Thursday, 2 September 2021

A talk on Ruth Burrow’s book on Saint Teresa’s Interior Castle

 This is the text of a Carmelite Conversation, given on Wednesday 4 November 2020 by Bernadette Micallef 

Ruth Burrows is the pen name of Sr Rachel OCD, a nun of the Carmelite monastery in Quidenham, England, and the author of more than a dozen books on prayer and the mystical life. Describing the ruling insight that runs throughout all her writings, she says: “God offers himself in total love to each one of us. Our part is to open our hearts to receive the gift.” [CathNews 27 July 2020]

To begin today’s session, we pray that God uses it to open our hearts more fully to receive the gift of God’s love. This process is essentially what Teresa’s Interior Castle describes – the process of growth – of opening up to receive God more and more fully. It describes the spiritual journey which we are all on, with and toward God.

Today, we’ll be using Ruth Burrows’ book to explore this process. The presentation will be in two parts, with conversation after each part.

In the introduction to her book Ruth says: “If I succeed in my aim, this book will have a twofold character; it will indeed be a commentary on St Teresa’s Interior Castle, and someone should be able to read that work slowly, turn to this one and find every important point elucidated; at the same time, if it is a true re-presentation of that classic, then it should stand in its own right as a useful guide to a life of union with God.”

The aim of this conversation today is to share Ruth Burrows’ insight into Teresa’s work, as a useful guide to our own life of union with God; to entice you to read those insight firsthand and then read or re-read Teresa’s Interior Castle.

Why this order?

If you go to Teresa’s writings first, it can be confusing, with talk of favours and visions and raptures and other such experiences. Ruth has sorted out some confusions that Teresa herself could not sort out. Ruth writes about her own journey in coming to a place of critical evaluation of Teresa’s writings – whilst maintaining her great respect for Teresa, Ruth recognizes her limitations, and writes, “perhaps now and then she was mistaken; or even that she did not express herself clearly and was not always consistent! Dare one question that perhaps the intellectual, theological, literary tools available were often inadequate and clumsy for what she was trying to communicate.” There’s quite a lot in the book about Ruth’s personal journey in this regard, and critical evaluation is an underlying theme.


Overview of the Interior Castle

For those perhaps not familiar with the concept of the Interior Castle, I’ll begin with an overview. Please excuse the male pronoun for God in both Teresa’s and Ruth’s writing, and the non-inclusive language. I’d rather stick to their text than attempt to alter it to suit our sensitivities.

Teresa writes in the Prologue, “Not many things that I have been ordered to do under obedience have been as difficult for me as is this present task of writing about prayer. ... May He, in whose mercy I trust and who has helped me in other more difficult things so as to favor me, do this work for me.” She begins by introducing the image of the castle with these words, “Today, while beseeching Our Lord to speak for me, ... there came to my mind what I shall now speak about, that which will provide us with a basis to being with. ... It is that we consider our soul to be like a castle made entirely out of a diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in heaven there are many dwelling places.” She goes on, “I don’t find anything comparable to the magnificent beauty of a soul and its marvellous capacity. Indeed, our intellects, however keen, can hardly comprehend it, just as they cannot comprehend God; but He himself says that He created us in His own image and likeness. (Genesis 1:26-27)”

What do these short extracts tell us?

Firstly, Teresa is writing about Prayer – and remember her definition of prayer is “an intimate conversation between friends.” So she is writing ABOUT PRAYER and seeking an analogy for THE SOUL. By ‘the soul’ she simply means that dimension or essence really of each of us, that has the capacity to be in relationship with God. That’s what the soul is and she is concerned with the soul’s growth to full CAPACITY which enables union with God.

In summary, in the Interior Castle, Teresa is talking about the growth to full capacity of the soul – growth toward becoming fully human. She describes this growth within us, as a movement through seven dwelling places or mansions, where the seventh, the most hidden and interior, is the place of full and permanent union with God.

I’m reminded of that quote from Rahner, “Jesus was so fully human he was divine.”

We’ll explore this further but I’d like to consider this image of the castle, a little more, first.


The Castle Image

The Spanish word morada, which Teresa used, means a place where one lives: a dwelling, abode, home. It is an allusion to John 14. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. 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, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

The Greek word in John 14, Ruth writes, which is “usually translated as mansion or dwelling place, can equally mean a staging-inn, a place where travellers may stop for a while as they journey. Such stopping places would be along frequented routes. Jesus could well be saying that, ‘with my Father, there are many such staging-inns, I am going away to make it possible for you to use them all, to pass from one to another until you reach the “dwelling place” where I am, the Father’s heart.’ (7-8)

However, Teresa writes, “You mustn’t think of these dwelling places in such a way that each one would follow in file after the other; but turn your eyes toward the center, which is the room or royal chamber where the King stays, and think of how a pal-met-to has many leaves surrounding and covering the tasty part that can be eaten. So here, surrounding this center room are many other rooms; ...” (IC I:2:8)

Perhaps an artichoke is similar in structure to the palmetto that Teresa mentions. It might be a helpful image. I think her point is that the rooms are more complex than a linear progression. But although God dwells at the centre, Ruth reminds us that “ It can never be said too often that God is always present, always bestowing himself in the measure that he can be received.” (11) So it’s not that the outer rooms are beyond God’s reach. God is always present, always bestowing love. What is distinctive about each of the dwelling places is our growing capacity to receive that love.


The Soul – a for-Godness – being human

Despite Teresa dualistic language about body and soul, Ruth tells us, “What we have to do is see what Teresa is really saying about the soul. She is saying that it is for God; it is a capacity for God; he is its centre and all its beauty is because of him. This soul, this castle of immeasurable beauty and capacity is ourselves.” (6)

“Man, to use the classical expression, is a capacity for God. Unlike every other form of life that we know of, he does not come into the world ready made. ... he comes into existence insofar as he consents to be what he is, a ‘for-Godness’.” (7)

 “[God] calls into existence what is not and calls into fuller existence what is. ... Only [humans have] the power to respond to God, consciously to answer the call. The ability to hear the call and to answer it, is what makes [us human].” (9)

Ruth re-iterates this point over and over. It is the ruling insight that runs through all her writings. “God offers himself in total love to each one of us. Our part is to open our hearts to receive the gift.”

Again, “This divine call is what constitutes man.” (10) and “This is what makes us human beings.” (11)

Despite the beauty and complexity of other parts of creation, humans are the only part of God’s creation that have the capacity to participate with God in the making of ourselves.



I’ve tried to represent in a diagram what Ruth and Teresa are saying about this capacity and our participation in becoming human.

Although I have shown a movement outward from the self, and the Castle has a movement inward to God it is essentially the same movement – a growth away for the self toward God.

This is the spiritual journey – a growth in the capacity to receive God – this is becoming like Jesus – so fully human he was divine. This is what being human means.


Part Two

We’re now going to look at what is distinctive about each of the seven mansions and get to the key contribution Ruth Burrows’ makes in understanding Teresa’s writings – especially in the later mansions.

Teresa starts with the outer courtyard – before even entering the castle and tells us, “Those in the courtyard are so accustomed to being involved in external matters that they cannot enter within themselves. She writes, Insofar as I can understand, the door of entry to this castle is prayer and reflection.” (IC:I:1:7) Prayer and reflection is how we turn to an inner life. However, we enter the first rooms letting in some reptiles, bringing with us all the external matters that fill our lives and hearts, worldliness, and self-interest.

In these first rooms – the rooms of self-knowledge, “We have to be honest with ourselves and often accept to bite the dust, but the best way to acquire self-knowledge is not by endless poking into ourselves, trying to turn over this stone then that to see what reptiles lurk beneath, but by looking constantly at Jesus Christ our Lord.” (19) Teresa says, “we shall never completely know ourselves if we don’t strive to know God.” (IC:I:2:9) For Teresa, knowing ourselves, or self-knowledge, is synonymous with humility. And humility is truth. The truth of who we are in relation to God. She writes, “For humility, like the bee making honey in the beehive, is always at work. Without it, everything goes wrong. But let’s remember that the bee doesn’t fail to leave the beehive and fly about gathering nectar from the flowers.” She urges the soul to fly to ponder God. “Here it will discover its lowliness [its truth] better than by thinking of itself, and be free from the vermin that enter the first rooms, those of self-knowledge.” (IC:I:2:8)

In the second rooms, Ruth writes, “Though still very weak, the resolution [to give themselves to God] is there and it is earnestness which distinguishes this mansion from the previous one. ... Imperceptibly, they have become more faithful as the years have passed, more charitable, more truthful, more reliable. What they would call ‘saying their prayers’ has become a much deeper reality, ...” (20)

“We must resolve to seek God and not ourselves. It is this that makes perseverance really hard ...  unless we make up our minds from the start to embrace the cross we shall never get anywhere. “(25) Teresa tells us, “These rooms require much more effort than do the first, ...” (IC:2:1:2)

The third rooms can be a false goal. Ruth writes, “It is because this state seems so good and exemplary, that it is a stumbling block to true holiness. Too often this third mansion in real life is taken to be the summit of the spiritual life: it tends to satisfy us and those around us yet it is far from what Christianity is all about. ...” Ruth explains the internal dynamics at work at in these rooms. “We reduce God to our own likeness,  ... we feel he hates our ugliness. Therefore we can’t afford to be ugly, we have to hide it from ourselves and so we bury it all deep down; we bury the gnawing doubts and fears, and manage to achieve a state of relative self-satisfaction. Our seemingly excellent behaviour gives support to this self-satisfaction. It is of enormous consequence to us that we behave well, that our thoughts, desires, actions are those of a ‘spiritual person’. Tremendous inner energies are at work to produce this ‘perfection’ which has in fact nothing to do with real growth.

What has happened is that the roots of our basic selfishness have been left untouched. This selfishness takes ever more subtle forms which ... do not cause the humiliation and shame of grosser manifestations. This is the danger Teresa is alive to.” (28-29)

Fear of the Lord is a topic Teresa addresses in these mansions, and Ruth writes, “Fear of the Lord means we have a keen realisation that only his judgements matter.” (29) Teresa is writing to her nuns who have “left the world” but only externally – they can still be attached to wealth and honour, other people’s esteem of them – subtle forms of attachment to self. Teresa writes in the Way of Perfection, “Humility and detachment from self are two sister who cannot be separated.” (WP X)

Like the rich man in the gospel, attached to his riches, it IS possible to turn back at this stage.


The fourth rooms – beginning of direct encounter with God

This encounter is referred to in various ways but they all means the same thing – supernatural prayer, infused contemplation, mystical contemplation. Here, Teresa  says, we ‘begin to touch the supernatural’. (IC 4:1:1) It is here too that we come to Ruth’s new insights into Teresa’s writing. In chapter four Ruth writes again about her personal struggle to make sense of the mystical tradition in the way it was classically presented, and to relate it to real life. She writes, “My conviction is that anything that can be described, given an account of, simply cannot be the mystical encounter itself. ... the mystical encounter is precisely a direct encounter with God himself. ... earlier forms of prayer are ‘indirect’: God speaking, communicating, etc. through ‘natural’ channels, in the ‘ordinary’ way.” (37-38)

Ordinary ways are through the senses, by means of good conversations, sermons, books, good thoughts and feelings, sickness, trials and other events of life. (21) These are all indirect contact.

However, infused or mystical contemplation is God in direct contact; “... When we insist that this encounter with God himself, must, of its nature, bypass, or transcend our material faculties we are saying that it must be ‘secret’ John of the Cross insists on this ‘from the intellect that receives it.’ (37-38) He says this encounter must be secret from the intellect that receives it – secret, hidden, received, not earned. “If we strip to the bone what both Teresa and John have to say of the gift, [of infused contemplation] we find; it is pure gift, something we can never achieve for ourselves ...! ... It is something entirely new. It is not a deepening of what has gone before, an increasing expertise, not a continuation, but a break... It is, as already said, a direct encounter with God. It purifies and transforms.” (42)

Ruth asks, “Do we not see that this is just what the new Testament is telling us of the Father’s promise: the ‘kingdom of God’ in the synoptics, ‘eternal life’ in John, living with the life of Christ is Paul.” (43)

“Is not the whole theme of the gospel of John that of something, wholly new breaking into the world of men, something divine, something from, heaven, a direct encounter with God such as has not been before, and which man, of himself, can never attain or dream of? (44)

What point is Ruth making here? I think she is saying, do we not see that this direct encounter with God is what ALL Christians are called to? And yet, in the tradition of the Church, ‘mystics,’ are set apart as extraordinary, uncommon, different from the rest of us.


Four different experiences of union with God

The Interior Castle is Teresa’s  spiritual masterpiece – four of the seven mansions report intimate experiences of God’s presence. She presents the goal of the spiritual life as union with God in the seventh mansion. To be so transformed into his own image and likeness so as to allow such a union.

What about Therese of Lisieux? Did she reach union with God, in her lifetime? She never reported visions or ecstasies.

Or Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, (Edith Stein)? She wrote almost nothing about her personal experience of prayer. Although others testify that she spent long hours completely absorbed in prayer.

Or Saint Teresa of Calcutta? Many people were shocked to discover in her diaries that she lived in darkness for much of her life.

They are all canonized saints, which in my understanding means the Church has declared that we know that they have reached union with God after their death, BECAUSE of the life they lived which revealed that they had reached union with God in this life. Teresa was the only one to speak of such mystical experiences. So, what does this tell us about union with God?

Ruth Burrows introduces the concept of ‘light on’ to explain what was different about Teresa. She has previous written about this is Guidelines for Mystical Prayer. She writes here, “The ‘light on’ experience is not the mystical grace itself, it reveals it. What it does is precisely to illuminate the mystical happening which, of itself, is secret. ... In Teresa’s case, its function seems to have been to reveal her own soul to herself, enabling her to see God’s action in her. What we have to grasp is that this gift, puts a person in a class apart – their experience is fundamentally different from ours. It is a very rare gift and all of us do well to take  from granted we are ‘light off’ no matter how great our psychic perception and consequent ‘spiritual favours’.”  (48 & 49) Ruth emphasises that “Unless we accept the reality of this mysterious phenomenon operating in Teresa, we cannot understand her writing.” (49) “The confusion of the human psyche with the theological, biblical concept of soul or spirit is common, and is the source of our misunderstandings [of spiritual experiences – of what is a divine act and what is a human act.]” (46) “It is possible to have most lofty ‘spiritual experiences’, and yet be a mere embryo when it comes to capacity for God.” (47) “[Spiritual experiences] never proves the divine touch; it is when we think they do that all sorts of illusions and dangers follow.” (52)


Signs of growth on the spiritual journey

So how can we, light-off people, understand these experiences, if they are present, in ourselves or others, and perceive our own growth on the spiritual journey?

Teresa says, right back in the third mansion, “If these favors are from God they come brimming over with love and fortitude by which you can journey with less labor and grow in the practice of works and virtues.” (IC 3:2:11)

In the fourth mansion she writes, “In sum, there is an improvement in all the virtues. [The soul] will continue to grow if it doesn’t turn back now to offending God ... It must persevere ...  for in this perseverance lies all our good.” (IC 4:3:9)

In the fifth, Teresa introduced the image of the silkworm, the death of the self in the cocoon of God’s love. It is no longer possible to turn back – an irrevocable choice of self-surrender is made. Ruth says, “What Teresa calls the ‘prayer of union’ is the moment of definitive decision.” (81) Within such lofty experiences, Teresa tells us what is important, “... works are what the Lord wants! ... if we fail to love our neighbor we are lost.” (IC 5:3:11 & 12)

In the sixth, a transitory union is experienced which can be compared to bringing together two candle flames. Momentarily the two are one, wax, wick, flame. But they can be separated. (113)

To receive such experiences, Teresa says, “I tell you there is need for more courage than you think.” It leaves in the soul  “little esteem of earthly things save those that can be used for the service of so great a God.”(IC 6:5:10) Elsewhere she writes about courage. To have courage for whatever comes in life – everything lies in that.” To have courage for whatever comes in the spiritual life – whatever experiences or lack of experiences, whatever insights we may have into our own growth or whatever lack of insights. Ruth insists, “If we have faith, surely we know that God gives himself without measure and we can't attempt to gauge the depth of the giving by our totally inadequate plumb lines of sense (what we feel).” (41)


The seventh mansions represent union with God – a mutual and permanent abiding

Ruth writes in summary, “By choosing to open ourselves to God, to obey the summons to life more abundant, uncoiling from our self-centred embryonic state, we become what we are, what we are meant to be, ‘He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ (Eph 1:5)... to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God’ (Eph 3:19). God infallibly gives himself to the wanting openness and in this gift we become ourselves. ...  Only when we are God-filled are we truly human.” (112)

“It is no longer a question of a passing contact with the king dwelling in the centre; this is a mutual and permanent abiding, Lover in the beloved. There can be such an abiding only when the full potentiality of the creature has been realised, by God communicating himself to it and the creature responding in love and surrender. Thus the inmost room is nothing but the full growth of the creature. This mansion is no staging inn but the end of the long journey; it is home. ‘I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am you may be with me.’ (John 14:3)” (112-113)

“This is the mystery: man is that being who only becomes himself when he has surrendered totally to God; only when he is lost to himself is he fully there.” (115) Re-visiting the earlier diagram, we can see that mystical union with God is what ALL Christians are called to. It’s what it means to be fully human.

To review the journey, proposed by Teresa and explored by Ruth, let’s return to the diagram.

The spiritual life is a process of becoming human, consenting to be what we are, a ‘for-Godness. Moving from having almost no capacity to receive God to a full capacity – fully human. Ruth says, the seventh mansion is Jesus, he living is us and we in him, the perfection of marriage. (110)

We began this session with a prayer that God uses it to open our hearts more fully to receive the gift of God’s love, to participate in the making of ourselves. Perhaps we could take a moment to notice what has happened within us during this presentation.


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