The Soul’s Journey toward Union with God essay
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Teresa of Avila was born in the year 1515 and later died in 1582. She has written the ‘Interior Castle’ in 1577 over a period of six months. At this time, she was 62 years old. Her book has become an inspiration to Christians around the globe. In this book, Teresa describes the soul as an awesome globe made of crystals with bright lights radiating out from a huge fire located in the centre (Teresa, 2007). This huge fire located in the centre represents God. The lights have different intensity, which forms a series of circular but distinct stages/regions, which represent seven mansions. Teresa looks into each mansion and distinguishes it from the others. These mansions are signs that mark the stages followed towards uniting with God (Ahlgren, 2005). Teresa uses symbols, imagery, and metaphors to explain the nature of the soul. The aim of this research is to determine whether the spiritual insights of Teresa are applicable and effective to present day Christians, who seek union with God.
First, the essay will unravel Teresa’s insights in the context of her environment and time, and secondly, the essay will look into the relevance of her insights in the contemporary understanding of the spiritual life. This is because the relevance of her insights may have been overtaken by our present understanding. Unlike in the past, the life of the spirit is no longer preservation of the religious leaders, but it is open to everyone who wants to feel the fullness of human experience. Teresa’s works are written in a way that can be understood by anyone. She acknowledges that humans are different but desire to lead successful spiritual lives. She understands that most humans don’t have courage and discipline required to maintain their spiritual faith. Through her description of the seven mansions, Teresa gives humans a practical way towards uniting with God, while at the same time recognizing that people are subject to setbacks. She gives the readers hope that, through perseverance and self-discipline, it is possible to achieve an ultimate union with God (Ahlgren, & Seelaus, 2007).
As Teresa was growing up, she saw martyrdom as the only way to heaven. Throughout her childhood, she enjoyed reading about the lives of the saints. Such readings inspired her spiritually and made her desire to go to heaven quickly, to experience the wonderful things she had read about. In her teens, Teresa would occasionally read spiritual books to her uncle. These books would inspire her, but there was one that greatly touched her soul, The Letters of St. Jerome. This book encouraged and motivated her to enter a monastery of Carmelite nuns at the age of twenty (Erickson, & Hustad, 2001). Later, Teresa became so very sick. As a result, she was paralyzed for three years. This did not deter her from believing and trusting in God. She continued reading scriptures and letters of Apostles. She gained a lot of spiritual knowledge from these books. Among the books that influenced her most was The Third Alphabet, written by Francisco de Osuna. It is from this book that she learned about the prayer of recollection. Another book was a translation of Moralia by Plutarch, which helped her view her hard times, especially her sickness positively (Teresa, Peers, & Silverio, 1946). All these aspects contributed to the growth of Teresa’s spiritual life during her early ages.
During the sixteenth century, Spain experienced political and spiritual growth. Teresa contributed greatly to Carmelite spirituality. She was a reformer and her strong personality left a powerful message for the Carmelite way of life (Avila, S.T., 2002). She wrote on elements that suited the Carmelite spirituality.
The Interior Castle is considered to be one of the best treatises of Christian literature. It discusses the seven mansions a Christian passes through before unifying with God in the last mansion. To achieve this goal, one must detach from worldly things and work on things that praise God. Prayer is mandatory for one to attain friendship with God. The seven mansions prompt the reader to ask him/herself whether Teresa is teaching that there are 7 stages in spiritual growth or the mansions are symbolic. In this book, Teresa states that there are much more mansions; some are within the major seven, while others are above and below. A committed effort is required for one to progress through the entire stages of the Interior Castle, and reach the ultimate goal (McFarland, 2009). Teresa asserts that her goal is to reach the final stage and unity with God. She guides the reader with what response one must undertake the journey from the beginning to the end. Describing the first mansions, Teresa emphasizes that her writing is about the power flowing from the interior of the soul where God dwells to all His people. She addresses her story to her sisters, and hence, to ordinary people. She stresses on the importance of prayers and meditation, as the major elements to spiritual growth. She says that souls without prayer are similar to people whose bodies are paralyzed; they breathe but cannot move (Teresa, 2007).
Under the first mansions, she also describes the three meditative prayers, which are repeated throughout the entire story. One of this is the ‘prayer of recollection’, where methods and techniques applied are important. Then there is the ‘prayer of quiet’ that develops in the Fourth Mansions. Another meditative prayer is the ‘prayer of union’, which is found in the Seventh Mansions (Myss, 2008). When praying, people not only seek the experience of God for its own sake, but in order that He may bless men’s/women’s lives for people to thrive and grow. One who believes in God must experience virtues, such as faith, hope and love. These virtues should keep on developing and growing stronger. If there is no such growth, then something must be wrong. A person should see benefits in his/her prayers, and if this does not happen, the motive for the person to pray should be analyzed. This is no purpose in praying if one can’t receive benefits from it. Teresa stresses on self knowledge; one cannot have progress in spiritual life unless he/she contemplates in his/her inner soul. Self-knowledge and humility, according to Teresa, are among elements essential at the beginning of a spiritual journey.
In relation to present day, self-knowledge is about honesty, self-acceptance, courage and confidence; Teresa (2007) states, “Surely, if you understand your own natures, it is impossible that you will not strive to remove the pitch which blackens the crystal?” The first mansion awakens one’s spiritual life and shapes requirements to start the rigorous journey, i.e. prayer and meditation. Teresa establishes the foundation of spiritual life, emphasizing on the need of prayer, self-knowledge, and meditation.
When it comes to the Second and the Third Mansions, Teresa takes the reader through a journey where the soul is anxious to get further into the castle and experience God’s holiness. The person becomes aware of the reality of God, as prayer and meditation form the central part of life. The greater focus and attention are put on God. Much of this awareness is facilitated by outside sources, such as the Bible and Holy books (Teresa, Chaliha, & Le, 1997). In life, people get to know more about God through sermons, talking to good people, reading good articles and other ways, through which God calls people. Teresa (2007) encourages people not to lose faith when traveling to the last mansion, and to be persevering, “If, then, you sometimes fail, do not lose heart, or cease striving to make progress, for even out of your fall God will bring good, just as a man selling an antidote will drink poison before he takes it in order to prove its power.”
The Third Mansion requires selfless devotion and love. Love for God and others is important as it enables one to follow God’s and do goodness to others. As a person moves through the stages, his/her spiritual life becomes important and one prioritizes more on the good and positive things in life. What used to be important before, i.e. the earthly things, are overtaken by spiritual treasures. God, in turn, is ready to help a man/woman of faith, the only thing a we should do is, “… make a real effort: let us leave our reason and our fears in His hands and let us forget the weakness of our nature which is apt to cause us so much worry” (Teresa, 2007). The elements set out in these three mansions are the building foundations of the journey to unifying with God.
The Fourth Mansions lead one to deep encounter with God. The Holy Spirit fills the souls of the believers transforming their lives. A person is able to understand the gifts that God has given people, and they speak and live according to them. Teresa writes about prayer by using the image of water; she uses water fountains and basins to demonstrate the different stages of prayer. By using this metaphor, she differentiates two distinct states of prayer; the active prayer and the quiet prayer. According to Teresa, these experiences come from God and not from within a soul. This stage is God given, and God decides what to do with the man. Teresa asserts, “We are His, sisters; may He do with us as He will and lead us along whatever way He pleases” (2007).
From the Fifth Mansions onwards, Teresa describes the experiences of uniting with God. According to her, it is not necessary for everyone to experience all levels of the mansion, it depends on an individual’s soul; one can experience the delights of the spiritual life without even entering the mansion. In the fifth stage, one enters into a union with God, “Soul has now delivered itself into His hands and His great love has so completely subdued it that it neither knows nor desires anything save that God shall do with it what He wills” (Teresa, 2007). The soul experiences intense union with the divine Creator away from the earthly desires. One feels a lot of joy and satisfaction through the Holy Spirit and fills being truly converted into the spiritual life through prayers and actions.
In the sixth mansion, Teresa describes ways in which God awakes the soul through visions. Some distinct characteristics about this stage are; strong understanding of God; stronger love for God and humanity; feeling God’s presence and doing good to others. In this chapter, Teresa writes about various trials, which a soul goes through before uniting with God. “Oh, my God, how great are these trials, which the soul will suffer, both within and without, before it enters the seventh Mansion!” (Teresa, 2007). Among the trials is the ‘dark night of the spirit’. She writes on how one has to pass through challenging trials in dark times of faith. At the end of this chapter, she gives guidelines on how to cope with these trials, and how to determine whether one is on the right path towards uniting with God.
It is at the seventh mansion that the soul finally achieves the ultimate goal of being in union with God. At this stage, the soul is called to enter completely into the centre of faith, “…when the Lord begins to reveal the contents of this Mansion and brings souls into it, they lose the great weakness which was such a trial to them and of which previously they could not rid themselves” (Teresa, 2007). The soul is brought into this stage by means of intellectual vision developed from within; the soul finally understands the mystery of the Holy Trinity. It reaches a point when the mystical union is established. In an attempt to accept the mystical union with God, the soul achieves the progressive interiority and gets into a state of complete surrender into the hands of God. At this state, the soul does not rest in God’s vision, as it will do in heaven but, attains a permanent union with God in spiritual life. The person returns to the world to produce good fruit through his/her actions and in accordance with God’s will. The most important effect of the union is to love God and love the neighbors. This, according to the Bible, is the fundamental commandment of the Christian faith.
Teresa’s experience talks of the living God and provides a way, through which a person achieves holiness even if they don’t go through the mansions.
The purpose of the essay was to establish whether the message of Teresa is still relevant to Christians of the twenty-first century. The spirituality in modern society is fueled by the recognition of an ongoing search of awareness. Spirituality has become a discipline on its own right, independent from theology. Today, the world is characterized by technological development, political maturity, and modernized religious groups. As a result, spirituality no longer signifies Christians, but applies to all souls wishing to lead spiritual lives. People regard spirituality as an experience rather than a set of rules.
Teresa takes the stages of becoming a servant of God as her goal in the Interior Castle. She makes the willingness to serve God a function of self-knowledge rather than emotion. The soul, as Teresa represents in her book, enters into the enjoyment of loving God, and, finally, the soul begins to experience the delights of spiritual life (Teresa, 1983). Once the soul finds God, it becomes used to seeking Him all the time through the work of the will; the soul no longer works with the intellect but on its own understanding. In the first 3 stages of natural experience, Teresa considers understanding to be the principal working element, while in the final four stages, she leaves understanding to explore the role of memory.
Recent analyses of the Interior Castle seek to find out why Teresa does not provide a comparison between the soul and a castle. She does not write about the analogy of the castle, but she relies on other analogies: the soul as a crystal and diamond; as silkworm, turtle, and hedgehog. The question that I frequently ask myself is whether we should consider our soul to be like a castle made out of a diamond or from very clear crystals, in which there are many mansions, just as in heaven there are many dwelling places. This is because the soul of a good, loving, and caring person is nothing else but a dwelling where the Lord finds His delight. In her work, Teresa describes the rooms of the castle, which she says to correspond to the dwelling places in heaven, the most important aspect in her comparison. God's dwelling place represents the innermost room of the soul. The wall surrounding the castle maybe assumed to represent the body, in which the soul rests inside.
The crystal or diamond, Teresa introduces, signifies the building material for the castle, and contributes vital features to Teresa's description of the soul. She describes the God’s dwelling place to be in the centre, unlike the traditional belief which locates God at the top of the castle's highest tower (Teresa, 1976). The crystal is considered to be an entity that emits light rather than reflects it. She emphasizes that its God's communication that guards the soul. There is a Sun in the interior of the soul, from which a bright light is sent to the mansions. Teresa identifies understanding as the element responsible for exploring the nature of the soul. She says there is nothing comparable to the beauty of a soul and its vital capacity. People’s intellects can hardly comprehend the power of a soul, just as they cannot comprehend God. In the first three mansions, Teresa defines the object of understanding as self-knowledge (Olson, 2002). If one does not use the element of understanding to acquire God’s knowledge then ignorance makes him/her fall from the spiritual path. It’s so unfortunate that, through a person’s own thinking, people don't understand themselves.
The path towards achieving union with God is rough and challenging. Anyone willing to achieve it must first have a will, and dedicate his life to Godly things. Prayers and meditation are vital elements during the first stages of the spiritual path (Seelaus, 2007). One should seek knowledge of God’s work, so as to love Him and create a relationship with Him. The important message from this book that can be of relevance to our contemporary world is to love God and our neighbors. The mansions in Teresa’s books are a reflection of how people live their lives. There are people in the society who lead lives according to the good teachings of the Bible. Such people are on a higher stage as compared to those who cause harm and oppress the others. Finally, the research has shown that the mystical union with God is open to all people, but not all respond to it as the mystics do. Teresa explains that one is able to progress through the mansions as a result of his or her effort. God’s happiness is to build union with all people. Teresa’s experience gives confidence to present day believers, because her reflections speak of the living God directs each person along the spiritual life. Everyone can achieve God’s holiness through commitment and acknowledging the work of the Holy Spirit in their life.