Secrets of the interior castle

Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul, by Peter Tyler (Bloomsbury / Continuum, £18.99 / €22.99)

The second reading at Mass on the Sunday I began to read this book was from St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. He speaks of coming among them in “fear and trembling”, but adds that in his talks and sermons there were none of the arguments that belong to philosophy, only a demonstration of the power of the spirit. “And I did this so that your faith should not depend on human philosophy, but on the power of God.”

These words echoed in my mind while read Peter Tylers’ account of the St Teresa of Avila. She was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970, a response to what had been a long held popular view. The anniversary of her birth will be celebrated in 2015 and this book can be seen as in the vanguard of a host of others yet to come.

Teresa of Avila has been the subject of many books, for even in her lifetime she attracted controversy and admiration. This is not a biography, but a study of the saint that draws on all the latest scholarship. It is divided into three parts, dealing with the context of her life and work, the writings themselves culminating in The Interior Castle, and finally a discussion of her wrings in ‘conversations’ with the ideas of both C. G. Jung and of Buddhist ‘mindfulness’, concepts that have proved very influential among both spiritual writers and counsellors. He presents what he calls a “post-modernist” Teresa of Avila.

This may sound very academic, and in its vocabulary is sometime a little technical for the ordinary. I confess I had to look up the meaning of ‘apophasis’, a literary technique of allusion to something while denying it will be discussed.

However, apophasis is an idea central to much of what Teresa wrote. What she does not say, and the elusiveness of what she does say is central to her work. For instance in the Spain of her day much emphasis was placed on true Spanish Christian blood lines. So she claimed such was the case with her family. But what she did not say was that her family were in fact conversos, Spanish Jews who had conformed in repentance to the teachings of the Church. In the era of the Inquisition she had to be careful of what she said and who she quoted. But her way of writing and her personal situation were only part of the influences on her thought. She was also deeply influenced by the ideas of medieval mysticism.

This leads Tyler on to his central discussion of her books, and here he discusses both her difficulty in writing about what she had experienced, its exact natural and spiritual effects, and her search for and approach to God. She for instance found “God walking among the pots and pans” when she had to do her turn of kitchen duty. She did not impose on the world, but found the divine in the world through her experiences. The chapter discussing The Interior Castle, accepted as one of the great spiritual works of Western Christianity, is excellent.

To those who are familiar, even in a small way, with her writings – especially her autobiography – the chapters on her ‘conversations’ with Jung and with the concept of ‘mindfulness’ will be very enriching. We should not be too quick to understand her though.

I suspect they will lead those less familiar back to the writings themselves, which should surely be the aim of any upcoming celebrations.  It is curious to see that the first translation into English of her own story was done in 1611 by an Irish Jesuit, William Malone. 

Today Teresa as a women in the Church will be the centre of even more attention, as Pope Francis has spoken already about renewing the role of women, all too long marginalised by structures that largely male dominated, like Spain and the Inquisition  in the 16th Century. Tyler, however, would prefer that reader experience Teresa not as a Doctor of the Church, but a doctor of the soul. Here we find the echo of St Paul, for Teresa too “your faith should not depend on human philosophy but on the power of God”.

In The Interior Castle Teresa of Avila observes: “The Lord asks of us only two things: love of his Majesty and love of our neighbour. These are what we must work for…the most certain sign, in my opinion, as to whether or not we are observing these two laws is whether we observe well the love of neighbour…the more advanced you see you are in love for your neighbour the more advanced you will be in the love of God.”  

And we all know the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbour?”