writes extensively about her life, methods of prayer, and spiritual trials, becoming a chronicler of her soul and of the mystical processes that assist her growth in perfection. Writing during a time of Spain's heightened political power and an Inquisitional Church acutely suspicious of heresy, Teresa's four magisterial works-The Book of Her Life, The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle, and The Book of Her Foundations-were subjected to scrutiny and censorship during her lifetime and after her death. To combat the blatant anti-female, anti-mystical climate of sixteenth-century Spain, scholars contend that Teresa developed a "rhetoric of femininity" in which she consistently downplays or disparages her self-worth, at the same time that she exposes the prevailing view of women as weak or ineffectual spiritual authorities. The protests made by Teresa that she is ignorant, illiterate, or unlettered concealed a double message that was in part real and in part a rhetorical strategy. From an official perspective, these disclaimers protected Teresa from the Inquisitional authorities. But they also promoted her bold insistence on the subversive value of experiential knowledge and of contemplative prayer.

In the history of Christian literature, Teresa of Avila's writings are distinguished by a refreshing originality, unencumbered by the more formal scholastic theology of her day. A disarming colloquialism belies the intensity and depth of her transcendent experiences. This makes her thought uniquely suited to our postmodern condition, in part because, like us, she too was laid low by religious factions that tore apart her inner solitude and that pitted her mystical experiences against the often unenlightened advice of her male confessors and spiritual directors. Unable to read Latin and prohibited by an Inquisitional ban from reading spiritual books, Teresa forged out of her own experience a spiritual path that is startlingly modern in its feminine outlook, speech, and writing. In her mystical texts, we find an aching vulnerability and a longing determination to love God as God loves us. Only one who is willing to bare body, mind, and soul can understand the great gifts God bestows on us; but just so, Teresa cautions, this very openness means that we, too, will suffer the anguish of God's absence in human affairs.

Teresa began to write The Interior Castle in June of 1577, during a particularly painful and trying period of her life, and in less than six months had completed her masterpiece on prayer. Regarded as the most mature synthesis of her spiritual thought, The Interior Castle was written under obedience to her confessor, Fr. Gracian, and in response to requests from her spiritual sisters for further instruction on mental prayer. The book itself was meant to serve as a replacement for her earlier text, The Book of Her Life, which had been impounded by the Inquisitors and was not available for her sisters to read. Under Fr. Gratian's ardent support, Teresa is instructed to recall what she can about her spiritual life and to create a new document that conceals the author's autobiographical references. As the fruit of personal experience, The Interior Castle stands as one of the great treatises on a woman's spiritual journey, and the reader should not be confused by her references in the text to "this other person" who is, in fact, herself.

Lamenting that she had no thought in her head of how to proceed, Teresa prays for guidance and soon receives a vision of the soul as a crystalline castle, with seven interior dwelling places or moradas. Each morada symbolically represents the soul's progression into deeper levels of the divine nature, as its moves from beginning to more advanced-and from active to passive-stages of contemplation. Central to her text is the beautiful vision she offers of the soul: radiant with God's love, most precious jewel in God's creation, and unencumbered by sin. She is insistent that despite the "black cloth" of sin which may cover the soul, it is always pure and untouched in its center, where it is never separated from "His Majesty," Jesus. The soul, then, is emboldened by a fiery longing to find and unite with its Beloved, who is all forgiveness, acceptance, and benevolence. It is, thus, a book that expresses how the impossible becomes possible, how the work of God's love ignites the soul's passion for intimacy and union-stages described by Teresa in bridal imagery, as betrothal and marriage to God.

Yet, like a knight in quest of the Holy Grail, the soul will undergo the severest of trials and the greatest of torments as it labors to overcome the weakness, doubt, fear, and arrogance that stand in the way of its true desire. This total and complete transformation of self-almost archetypal in human experience-is a requirement on the road to spiritual perfection and emerges as one of the central images in The Interior Castle. Perfection is not, however, something the soul can accomplish or create, but is an organic process intrinsic to its own interiority set into motion by the mysterious action of God's love. To convey this non-active action that God works in the soul, Teresa compares the soul's transfiguration from death to new life in Christ to the biological cycle of a silkworm. Just as the silkworm dies in a cocoon of its own making in order to be transformed into the butterfly, so, too, must the soul die to its imprisoned or lower self in order to achieve freedom of spirit in this life. God, Teresa tells us, is the soul's own dwelling place; here, wrapped in a cocoon of divine love the soul gathers the strength to die to its attachments and worldly concerns, and to break free as a white butterfly. These desires of love, however, never cease and the flight of the butterfly becomes ever more restless until it undergoes a final purification of the spirit before entering the seventh dwelling place, and mystical marriage to God. It is at this point that the "little butterfly" gives up its own life and is lost in Christ; "its life," says Teresa, "is now Christ."

In addition to Teresa's masterful ability to convey the most rigorous aspects of the spiritual journey in an immanently approachable way, she is equally provocative as a social commentator. Painfully aware of the particular gender issues that impinged on women's personal and spiritual autonomy, Teresa not only stands up to her many critics and inquisitors, she also champions the rights of conversos, women, and others marginalized by society, establishing in her monasteries a reversal of social distinction, power, and wealth. Undeterred by criticism, humiliation, dissent, and deceit, Teresa forged her "way of perfection" in a time of political and social turmoil not unlike our own. She reminds us that prayer is life; progress is measured not by our possessions or accomplishments, but by the quality of our life and the depth of our desire to become centered in God.

Soon after her death in 1582, numerous copies of The Interior Castle were widely distributed. While Teresa's books were best sellers, their publication was greeted with alarm by many in Spain's male-dominated Church. Teresa's bold engagement with theological and spiritual issues aroused suspicion, for women-regarded as intellectually

and emotionally inferior-were prohibited from teaching and writing. Despite these initial attempts to curtail or suppress her work, the force of her writing and the depth of her wisdom ensured that her books would be reprinted through the centuries. It is beyond the scope of this brief survey to trace the many editions of The Interior Castle and her other writings. It must suffice to remark that by the time of her beatification in 1614, opposition to her books had ceased and publication of her works occurred throughout Europe in numerous editions and translations. Not long after, devotion to Teresa of Avila spread to the New World, and her image became integral to colonial visual culture. Her popularity increased throughout Europe and the colonies, with many churches erected and decorated in her name by the time of her canonization in 1622.

What was begun by one lover of God many centuries ago continues unabated today, as her vision of human wholeness and spiritual harmony inspires and obligates us to strive, as Teresa herself did, to embrace all of life with passionate concern. In honor of this holy woman, who wrote with such abandon and simple grace, it is only fitting to summarize St. Teresa of Avila's great contribution to spiritual literature in her own inimical words: "The important thing is not to think much but to love much."

Beverly Lanzetta is a professor of religious studies who has taught at a number of liberal arts colleges. As a scholar and author of Christian mysticism, she has written about the life and vision of Teresa of Avila and other medieval mystics.
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