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Although union with God has been the major project of most Christian mystics through the ages, no two mystics have ever shared identical views about what “union” means, what it looks like, or how it is achieved. As instigator of the sixteenth-century reform of the Carmelite monastic order, Teresa of Avila articulated her understanding of mystical union for the benefit of her cloistered sisters in several written volumes, but most notably in The Interior Castle, her mature work.
In The Interior Castle, the obstacle to union with God for the human person is the space that exists between where the soul lives outside of itself and where God is at the soul’s center. For Teresa, this distance exists because “we do not understand ourselves, or know who we are” (41).
Teresa’s choice of spatial imagery and language, though metaphorical, suggests that the center is the destination, the place where the soul should be and therefore must travel to in order to experience full intimacy with its creator (43). To assist her readers on their pilgrimage toward mystical union, Teresa images the soul (every soul—even the soul in “mortal sin” ), as a spacious translucent structure containing many mansions, in the center chamber of which lives “His Majesty,” God (42). The task of the contemplative is to journey inward through the soul’s many mansions until he or she can be unified with God in the soul’s most inward chamber (43).
Two questions about the nature of mystical union in Teresa’s thought quite naturally emerge here. First, “How does union with God occur?” This initially reads like a procedural question more than a diagnostic one. But in fact, since it is via the inward journey that the soul comes to understand what it means to be united with God, it is necessary to explore the various progressive stages Teresa outlines for her readers in order to understand the nuances of Teresa’s teaching on mystical union. Union with God, after all, is not only a reality to be embraced in the soul’s centermost mansion, but is imperfectly experienced in various mansions along the mystical journey—especially mansions four, five and six. (Teresa deals specifically with seven interior mansions, but she implies that her treatment is not exhaustive ).
The second question that must be addressed is “What does mystical union actually mean for Teresa at its most fundamental level?” The knowledge necessary for answering this second question can only be acquired through a careful analysis of the first question.
How then does a person even enter one’s self or castle? Teresa makes it clear that self-entry occurs through prayer (43). Prayer, in fact, is the vehicle by which the soul navigates through all of its inner chambers. Teresa’s understanding of the role and function of prayer is one of the most complex and revealing aspects of her teaching on union because it is both something the soul does and something God does in the soul on the journey toward mutual union, and it is also, mysteriously, union itself.
God is the first one praying the soul inward from where he dwells in its center, though the soul cannot immediately hear his voice (63). It is mucky work trekking through the soul’s first three mansions, as much of the filth from the outer courtyard3 follows the soul inward, blinding it to the holy luminescence of its interior (44). The work of prayer is hard and the soul relies on various “methods” for nourishment, such as the reading of books and sermons and the practice of verbal or conscious forms of prayer.
But at arrival in the forth mansion, prayer becomes “contemplative” as the soul releases its attachments (44) and becomes transplanted directly over the source of God, causing his life to gush over into the soul’s life without any effort on the soul’s part (105-107). Here is a foretaste of mystical union, and since God’s life in the soul is not brought about by anything the soul can do, it says some interesting things about the relationship between grace and human reason on the mystical journey. Although some readers of Teresa may find themselves put off by the readiness with which she embraces the non-rational, loss of intellectual “control” is actually a mark of grace for Teresa, as it indicates that God has taken over the work of unifying prayer. The rational faculties—memory, intellect and will— are not fully restored to the soul until the seventh mansion, after they have been utterly purified and integrated into God’s own way of loving.
In the fifth mansion an extraordinary work of transformation takes place via the “prayer of union.” The soul spins a cocoon in which it entombs itself, dying in Christ to be resurrected as a butterfly in preparation for spiritual betrothal in the sixth mansion (136). It is in the sixth mansion that the ecstasies for which Teresa is so well known become dominant, and since Teresa is clear that supernatural experiences are not important in and of themselves but are only “side effects” of God’s movement in the heart, one can only assume that she spends so much time discussing them because they are a significant challenge in her own experience and perhaps also to those around her. (Teresa’s first piece of writing, her autobiography, was confiscated by the Spanish Inquisition on suspicion that she was an alumbrado or “illuminated one,” [i.e., mystic]).
The ecstasies cause suffering on many levels. First, they invoke the prejudice of others, which causes the soul to feel isolated and misunderstood. But more importantly, they cause the soul to suffer with desire for full union with God (172). Teresa says that the pain of ecstasy is like an angel throwing a spear into the bowels, dragging out its entrails (173-174). But it is even so a pain that is desirable because it is itself union of a certain kind. It is difficult to know what to make of this aspect of Teresa’s teaching, as she herself implies that such ecstasies are not experienced by all those who reach the sixth mansion (174), and yet bodily sensations dominate her discussion of what happens there. C.S. Lewis may be a helpful interpreter, as he also speaks of “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” in many of his works. For him it is not ecstatic, but rather an ache, and it is the soul’s longing for a fullness of God that can only be experienced in the next life. Of course, there are major differences between Teresa’s teaching on union and Lewis’ reflections on desire (or “joy,” as he calls it). Unlike Lewis, union with God for Teresa is a thing to be enjoyed in this life. But Lewis still provides a framework through which the non-ecstatic can understand the meaning of Teresa’s sixth mansion without having to label it either masochistic or hopelessly sensational.
It is also in the sixth mansion that the functional value of self-knowledge becomes fully manifest. The modern, uncritical reader might gather from Teresa’s quest for self-knowledge that if the soul really knew itself then it would not need to make an inner pilgrimage, because self-knowledge would be an end in itself. Following that, one might conclude (as some cursory critics have) that Teresa believes the soul is somehow intrinsically Divine or that by entering into union with God it becomes Divine. Both ideas are emphatically false. For Teresa, the value of self-knowledge is that it enables the soul to see its sinfulness, which in turn leads to a humility that deepens in proportion to the soul’s true knowledge of itself (52). The pilgrimage remains necessary because the soul must not only know itself, but become changed (“sanctified,” we would say,) through that knowledge. In the ecstasies of the sixth mansion, this humility reaches such a state that the soul is finally opened to receive God in his fullness. And ironically, this “perfected” humility produces a precious new confidence whereby the soul is able to trust in God’s abiding presence in the seventh mansion whether or not it experiences ecstasies (266, 280). This is spiritual marriage, the seventh mansion, and although it is the most advanced level of spiritual development for Teresa, it is not at all flashy or esoteric. It is the place where the soul regains control of its transformed senses so it can understand and participate in the life of the Godhead through the Holy Spirit (265) where before it was paralyzed. It is able to do this through a fusion of contemplation and action, since the will of God (which the soul is now united with), is for God and the soul to participate together in a joint work of love that draws others in. If the sixth mansion seemed tedious and otherworldly, the seventh is intensely practical. Mature mystical union produces the fruit of good works, which is a challenge to those who see self-knowledge and contemplation as disguised naval-gazing. Teresa leaves no room for this. In her analysis, individuals can appraise their love for God by asking themselves how much they love others (291-295).
It is from this climax that the true meaning of mystical union for Teresa can be analyzed. Near the beginning of her book, Teresa offers several striking images of the soul that is not in union with God. She describes such souls as “separated from God (49), in others words, in “anti-union.” Such souls are so used to the “reptiles” (vices) of the outer court that they “have almost become like them (43), “paralyzed” in “animal like habits” so that they need the “Lord himself” to say “rise” as he did to the paralytic in John 20:21 (44). Such souls, “unless they strive to realize their miserable condition… will be turned into pillars of salt for not looking within themselves, just as Lot’s wife was because she looked back” (43).
These lines describe something almost like a “reverse transformation” occurring in the person who is separated from God. To not be in union with God is to be dehumanized, but self-knowledge takes the soul back to where it is meant to be by guiding it through a forward-working process of transformation. When in the fifth mansion the soul “dies” within the cocoon of Christ, Teresa points out that the soul cannot “add or subtract” from Christ as it spins him around itself, and that really, rather than building Christ around itself, it is adjusting itself to fit inside of him (136). By truly knowing itself, the soul is moved into the reality of the God-knowledge that, via humility, carries it through metamorphosis. The soul’s death is its prayer (137) and it comes out beautiful and new on the other side. Then, says Teresa, the “very soul does not know itself [part of travelling to the seventh mansion means becoming reacquainted with one’s newly-graced self]. For think of the difference between an ugly worm and a white butterfly.”
This is a microcosm of what Teresa’s whole teaching on union is about at its most basic level: transformation. The goal of the mystical journey is that the soul be re-formed back into the image of its creator—“like rain that falls into a river or spring or like a small stream of water that flows into the sea. The water is one and cannot be sorted out or separated” (270). The water from the spring or sky and the water of the river are different, but by falling into each other they become so mutually mingled in love and purpose that they can no longer be divided.
Is Teresa’s mystical model for everyone? Probably not. The Interior Castle is an indirect telling of Teresa’s own inward journey, and as such it is unwise to set it up as an exact map for every pilgrim. Teresa herself says that the soul should feel at leisure to explore its own mansions (52), implying that not everyone will explore the same mansions on their way toward union with God. But the end is the same for all souls who enter themselves and persevere through the dynamic work of prayer. Mystical union is a gift to be sought now, for it is by seeking and receiving that gift that the soul also becomes a gift to others, and better still, to God.
Rachel Davies edits the spirituality and interviews sections of the Spectrum website.
All citations from Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, trans. By E. Allison Peers with an introduction and commentary by Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R., Classics with Commentary, (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press), 2007.  My use of the word “soul” here encompasses the totality of the human person. It does not refer to some entity that can be separated from the mind or body.  Lewis, C.S., Surprised by Joy (Harcourt: 1955).