In her exquisite book, The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila employs the illustration of a castle filled with many rooms carved from precious gems as a metaphor for the soul.
On how she came to this vision of the soul as a diamond fortress, she writes, “I can find nothing with which to compare the great beauty of the soul and its great capacity… [for God Himself says] He created us in His image and likeness. Now if this is so – and it is – there is no point in our fatiguing ourselves by attempting to comprehend the beauty of this castle…the very fact that His Majesty made it in His image means that we can hardly form any conception of the soul’s great dignity and beauty” (15).
As an ascetic nun Saint Teresa was a recluse set apart from the world by vocation, as Emily Dickenson was by choice. However, unlike Dickinson who struggled with worldly preoccupations, Teresa of Avila wrestled internally with her human failings and her perception of herself as unworthy in the sight of God. Although she knew the soul to be precious and beautiful because it is made in God’s image, she was always keenly aware of the hideous affects of sin that cannot be pleasing to him.
She writes to her sisters in Christ, “As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness, by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble” (23).
When we enter the contemplative life and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us ever deeper into the chambers of the interior castle of our souls, we will be confronted with aspects of our fleshly selves where, in comparison to the purity of Christ, we discover that traits and behaviors we once freely identified with have become worthless. As Paul said, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8 ESV).
Saint Teresa spoke of battling to overcome such thoughts as “’Are people looking at me or not?’ ‘If I take a certain path shall I come to any harm?’ ‘Dare I begin such and such a task?’ ‘Is it pride that is impelling me to do so?’ ‘Can anyone as wretched as I engage in so lofty an exercise as prayer?’ ‘Will people think better of me if I refrain from following the crowd?’” Until she cries out, “Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls the devil must have ruined in this way!” (23).
Sound familiar? These questions were written over four hundred years ago, and we still wrestle with them today.
In order to find the answer to this age-old dilemma, we must go back even further.
Writing to the church in Rome, Paul said, For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19 ESV).
Until he becomes so frustrated with this struggle that he cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:24 ESV).
But God opened for us a new chapter, declaring: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (8:1 KJV).
Romans 8 goes on to tell us that we who are in Christ Jesus, who are guided by his Holy Spirit, are dead to sin because we are no longer under the law and alive to Christ because we are made righteous in him by God’s grace. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:5-6 ESV).
We cannot find peace if our minds are set on the things of the flesh. Yes, this means that as with Emily Dickinson, if we continually resist Christ’s call to come to him - and not the world – for all we need; and as with Saint Teresa, if we resist the grace of God in Christ, refusing to claim our righteousness in him, clinging to our sinful nature which is under the law, we cannot abide in the secret place of God and find rest under the shadow of his wings because we are working against him and not with him.
We will never find hope in the world or in the works of our flesh, no matter how alluring or well-intentioned.
But God has made a way of escape from these things, and that way is himself. Jesus said,
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (ESV).
Avila, Teresa. The Interior Castle. Ed. & Trans. E. Allison Peers. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2007. Print.
Dickinson, Emily. The Seagull Book of Poems. 4th ed. Ed. Joseph Kelly. 79 - 83. New York: Norton, 2018. Print.