In college, I was part of a team of students that planned the re-dedication of our dorm chapel to a saint that would be a good fit for a dorm filled with undergraduate girls. I was rooting for St. Therese of Lisieux and was initially disappointed when St. Teresa of Avila was chosen. But, in the process of planning for the rededication Mass (and getting roped in to dressing up like St. Teresa of Avila and giving a presentation on our new patron to the dorm, because that is the sort of thing that undergraduate girls do) I fell in love with St. Teresa of Avila. I discovered a saint who was funny, and who kept her sense of humor even amid suffering. Facing some mental health challenges as an undergraduate, her hope amid suffering gave me hope, too.
Although I knew about her anecdotally, it was not until last year that I finally picked up her writings. What I found there captivated me and blew me away. When I began reading The Interior Castle, what I expected was a dull tome outlining the steps of the spiritual life. Instead, what I found was a love story.
Big Tess, the Reluctant Mystic
Unlike St. Therese, St. Teresa (affectionately referred to as “Big Tess”) came to holiness later in life. Yes, she did have some mystical experiences as a child, but in her writings, she makes it clear that she also was a bit of a rascal and rebel. Yet, that same spiritedness that she brought to ordinary life was transformed when she was called by Christ to the mystical life.
I recently listened to a talk in which the speaker was trying to outline various paths of the spiritual life, and I was confused by his assessment of the “Mystical Way.” If Big Tess has taught me anything, she has taught me that the mystical life can be summarized in a simple phrase – it is a love story.
In addition to her reformation of the Carmelites, Teresa also was a mystic. There are different kinds of mystics and different versions of mysticism (something which Teresa explains more eloquently than I can) but Teresa’s fit into two categories. Firstly, she did experience what we would consider classic mystical experiences – visions, ecstasies, etc. She was rather embarrassed by the inconvenience of them, in the way a less demonstrative girl might blush at the overt affection of her young husband. Yet, she accepted them because she accepted the One who she was encountering in these experiences.
The second category of mystical experience (which is one that, as Teresa explains, is common to all mystics) is that of an incredible longing for God. Teresa of Avila was a practical, down to earth woman. But she also had the heart of a Beloved, longing for the Lover of her soul. She describes it as being “wounded with love for the Spouse.” Those who are married, and parents (especially mothers) have probably experienced something comparable – a love for your spouse or child that is so great that it is almost painful. Yet, there is a sweetness in that kind of human love and longing, and St. Teresa clearly asserts that the same is true of the love of Christ. She describes her longing for God as painfully sweet, a longing that is painful because it cannot be fulfilled in this life…and yet, it is sweet, because its pain is a greater joy than any earthly joy.
Mysticism for the Ordinary Catholic?
In Interior Castle, St. Teresa outlines seven “mansions” of the soul, through which one may pass through in the spiritual life. She makes it clear that not all will advance through all seven in this life – in fact, she thinks that if you make it to the fourth mansion, that is a grace to be rejoiced in. Yet, some may be called and drawn to even the higher levels of the mystical life this side of heaven – even ordinary Catholics, living in 2020.
What can we do to get there? Is there a road map?
The early mansions that Teresa describes involve much effort (as cooperation with grace), but they are steps that can dispose us to whatever spiritual gifts God may want to give us in this life. What is important to keep in mind is that the mansions are not “levels” like in a video game. You do not advance to the next one just because you have accumulated a certain number of holiness points. That is not the point of her analogy.
Rather, her descriptions of the various stages of the spiritual life are to help us to recognize and name with gratitude the gifts and graces that God has given us. Whether those graces and gifts fall in the third mansion or the seventh – they are a part of the love story. And, unlike video games, every saint will one day reach the final level- that of perfect union with Christ and the whole Trinity.
The mystical way, as Teresa of Avila sees it, is a series of encounters of love – much as the back and forth between the Lover and his Beloved in the Song of Songs. Spiritual graces are not tokens of success – they are gifts of love, freely given by the Lover of all our souls. And, like any good spouse, Christ knows what gifts are most fitting for his beloved ones.
Yet, even if most of us will never reach the upper mansions of the Interior Castle in this life, Teresa’s writings are still relevant for us all. We are created for union with God. If God deems it fitting for us to experience a taste of that in this life, it is a gift. But even if he does not, saints like Teresa can give us a glimpse at a reality that will, hopefully, all be ours one day in heaven.
The ordinary, down-to-earth nature of St. Teresa of Avila should give us hope, too. Already in this life, regardless of our state in life, God is drawing us in love to him. And, as he reveals to Teresa, he is immensely, irresistibly, lovable. And he is waiting for us, every moment, of every day, quietly and patiently, in the tabernacle. And oh…how he longs for us. Like Teresa of Avila, let us run to him.