Teresa of Avila on Reaching the Seventh Dwelling Place
© 2006 by Alan F. Zundel
(First published in Spiritual Life, v. 52, n. 2, Summer 2006)
In the Church of St. Maria della Vittoria in Rome there is a famous statue of St. Teresa of Avila in ecstasy being pierced by an angel with a golden spear, a scene based on the account of the episode in her autobiography. The association between St. Teresa and exotic mystical experiences such as visions, raptures and spiritual ecstasies is perhaps as strong as the association of St. John of the Cross with the dark night of the soul. But St. Teresa herself downplayed such experiences as not being the aim of the spiritual life, and did not want people to focus on them. Rather, the aim of the spiritual life is something more difficult for the mind to imagine: union of the soul with God.
Teresa must be held partially responsible for feeding the interest in unusual spiritual experiences, as much of her writing is spent discussing them. But because her writings were done hurriedly, often under the order of superiors and without much time for planning and revision, we should be careful in reading them to correct for any imbalance of emphasis that resulted from the circumstances of her writing, in order to fully profit from her spiritual advice.
My aim here is to do a careful reading of Teresa’s most important work, The Interior Castle, in order to highlight her description of union with God and her advice on how finally to reach that state. These elements of the book are found in scattered passages that could easily be lost amid discussion of the more exotic spiritual phenomena. In my analysis I will focus on what seems to be the most difficult part of the spiritual journey, the passage from the fourth to the seventh dwelling place in the interior castle of the human soul.
The Interior Castle: a brief overview
The Interior Castle is based on an extended metaphor of the soul as a castle with many rooms or dwelling places, following Jesus’ words in John 14:2: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
[C]onsider our soul to be like a castle made entirely out of a diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in heaven there are many dwelling places.
Advancement in the spiritual life is represented as moving from the outermost to the innermost of seven dwelling places within the soul. The gate of entry to the castle is “prayer and reflection.” Inside the castle, the first three dwelling places correspond with the early stages of the spiritual life, when much effort must be applied, while the other four correspond with the advanced stages where God’s action is more apparent.
With the entrance into the first dwelling place comes the beginning of self-knowledge, and thus also the virtue of humility. With continued prayer, and by striving to give up preoccupation with the things of the world, we progress to the second dwelling place. There the soul must avoid occasions of sin and seek out good influences in order to avoid regressing, and persevere through dryness and distractions in prayer. By the time the soul reaches the third dwelling place it is careful to avoid sin and engage in virtue, “doing penance and setting aside periods for recollection,” and Teresa states that “there is no reason why entrance even into the final dwelling place should be denied these souls, nor will the Lord deny them this entrance if they desire it.” Yet “some souls and even many” do not progress because they become greatly disturbed by a minor loss of wealth, honor or health, rather than accepting such trials in humility. To develop humility Teresa advises those in the religious state to be “prompt in obedience” to their superiors, and those who are not in the religious state to seek out a good spiritual director, “so as not to do their own will in anything.” They should also look to their own faults rather than the faults of others.
The fourth dwelling place marks a turning point, for “supernatural experiences” begin here. There is no rule as to how long it takes to pass through the other dwelling places and arrive at this one, for that is up to God. The soul begins to experience an interior sense of recollection even when the mind is busy and distracted, and at times “spiritual delights” will well up within the soul and the mind will be briefly suspended. This happens by God’s grace alone and not because any meditations or reflections are being practiced. What disposes the soul properly to receive such favors is that it is not seeking them, but rather loves God without self-interest and desires to imitate Christ in his suffering. Early in this stage the soul will experience a “gentle drawing inward” of the senses and faculties during prayer, as though summoned within by a shepherd’s whistle, with no effort of its own. This is a preparation for paying attention to the work of God within.
And without any effort or noise the soul should strive to cut down the rambling of the intellect—but not suspend either it or the mind. . . . one should let the intellect go and surrender oneself into the arms of love, for His Majesty will teach the soul what it must do at that point. Almost everything lies in finding oneself unworthy of so great a good and in being occupied with giving thanks.
By continuing on the path of virtue, detachment, and the prayer of recollection, the soul moves from the fourth to the fifth dwelling place. In the fifth dwelling place the soul experiences the prayer of union, which is different than the union with God of the seventh, final dwelling place. In the prayer of union all of the faculties, including the intellect, are drawn in as though “asleep” to oneself and the things of the world. The experience is brief—“never . . . as much as a half hour”—and comes in various degrees of intensity, but the soul can no longer doubt that God is experienced at these moments, as it did in the prayer of the fourth dwelling place. Teresa compares the effects of this prayer to the transformation of a silkworm into a butterfly. The soul now ardently desires to praise God and “die a thousand deaths for Him;” it has stronger desires for penance, solitude, and “that all might know God;” and it is more detached from the things of the world. Although it has a deep sense of inner peace, it is also restless because earthly things cannot satisfy it the way this experience of God does. But even though it conforms itself to God’s will, it is not yet entirely surrendered to it.
In the sixth dwelling place the soul experiences trials, from minor trials such as enduring gossip to more serious ones such as suffering illnesses or anxiety over the state of one’s spiritual life. The soul may also feel “wounded in the most delightful way,” or experience locutions, raptures, visions or a deep interior pain that increase its sorrow for its sins and its desire for God. All of these are preparations for entry into the final, seventh dwelling place, where the soul is finally united with God.
Teresa’s emphasis on exotic spiritual experiences
The chapter on the sixth dwelling place is the longest one in The Interior Castle, longer than the chapters on the first four dwelling places put together, and nearly three times as long as either the chapter on the fifth dwelling place or the chapter on the seventh. The bulk of the chapter on the sixth dwelling place is devoted to exotic spiritual phenomena such as raptures, locutions and visions, so one might easily get the impression that such experiences are an important and necessary prelude to entering the seventh dwelling place. But this is not really so, for as Teresa says, “there are many holy persons who have never received one of these favors; and others who receive them but are not holy.” She also counsels that such experiences, including the earlier experiences of “spiritual delights,” are not to be sought after.
If such experiences are not an essential part of the journey to union with God, why does Teresa spend so much time on them? Four reasons are hinted at in the text:
- She was not writing the book on her own initiative, but on the order of a superior who desired her to discuss such spiritual favors in order to answer the questions of other religious about them.
- She believed that knowledge of such favors would lead people to give praise to God.
- She had had bad experiences with spiritual directors when discussing her own experiences, and wanted to give advice and counsel to others in her situation.
- She wanted to better equip religious for dealing with those in their midst who seem to be having such experiences.
Her advice on these matters certainly would be important for those who either do experience them, or have to deal with others who do, but in my view the emphasis on them in The Interior Castle has the unfortunate effect of overshadowing other aspects of the book which are even more important. In the next few sections I would like to discuss three such elements of the book, all of them relevant for moving successfully through the last few dwelling places to the final destination: (1) that contemplative prayer is not just for a spiritual elite, (2) Teresa’s general advice for progressing through the last few dwelling places, and (3) the role of trials and suffering in preparing the soul for union with God.
Contemplative prayer is not just for an elite
The fourth dwelling place in Teresa’s discussion represents an important turning point in the spiritual journey, the dawning of a more inward, contemplative form of prayer. St. John of the Cross has a classic passage on the signs that a person is ready to move from a style of prayer relying on thoughts and images to one that is more inward and quiet:
The first is the realization that one cannot make discursive meditation or receive satisfaction from it as before. Dryness is now the outcome of fixing the senses on subjects that formerly provided satisfaction. . . .
The second sign is an awareness of a disinclination to fix the imagination or sense faculties on other particular objects, exterior or interior. I am not affirming that the imagination will cease to come and go—even in deep recollection it usually wanders freely—but that the person does not want to fix it purposely on extraneous things.
The third and surest sign is that a person likes to remain alone in loving awareness of God, without particular considerations, in interior peace and quiet and repose. . . .
To leave safely the state of meditation and sense and enter that of contemplation and spirit, spiritual persons must observe within themselves at least these three signs together.
John corroborates the “gentle drawing inward” that Teresa compares to a summons from a shepherd’s whistle, and the need to surrender the operations of the intellect and the senses:
Actually, at the beginning of this state the loving knowledge is almost unnoticeable. There are two reasons for this: First, the loving knowledge initially is likely to be extremely subtle and delicate, almost imperceptible; second, a person who is habituated to the exercise of meditation, which is wholly sensible, hardly perceives or feels this new insensible, purely spiritual experience. This is especially so when through failure to understand it one does not permit oneself to rest in it but strives after the other, more sensory experience. Although the interior peace is more abundant, the individual allows no room to experience and enjoy it. But the more habituated persons become to this calm, the more their experience of this general loving knowledge of God will increase.
Both saints regard this movement from discursive meditation (focusing the intellect, memory and imagination on particular subjects) to contemplative prayer as something most people who have initiated a serious spiritual life experience. In other words, it is not an unusual experience reserved to a spiritual elite.
God gives many souls the talent and grace for advancing, and should they desire to make the effort they would arrive at this high state.
Many spiritual persons, after having exercised themselves in approaching God though images, forms, and meditations suitable for beginners, err greatly if they do not determine, dare, or know how to detach themselves from these palpable methods to which they are accustomed. For God then wishes to lead them to more spiritual, interior, and invisible graces by removing the gratification derived from discursive meditation.
And although I have said “some,” there are indeed only a few who fail to enter this [fifth] dwelling place of which I shall now speak. There are various degrees, and for that reason I say that most enter these places. But I believe that only a few will experience some of the things that I will say are in this room.
From such statements I infer that the initial entry into contemplative prayer, by those who have adopted a serious prayer life, is not a rare occurrence. Although they should not seek the more exotic spiritual experiences such as visions and raptures, spiritual people should aspire for and expect to enter into contemplative prayer. John and Teresa’s description of this entry, and their advice regarding it, are thus important for everyone on the spiritual path and not just a rare few. The basic message of the two saints is that a lack of understanding regarding what God is doing in this transition results in struggle and resistance to God where there should be cooperation. By anticipating and recognizing the “shepherd’s whistle,” people on the spiritual journey will be better equipped to move more quickly and deeply into contemplative prayer.
Teresa’s advice for progress through the last few dwelling places
In many scattered passages throughout The Interior Castle Teresa gives advice on how to pass successfully through the last few dwelling places and reach the final one. We must not “hold on to anything,” but practice detachment in all things. We must “strive to go forward in the service of our Lord and in self-knowledge.” We must beware of “self-love, self-esteem, judging one’s neighbors,” and a lack of charity. We must persevere in prayer and virtue, especially in loving our neighbors, desiring to be least among others, and performing our ordinary tasks. We must have the courage to be joined with God. We must continue to reflect on the humanity of Christ, and not expect to remain always in contemplation or the enjoyment of spiritual delights.
To try to put her advice more succinctly, we should keep our eyes on Christ and persevere in self-examination, humility, detachment, and recollected prayer. And most importantly, we must love God and neighbor, with our love of neighbor showing how much we truly love God:
[I]f we fail in love of neighbor we are lost. May it please the Lord that this will never be so; for if you do not fail, I tell you that you shall receive from His Majesty the union that was mentioned. When you see yourselves lacking in this love, even though you have devotion and gratifying experiences that make you think you have reached this stage, and you experience some little suspension in the prayer of quiet (for to some it then appears that everything has been accomplished), believe me, you have not reached union. And beg our Lord to give you this perfect love of neighbor. Let His Majesty have a free hand, for He will give you more than you know how to desire because you are striving and making every effort to do what you can about this love. . . . Don’t think that it won’t cost you anything or that you will find everything done for you. Look at what our Spouse’s love for us cost Him; in order to free us from death, He died that most painful death on the cross.
The role of trials and suffering
In harmony with the passion of Christ and St. John of the Cross’ discussion of the dark night of the soul, Teresa affirms that trials and suffering precede the birth into a new life with God. Some of her examples are a bit puzzling, though, because they seem either relatively trivial or trials that we are all subject to, no matter what the state of our spiritual life.
Her first example is of a Sister being gossiped about, with the gossipers complaining that she is putting on airs as a saint. Her friends turn away from her because they believe she is going spiritually astray, even though she is not. The next example is the opposite situation, where people are praising her for good that is “given by God and is by no means [her] own.” It would seem incredible that a person advanced in the spiritual life would be so sensitive to such gossip as to consider it a “trial” in any serious sense, yet I would argue that this does make sense. For someone far advanced in detachment, the final attachment is to one’s sense of oneself as a seeker of God. Having had some taste of God in contemplative prayer or other spiritual experiences, the soul is acutely aware of its lack of God at other times, and the tension between its desire for God and its sense of distance from God make it extremely sensitive to its spiritual state. Thus other people’s views about this, whether in the form of criticism or praise, are like adding salt to an open wound.
We see this kind of sensitivity in another of Teresa’s examples, that of a person who discusses their spiritual experiences with a confessor and is told that they are due to “the devil or melancholy.” The result is severe self-doubt and distress, particularly as the person is aware of their own imperfections. Again we see signs of acute doubt and sensitivity regarding one’s spiritual state, a reflection of this inner tension between having come so far yet still seeming so far away:
[I]n this state grace is so hidden . . . that not even a very tiny spark is visible. The soul doesn’t think that it has any love of God or that it ever had any, for if it has done some good, or His Majesty has granted it some favor, all of this seems to have been dreamed up or fancied. As for sins, it sees certainly that it has committed them.
The final example Teresa proposes is that of physical suffering due to illness, something of course that is shared by a great many people and not unique to those advanced in spirituality. Her own sufferings in this area may have been great, but I doubt if physical illness is a necessary feature of the sixth dwelling place. Rather, my guess is that any kind of human suffering experienced at this time just adds to the inner, psychological suffering discussed above.
The resolution of this unbearable inner suffering, the result of a tension between one’s self and one’s goal, comes with the transition from seeking God to surrendering to God.
The seventh dwelling place
In the seventh dwelling place, the restless butterfly finally comes to rest by dying to itself. Praise and blame no longer have a disturbing effect, because rather than focusing on one’s self the focus is on God. One becomes aware of God in the very center of the soul, united with the spirit in such a way as to seem inseparable, like rain water in a river, or two streams joining as one, or sunlight from two windows coming together.
Teresa writes of this spiritual marriage being inaugurated by a vision of the humanity of Christ, although she states that “with other persons the favor will be received in another form.” She also writes of a sudden awareness of the Blessed Trinity in an “intellectual vision” (not perceived in the imaginative faculty), dwelling in the center of the soul. Afterwards God’s presence is felt at all times, more as a constant companion than a sudden revelation.
Despite trials and perturbations in the faculties, senses, and passions, the soul is now always at peace within. It no longer fears anything except offending God, not even death, and has an even greater desire to serve Him than before. This inner peace does not mean the soul is never disturbed by events or beyond temptation, but it has great inner stability and a determination to avoid deviating from God’s service insofar as it is able.
There is a forgetfulness of self, “for truly the soul, seemingly, no longer is,” and it doesn’t worry about things that might happen, because it is preoccupied with “procuring the honor of God.” There are almost never any more experiences of internal dryness and disturbance, for the sense of God’s presence is always with it, and thus the desire for consolations or spiritual delights also cease. The experience of raptures, if one had been having them, disappears.
God’s aim in bringing the soul to this state is to produce from it good works. “This is the true sign of a thing, or favor, being from God.” It is not great plans, but “setting ourselves to the task at hand, serving our Lord in possible things” that is called for, because “the Lord doesn’t look so much at the greatness of our works as at the love with which they are done.”
[I]t will be good to avoid giving the impression that those to whom the Lord doesn’t give things that are so supernatural are left without hope. True union can very well be reached, with God’s help, if we make the effort to obtain it by keeping our wills fixed only on that which is God’s will.
I have argued that St. Teresa of Avila’s attention to extraordinary spiritual experiences in The Interior Castle tends to overshadow her advice on reaching the final dwelling place, union of the soul with God. By highlighting some other important aspects of the book, I hope to have made this advice more accessible. In particular, three lessons stand out:
- Contemplative prayer is not just for a spiritual elite; every person seriously committed to a spiritual life can aspire to it.
- This prayer must be surrounded and supported by the ordinary practices of the Christian life, such as self-examination, humility, detachment, and love of neighbor.
- As the soul progresses, trials and suffering can bear fruit in helping move one toward the final surrender to God’s will.
As might be expected, these lessons are neither unusual nor exotic, but rather reflect the timeless principles of the Christian life.