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The Spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila

Fr. John Welch, O.Carm.

The Spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila

Teresa’s Castle

               At the age of 62, Teresa of Avila presented a summary of her life of prayer. She imaged her spiritual journey as the journey from the outside of a crystal, global castle to the center room where the King lived.

Outside it was dark, cold, and noisy. The King at the center of the castle invites the soul, the individual, into a deep union. As the soul moves through the castle the dark gives way to light, the cold to warmth, and the noisy creatures become less distracting.

               The journey to the center of the castle moves through seven suites of rooms, or seven mansions, or seven dwelling places. These are seven stages in the soul’s relationship with God. All the rooms on the outersurface of the castle are the first dwelling places, perhaps “a million” or so. The next layer of rooms represents the second dwelling places and so forth, until the soul reaches the center. Teresa said it is like a palmetto with its enfolding leaves.

               We will ask four questions of this work:

  1. What is Teresa’s image for our spiritual journey?
  2. What is the problem we encounter on the journey?
  3. What is Teresa’s “solution” for overcoming the problem?
  4. What is the goal of the journey?

Image: from the periphery to the center

               Teresa’s image pictures a journey from the periphery of our life to its center.  In this image God is not “somewhere else” but God is “always already there”. St. Augustine prayed, “You were inside, but I was outside. You were with me, but I was not with you.”

               One of the most difficult transitions for Christians is to move from moralism to Christian morality. Moralism holds that if I am good, I am rewarded; if I am bad, I am punished. It is the morality of a child, but then applied to God.  I believe that if I am good, I earn God’s love. If I sin God then withdraws love.

               Christian morality holds that I am loved before I do anything good or bad. I cannot earn God’s love. I cannot win it. I cannot barter for it. I do not have to appease God to be loved. I am loved into life and God continues to love me throughout my life. I cannot turn the love away. I may not believe it, I may turn my back on it, but God does not walk away.  God is “always already there”.

Problem: we do not know ourselves

               The problem, said St. Teresa, is that we “lack self-knowledge.” She said, I cannot know you, God, unless I know myself.; but, I cannot know myself unless I know You.We believe God is mediated through God’s creation. We are the first part of God’s creation we meet. Karl Rahner one time asked if we knew what God says to us in prayer. We know what we say in prayer. What does God say to us? Rahner’s answer is, we are what God says to us in prayer. In hearing the word that we are, we begin to hear more clearly the God who speaks us. However, Teresa taught, we cannot know ourselves unless we know God. Only in a relationship with God do we come to see ourselves, and the world, with clarity.

               Teresa said she was “at sea” the first 18 years of her life in the Incarnation.When she was with the things of God, she wanted to be with the things of the world. When she was with the things of the world, she wanted to be with the things of God.

By the “world”, I think Teresa meant she was continuing to be involvedin the news of Avila through conversations in the parlor and other means of communication. By “things of God” she meant she was working hard to be seen as an observant religious in the convent.

               One day when a statue of the beaten Christ, the “Ecce Homo”, was brought into the convent, Teresa fell to her knees and said she would not get up until she was healed. The encounter with the beaten Lord did heal her. She got up free from her ambivalence, and not long after, began to plan a reform of Carmel.

What happened?

               Teresa does not say what exactly was healed, but we may guess what happened from knowing our own needs. Perhaps our deepest question is, are we loved? Are we essentially good? Do we have worth? What is our value? Teresa realized she had been asking society around her, and religious life, to validate her, to give her worth. She had been trying to be a valued member of society, as well as being seen as a very good religious. She sought her worth outside.

               In encountering the beaten Christ perhaps she realized that this suffering was borne out of love for her. She did not have to ask the world around if she was loveable and of worth. She learned that she had immense worth and dignity because she was already loved by God. Her worth came from the God who was at the core of her life.

Solution: prayer and reflection

               “The door to the castle is prayer and reflection,” Teresa wrote.  What keeps us on the periphery of life are many preoccupations and concerns. She mentions  “pastimes, business affairs, pleasures and worldly buying and selling”. In other words, rather than having one center in our life, we have many centers, each calling for her attention. The many concerns, the many centers fragments us. What frees us from our dissipated and fragmented life outside the castle, on the periphery of our life, is prayer.

               In Teresa’s castle story, the call is coming from the King at the center. In prayer, it is God who speaks first, and initiates the relationship.God called us into life, and continues to call us more deeply into our lives. We, on our part, are essentially listeners for God’s call.  The Rule of Carmel stresses the silence needed to hear God’s call. The Carmelite is to be an expectancy, a listener for God’s approach. All our words in prayer are an effort to say the one word, which is God’s.

               In this engagement with the Mystery at the core of our lives, all other lesser loves are put into order. The many centers keeping us on the margins of our life are now oriented around the one center. Identity and validation now come from the center of our life. Other loves and interests find their proper place in our lives. The invitation from the center of the castle disengages us from the periphery and allows us to continue to journey.

               The only terminal problem, in Teresa’s estimation, is to stop praying. When we stop praying, we stop listening, and when we stop listening it is very hard to hear the gentle whistle of the shepherd.  One theologian summarized Teresa’s message: a faithful and perduring attentiveness to our depths and center is the best cooperation we can give to God who is reorienting our life.

Goal: union with God

               The goal of the journey is union with God in love. As the soul listens more deeply and responds more generously the relationship with the Mystery at the core of our life deepens. We believe God is always calling us into a fuller humanity, a wider freedom, and a more intimate union. On this journey to the center of one’s life, the self is born as God is met. The more Teresa could say “God “ in her life, the more she could say “Teresa”.

               Carmelite understanding of the journey speaks about transformation. In the Rule of Carmel the Carmelite is obliged to put on the armor of God, or rather to be available so that God can clothe the Carmelite in virtue. And the Constitutions state: “Contemplation is the inner journey of Carmelites, arising out of the free initiative of God who touches and transforms us leading us towards unity in love with him…”.


As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."