“It is no small pity and confusion that, through our fault, we do not understand ourselves nor do we know who we are!” Teresa notices, at the outset of her classic work, The Interior Castle. Although her tone is light, this is an astute and poignant expression of loss that rings true across the centuries. “We seldom consider all the great riches contained in the soul or Who we contain within us, and so we make little effort to preserve our own deepest beauty.” In Teresa’s words, I sense not so much a critique but a wise observation that we ourselves are the ones who lose out when we do not recognize and cultivate the richness of our own being. In our own age, I think we experience the constant pressure of time constraints far more deeply than in the sixteenth century. Absorbed in a superficial movement from place to place, activity to activity, we lack genuine engagement with ourselves, our internal sensitivities and intuitions, and our connectedness with others. The very word “soul” seems increasingly remote.
But whether or not we have an experience of our own “soulfulness,” Teresa’s insistence that we are God’s dwelling place raises helpful questions about where (even whether) we truly dwell and just how deeply or accurately we know ourselves. Today the temptations to live a very superficial and false existence are intense. We are bombarded by consumer messages telling us what we “need.” We are pressured to conform to images of success, prestige and power that often suppress our nobler, sincere or more humane instincts. We are numbed by stress and fatigue, withdrawing from encounters that would draw us toward authenticity and deeper meaning.
Teresa’s vision of humanity’s “grandeur” is an invitation to a precious largesse of spirit. She encourages us to know ourselves in our fullness. “The things of the soul,” she writes, “must always be considered plentiful, spacious and large; it is difficult to exaggerate the abundance and generosity of the soul. It is capable of much more than we can imagine, and the light of God in this palace shines in all parts.” Seeking the God who dwells within us opens up a space to be meet and be met in life-giving encounters, with God, self, and others—encounters that provide meaning and substance and food for thought and growth. “God has given us such great dignity,” she writes. How will we come to know and share the dignity that is ours to enjoy?
It helps, I think, to be honest about what is lacking in our lives and what we truly want. Yearning and desire can be deep spiritual allies, especially if we resist filling them with things that cannot satisfy us. If there is pain in discovering that we have made choices that have brought us into conflict with our potential as persons, there is also empowerment in recognizing our capacity to make different choices, and to seek guidance and support in growing toward our giftedness as human persons. The stages of growth that Teresa outlines are extremely useful in helping us move from paralysis, ignorance or self-deception to a place of abundance and generosity of spirit.
For further reading:
Gillian T. W. Ahlgren, Entering Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle: A Reader’s Companion. Paulist Press, 2005, pp. 21-28.
Questions for the author?