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Take and Read: The Interior Castle

by Gillian T.W. Ahlgren

The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila, tran. by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Paulist Press, 1979)

My "Take and Read" came from the hands of a favorite professor, just after I had finished my first course in church history. "Gillian," Grover Zinn said, placing a book in my hands, "you have to read this."

I was 19 years old, and I had been led to Grover soon after my first trip to Europe. That trip had been unexpected: a wonderful and thoroughly surprising odyssey that had taken me into the ethereal landscapes of the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat, Spain, and then into the inner world of the sculptures and stained glass windows of the cathedral of Chartres. If God had ever wanted to capture the imagination of a young woman, that would have been the way. And now Professor Zinn, a specialist in the Christian mystical tradition, was handing her Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle after introducing her to a host of writers, all calling us to take life-giving relationship with God seriously: Antony and the desert dwellers, Bernard of Clairvaux's On Loving God, Bonaventure's Soul's Journey into God, Julian of Norwich's Showings. The road had been well paved.

As I lost myself in its pages, I was fascinated by both the inner landscapes that Teresa opened up and the navigational tools she offered in the complex journey toward the God who dwells within us. I was stunned by her capacity to speak, through her experience, to me. And I found it impossible not to try to locate myself in one of the seven stages she described on the journey toward union with God: Where was I? Teresa spoke to an unarticulated aspiration of mine, not just to seek God, but to find God and to be found.

For over 30 years now, I have taught and been taught by Teresa and her Interior Castle. And I have been taught not only by the content of the book but also by how the book touches and impacts people around me, by what they bring to the book and how their experience informs a continuing conversation about God, about the human journey, about growth as human persons, and even about the "new and universal solidarity" that Pope Francis recently called for in his "Laudato Si': On Care for Our Common Home." In this reflection, I will try to capture some of these moments of encounter and describe the ways that this text and its readers have made their way into my life.

I first read the text in English, of course. In fact, in that first moment of encounter, at age 19, I had just one year of Spanish under my belt, and was about to begin Spanish composition. Learning of my interest in Teresa and Spanish mysticism more generally, my Spanish professor introduced me to the poetry of John of the Cross and helped me to see, at the outset of my journey into the Spanish language, the profound literary and linguistic impact of Teresa and John for Spanish-speaking peoples. I spent my senior year in college working through Teresa's corpus in Spanish and writing an honors thesis on how she used metaphors to communicate her experience of God. While my initial effort at capturing what Teresa accomplished in the Interior Castle was inelegant at best and reflected the typical clumsiness of undergraduate thinking, the process of research and writing convinced me that I belonged in the academy, and, although I didn't entirely know it at the time, a theological writer was slowly being born. I had no language for this yet, but I think that, even then, I sensed that Teresa was doing far more than simply relating to her readers her experience of God; she was teaching her readers how to sense the movements of God in their own lives, even as she was creating new forms of theological expression as a woman working in an inhospitable theological climate. What is more, Teresa teaches us how to grow theologically and how to become authentic theologians.

When I arrived at the University of Chicago in 1985, there were two female professors at the Divinity School. Neither of them was in historical theology or the history of Christianity, so it was important for the words and methods of people like Teresa, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, and others to supplement the instruction that I was receiving at Chicago. They always showed me not only that women belonged at the core of theological discourse but also that women brought different questions to the table, as well as a broad set of experiences that needed careful and thorough integration into the theological arena.

After my first year of graduate work, however, I found myself weary and discouraged, and I sought advice from my advisor, Bernard McGinn. Schooled in Teresa's own melodious language of subjectivity, all I could say to him was that it felt to me that my studies were causing me "to lose the simplicity of my soul." I appealed to the example of St. Francis (who was rumored to have said, "Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary"), and told him that I was considering taking a year off. Bernie wisely referred me to his wife Pat. And fortunately I found out about the University's Tinker Field Research Grant for Latin American and Iberian studies.

Not six weeks later -- God seems to work fast in these matters -- I was on a flight to Seville, Spain, home of the manuscript of Teresa's Interior Castle. And even though I hardly knew what I was doing, on the afternoon of my second day in Seville, I was ringing the buzzer on the wall of a completely unremarkable building with a tightly-locked doorway right up against the street.

"Ave Maria," came the voice through the speaker.

Lacking experience in such matters, I clutched. What does one say to such a thing? Fortunately I came up with a spontaneous "Gratia plena." It seemed to work.

"Si?" responded the voice. I tried to explain who I was, feeling rather awkward through the speaker, and the voice then went through a series of instructions in Spanish: When the door opened, I was to walk across the central courtyard, through to a doorway on the right side, and in the back of that room I would find a wooden turnstile, in which I was to place my letters of presentation (one from the University of Chicago and the other from the local archdiocesan vicar of religious orders), and then pull the chain. My journey into Teresa's cloistered world had begun. It was, in fact, in this very same convent that Inquisitional officials had entered in 1576, to question Teresa about her unusual experiences of prayer. (This moment is reconstructed in the 1996 book, Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity). I would be walking in their footsteps, as well, when I entered the inner courtyard.

The letters disappeared, and, as the turnstile turned all the way around again, they had been replaced by a set of keys, the largest of which was approximately one foot long. Now another series of oral instructions, this one even harder to follow. I was to use the largest key to open the central wooden door on another side of the courtyard, then I was to lock the door carefully behind me. I should then proceed through the chapel to the sacristy door at the right end and open it with a second key.

At the end of my journey, I was surprised by two sisters awaiting me in the sacristy. The one presented me with my letters; the other invited me to sit down next to a tall glass of brilliantly cold, freshly squeezed lemonade. I commented on the latter immediately, as it was late July and about 105 degrees outside. We had a conversation that lasted nearly an hour. The sisters took a kind interest in me and were full of questions: what had brought me to them, what did I hope to accomplish, what books did I need access to, how long would I be staying in Seville? As the conversation wound down, we worked out a schedule that would allow me to work there in the sacristy, for three hours each afternoon over a period of two weeks.

Each day I would arrive at the Discalced Carmelite convent, pick up the key from the turnstile, walk back into the sacristy, and the book I had requested the day before would be set out waiting for me, along with another glass of that miraculous lemonade. I was never alone. Depending on the day, I might be accompanied by the 92-year-old librarian, who would slip into a siesta in her chair as the warmth lulled her to sleep; other times, I would engage conversation with one or two of the other sisters, who, little by little, illuminated me about convent life. From what I could tell, the sisters wore habits that were at least two layers thick, and the fabric was a coarse wool, not a light cotton. I couldn't imagine it, nor could I understand how serene and unruffled they always were. I never once saw them with a drop of sweat, whereas I, on the other hand, always had a handkerchief out, petrified that a drop from my forehead would fall onto one of their manuscripts. We were always asking one another questions, curious about each other's worlds and with a profound and healthy mutual respect. There was a steady, precious rhythm to those days that quietly fed my soul. I went back to Chicago full of stories and with a clearer sense of purpose and meaning.

Two and a half years and five doctoral exams later, I was back in Spain, now in Madrid, allowing the focus of my dissertation to take shape in questions like: What was it like for Teresa, lacking a theological education and writing in a climate of suspicion about mental prayer and open hostility to women's teaching authority? How did she successfully navigate such difficult waters? How might understanding this climate illuminate our reading of her? And were there any strategies that Teresa could teach us today?

As I learned more about the Inquisitional context of Teresa's Interior Castle, it became clearer to me just how extraordinary the book really is. Ironically, the Interior Castle owes its very existence to the harsh climate of inquisitional scrutiny that had moved inquisitional officials to sequester Teresa's first book on prayer, The Book of Her Life, in 1575. She called these times "tiempos recios." But Teresa wanted God, not the Inquisition, to have the last word. If that isn't the instinct of an authentic theologian, I'm not sure what is.

As she wrote her way through the Interior Castle, Teresa shared with her contemporaries a concrete and quite extraordinary vision of God -- a God whose tender longing for us "undoes" us, gradually teaching us what love truly is. The world would not have had exposure to this God without Teresa's courage and "muy determinada determinación" to take up pen repeatedly and search prayerfully for the words to communicate the love of God that gives life. I think it is also very safe to say that Teresa would not have been made a doctor of the Roman Catholic church -- the Doctor of Prayer, no less -- in 1970 without the Interior Castle, which provides a depth and sophistication far beyond what she was capable of when she wrote The Book of Her Life. The Interior Castle is an attempt to show how, through prayer, God thoroughly reforms and reshapes us, inviting us into a collaborative partnership capable of changing the world. ("We always hear about what a good thing prayer is ... yet only what we ourselves can do in prayer is explained to us; little is explained about what the Lord works in a soul; I mean about the supernatural.") But Teresa does more than just chronicle the soul's journey to God; she introduces us to a God who is keenly interested in us. She shows us that we are soulful people, capable of more than we know and made of and for relationship with others. As we grow into relationship with God, she claims that we, too, will learn, through that relationship, how to engage the work of renewing the world, working for dignity, renouncing and denouncing injustice, growing in truth and love and fidelity, and drawing others into this life-giving, creative activity.

Teresa is a good, lifelong companion. Her emphasis on the constant reformability and transformability of the human person is an insight that bears multiple explorations. Twenty-six years into my career as a university professor, I still teach Teresa, inside and outside of the classroom, most recently now to women recovering after domestic violence and relational trauma. What gets incredibly interesting, in these situations, is how much these women teach me about Teresa and what she has to offer to us today. As a brilliant friend once said to me as I was first getting to know him: "I went to the University of Chicago, but the poor have been my real teachers." Latina women rebuilding their lives after domestic violence have proven to be the ones who best teach me what Teresa's theological synthesis really means. She teaches that we must recognize and protect the high dignity of the soul, and that our journey toward meaningful relationship, with God, self and others, is one that involves constant change and challenge. "The things of the soul must always be considered as plentiful, spacious and large; to do so is not an exaggeration. The soul is capable of much more than we can imagine, and the sun that is in this royal chamber shines in all parts," she writes. And then she gives us her simple and basic life principle: "Whoever does not grow, shrinks."

Teresa helps us to recognize the movements, habits, and forces in our lives that support authentic relationship with God, self, and others, and those that do not. She encourages us to create communities of solidarity, support and mutual care, capable of bearing witness to the energy of God's love wanting to come alive in the human community today. Teresa's own life gives us evidence of the malleability and strength of the human spirit, and her words continue to invite us to explore and model the reality of human resilience.

[Gillian Ahlgren is Professor of Theology and Church History at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she is also the Founding Director of the Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice. Her most recent book, Enkindling Love: The Legacy of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, has recently been released from Fortress Press. For more information see]


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