2015 was the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of St Teresa of Avila. Helen Copeland reviews a book about one of her most famous works.
[New City Magazine – October 2015]
Laughing out loud at a book written by a sixteenth century mystic, on prayer. Written by a sixty-two year old nun, for other nuns, in an enclosed order. I’m laughing, and I expect you to believe me?
I haven’t read many books on prayer, but I imagine that Travelling Inwards is unlike any other. Elizabeth Ruth Obbard has presented St Teresa of Avila’s masterpiece, ‘The Interior Castle’, in an accessible and engaging format. She has simplified the text, which is further enlivened by her cheery illustrations. With its contemporary language, this really is a book for everyone.
St Teresa wrote ‘The Interior Castle’ in order to help her Carmelite sisters on their spiritual journey. Far from being a studious theological tract, it is an extended conversation with beloved friends. In fact she intended it to be read out loud, as many of the sisters lacked formal education.
Teresa describes the soul as a diamond castle with many rooms or ‘mansions’, which we walk through in order to reach God who dwells at the centre. Our first humble efforts in prayer take us into the castle, but gradually, if we allow him, God takes over and draws us ever closer.
I loved Teresa’s combination of down to earth advice and immense spiritual insight. She suggests, in effect, that if prayerful tranquillity is evading you, ‘Don’t sit around like an empty-headed ninny’ but go and do an act of love or penance (which could be the same thing!)
Travelling Inwards is full of advice that stands the test of time, but it is based on experience, and importantly, written out of love. So how does a book about travelling deeper within oneself fit with a spirituality of going out to one’s neighbour? Perfectly. Teresa emphasises that love of God and love of neighbour are inextricably bound together, and that our journey to God is not one we make alone. She also maintains that her advice is not just for monks and nuns. ‘Leaving the world’ is just about giving God absolute freedom to act within us.
This is not a long book, but I would suggest that you don’t read it all in one sitting. It would be like rushing through a beautiful forest, and not taking time to appreciate your surroundings or listen to the birds singing. In fact, you may find yourself unable to sit still very long, as ironically, Teresa’s exhortation to put practical love at the basis of prayer will soon have you moving on – physically and/or spiritually.
The Interior Castle, also known as the Book of Mansions, is considered Teresa of Avila’s greatest and most mature explanation of the spiritual journey. For Teresa, growing spiritually is traveling inwards to the centre of our being where God dwells, yet too few set out with resolution to reach the Divine Presence.