Monday, September 20, 2010

St. Teresa of Avila's Third Mansions-Detachment and Transition

No chapters have been more difficult for me than St. Teresa of Avila's writing about the third mansions. These chapters are less “cut and dried,” contain almost no imagery, and St. Teresa makes several digressions from the main topic. In addition, the teachings were confusing to me because it went so far against my suppositions about spirituality and of what I have been taught about fear. Therefore, I read very carefully many times over and reflected more than usual on each section to achieve a sense of clarity.

She begins by referring back to the first two mansions, discussing, “how good it is to walk in fear.” This “threw me” because I have long believed that to be spiritual is to avoid fear and fear-based thinking. However, I began to see the role and place for fear in the early work. I'm not sure it can be avoided anyway, for a beginner in contemplative prayer and meditation. So, it was reassuring that the fear can indeed be a friend and guide.

In the same early chapter, St. Teresa writes, “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 much worry.” Because of this, I believe the third mansions are a transitional stage, one in which we are moving away from the need for fear in our journey. St. Teresa writes that occasionally during this time of transition we sometimes experience consolation. This is “when he occasionally invites up to see what is happening in the other mansions so that we may prepare to enter them.”

Stranger still, she describes who we can learn from. She says, "Select a man completely disillusioned with the things of this world." For me, this was beautiful, as I reflected on my own disillusionment at times. We can look ahead to the stories of fulfillment and peace from they who have been disillusioned and continued onward to reap rewards.

St. Teresa writes about how detachment is learned at this stage. There is commonly much frustration and restlessness “for they cannot do as they would like to do and control their feelings all at once.” In addition to this frustration, St. Teresa writes about “aridity” in prayer, which is a dry, parched feeling that feels unfulfilling. During this time, she suggests that we “not focus on our weakness,” but build our sense of inner security in God with or without consolation. From our past fear and defensiveness comes security, although the fear initially serves a good purpose.

St. Teresa has written The Interior Castle about her own experience as well as the experiences she has observed in her developing nuns, whose growth she nurtured. I felt distrustful of these passages, and continued to feel perplexed. Part of this was because I had previously read, Teresa of Avila-Progress of a Soul, a biography by Cathleen Medwick. In this book, I read how St. Teresa regularly fell into ecstacies, of which both Teresa and the Church were skeptical and they wondered if came from a demonic source. Other nuns reportedly witnessed her levitate while in prayer on certain occasions. Josef Breuer, a colleague of Sigmund Freud, referred to her as the “patron saint of hysteria.”

How odd it struck me that someone like this would spend so many years plodding so soberly through these first three difficult mansions! Clearly, as I have read this outline of the spiritual journey, I realized it was not about what we call the “woo-woo” experiences of spirituality today. Sometimes, I reflect on her experiences in these first three mansions, and they look anguishingly boring and difficult. She does not suggest we “meditate on love” or try to make ourselves feel good. It's an undertaking of steel commitment. I thought about Breuer and wondered just how deeply he had studied St. Teresa before coming to his conclusion. As I reflected on these things, I was assured by how how much I can trust St. Teresa. This realization is on my own accord, and not of external confirmation, such as how she became the first female “Doctor of the Church” in history.

Thus, my perspective was changed. I began to pray, as St. Teresa did: “The happiness we should pray for is the complete security of the blessed.” In learning to detach from fear and desire, and to focus on patience on our process, for so long as it shall take, we begin to find security in that which is beyond good feelings, negative feelings or the lack of feelings. Through allowing ourselves to be tested as we grow in this security, the doors begin to open to the fourth mansions.


  1. I don't think there's any organized direction in this Christianity you seem to be trying to define and understand. In reality, Christianity is a collection of texts and individuals trying to interpret complex and always contradictory messages. How one makes sense of that??? I don't think it's possible because it's not cohesive and is usually pretty abstract as to even what the author, known, or unknown was originally trying to communicate. You've bitten off a chunk trying to elucidate something which has no logic or direction, IMHO. Good luck with it. I do find your discourse interesting, but as a friend, I would say Christian Text is not ever going to make sense or serve as a practical guide to spiritual enlightenment or a sense of self-peace. Christianity is a dead religion, IMHO; it should be left laying dead and forgotten where it belongs. - Ronni

  2. I like The Interior Castle. I've read it many times myself. For me, one of its beauties is its honesty in the non-linear journey of the soul. Anybody looking for a linear, logical, rational approach to spirituality will be sorely disappointed after reading this book.

    The spiritual journey is often if not always an irrational and illogical mess of thoughts and feelings that directly confront the the self serving order of the ego. The journey through the interior is certainly not organized yet quite directed. In spite of the soul's constant two steps forward one step back it is still certainly directed. The ego prides itself on its organization over it's direction. It will march off in a certain direction even if it's off a cliff before it admits that it's nice, neat, tidy organization is getting it nowhere at best and marching it off in the wrong direction at worst. The best laid plans of mice and men are most often undone by their ego's self satisfaction in how rational, logical and organized their ideology is. Any ego waiting for the one airtight rational and logically organized set of directions for attaining enlightenment will be forever mired in man made natural religion or any other "ism" man so carefully devises and organizes.

    Odin said that a word leads to word. He didn't say what word leads to what other word. Jesus said that if we ask we shall receive. He didn't say what to ask for nor what we will receive. Not very organized but still directed. Set out on the journey not clinging to the ego's demand for rational causality and see what happens.

    Christianity makes as much sense as a Zen Koan or that to not speak of the Dao is to have it while naming it means losing it yet needing to name it to communicate it to others but to communicate it to others is to lose it and communicate nothing of it. Christianity is no more dead than is Buddhism or Daoism.

    Spirituality does not conform to the organizational demands of the ego any more than the sun revolves around the earth merely because it appears so to our physical senses. Claiming the sun rises and sets for millenia doesn't make it so. Spirituality asks us to let go of our nice, neat and tidy ego organization and see what happens.