St. Teresa of Ávila was a sixteenth century cloistered Carmelite nun who lived during the Spanish Inquisition and wrote this masterpiece of mystical literature as a guide for spiritual growth. She wrote it, not because she wanted to, or thought she had the skills, but in obedience to her superiors. As a result, it is delightfully self-deprecating and conversational, yet written with powerful certitude and wisdom that can only come from firsthand experience. It is one of the most wrinkled and marked up of all Betty’s beloved “Rubber Band Books.”
Few tasks which I have been commanded have been so difficult as this present one of writing about matter relating to prayer: for one reason, because I do not feel that the Lord has given me either the spirituality or the desire for it; for another, because for the last three months I have been suffering from such noises and weakness in the head that I find it troublesome to write even about necessary business. But, as I know that strength arising from obedience has a way of simplifying things which seem impossible, my will very gladly resolves to attempt this task…
While I was beseeching Our Lord today that He would speak through me, since I could find nothing to say and had no idea how to begin to carry out the obligation laid upon me by obedience, a thought occurred to me which I will now set down, in order to have some foundation on which to build. I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions. Now if we think carefully over this, sisters, the soul of the righteous is nothing but a paradise, in which, as God tells us, He takes His delight. For what do you think a room will be like which is the delight of a King so mighty, so wise, so pure and full of all that is good? I can find nothing with which to compare the great beauty of a soul and its great capacity.
“The door of this castle is prayer.”
Here follows a brief overview of the seven mansions that might be very loosely visualized as concentric circles leading inward to the center of the soul. Radiant Light emanates more and more brightly from the innermost dwelling as the pilgrim approaches. Teresa reminds the reader that the only entrance to this glorious dwelling is prayer and that the path is never a straight one. Thoughts will continually distract and divert us, so she insists that we be humble and very patient with ourselves. “Just as we cannot stop the movement of the heavens…we cannot restrain our thought. Then we send all the faculties of the soul after it, thinking we are lost,…yet the soul may perhaps be wholly united with Him in the mansions very near His presence, while thought remains in the outskirts of the castle.”
Mansions 1-3 (Purgative) Active movement away from sin to self-knowledge
1. Making the humble choice to enter the crystal mansion, but battling the “vipers and snakes”of addictions and habits of mind that have encumbered for so long.
2. Excitedly growing through rational efforts: prayer, good books and sermons, but still struggling with life on the rough edges of the diamond.
3. Safer now from old temptations, experiencing insights and some sweetness in prayer, but still dominated by the rational mind and periods of arid prayer.
Mansions 4-5 (Illuminative) Passive movement into supernatural prayer
4. Finally moving from the head into the heart and greater intimacy with God. There are moments of ineffable peace when the soul drinks directly from God in preparation for the gift of supernatural prayer.
5. The soul experiences what is called the Prayer of Quiet; when it falls asleep to the world and rests in God. However short the duration of the experience, the soul is overwhelmed with Light and Love and the certainty it is united to God.
Mansions 6-7 (Unitive) Spiritual betrothal and union with the Beloved
6. The Betrothal. Loving God now with God’s own heart, the soul becomes consumed with desire for the Bridegroom. This sacred dwelling is sometimes accompanied by ecstatic visions and raptures but also by intense trials; even great physical and psychological pain.
7. The Spiritual Marriage is consummated. The soul dissolves completely into the Beloved. There is only Love. “…it may be called another heaven: the two lighted candles join and become one; the falling rain becomes merged in the river. There is complete transformation, ineffable and perfect peace; no higher state is conceivable, save that of the Beatific Vision in the life to come.”
and this from our twenty-first century mystic friend, Betty:
Now, in the twilight of my years, I feel very pressed to encourage people who are on their spiritual journey to persevere, to trust God, and to not stop short of the goal—the gift of the Giver Himself, Divine union. The gates of heaven are everywhere. Our part is to simply embrace and open to the new seasons of our inner and outer journey as preparation to receive this gift of Love. Divine union is for everyone, and the experiential knowledge of this Love and freedom is everything. At last, we are grasped by the hand of the Spirit and led into a wilderness free of distractions and temptations: a wilderness of trackless mystery, beauty, and sound. This is the ultimate food in the feast of our redemption—a foretaste of heaven. Once we have tasted it, there is no turning back. It gets sweeter and sweeter. It is a freedom that comes from a wisdom that transcends the intellect. It is an unknowing, a letting go of all we have known and falling deeply in love with God in whose heart we will finally find rest. Our soul, then, will finally expand to the point that we draw all humanity into it, and in the process there will be peace in our heart, joy in our life, and reconciliation and healing among our friends and family. This journey is costly, and it is sacrificial, but it is healing and brings with it the gift of sanctity. I can’t explain it, but it is so. ~Betty
Click on this link to watch Betty talk more about Divine Union.