The Interior Castle, by Teresa of Avila
In my reading of Christian contemplative texts , one tends to find some patterns that reappear over and over again. For one, those who view Christian mysticism most highly tend to have a strong degree of support for either or both Roman Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity, as it is within these traditions that one finds the most people devoted to the contemplative life. It seems rather puzzling to me that this book would be regarded so highly, although it is a somewhat rambling and very modest work that demonstrates an awareness the larger context of works in this tradition and also inspired many. It doesn’t hurt either that the author was an associate of John of the Cross in trying to reform the Carmelite order and make it more rigorous, something that was strongly resisted by most of the order in Spain, which made St. Teresa’s work a bit suspect in the eyes of the cautious Spanish inquisition, the sort of people one did not want to get on the bad side of. As part of a great conversation of people engaged in trying to justify a life of contemplation and mystical connection with God, this book is certainly one full of humility and striking images.
Although this book is a very rambling text–and it is likely even more rambling in its native Spanish–there is a clear structure and intent with this book. It should be noted that the author is writing here at the behest of a favorable figure in the local Catholic hierarchy, one Gratian, and that she is writing to her fellow Carmelite sisters who see her as a sort of spiritual authority. Anyway, the central metaphor, among many, in this book is the interior castle of the soul, of which there are seven layers of rooms starting from the outskirts of the castle where the light of God is barely perceived through stages where moral development is greater but the fundamental resistance of mankind to God’s rule in their lives and the trials that are necessary to refine one’s character become more clearly seen. In some ways, the rambling nature of the book and the author’s obvious diffidence makes this sort of book easier to relate to, as it would be a remarkably difficult book to appreciate if it was written by someone who was self-assured and presented themselves as knowing all about spirituality, whereas the author makes it clear that she struggles to convey what she thinks and believes and has claimed to experience about the mystical connection between God and believers to others through words.
Indeed, that fundamental problem of mysticism is something that deserves a great deal of reflection. Many mystics of whatever faith tradition have as a core tenet the belief that in mystical union with God the identity is transcended, and often there are beliefs about how this connection is ineffable. Yet these people insist on writing about it anyway. One wonders why–why write if the experience cannot be described? Why speak about it and go through such activity to convey one’s own supposed spiritual expertise if one is giving the advice that in order to experience these things one must have a quiet and meditative soul that is in tune with a God far outside of our own comprehension? There are, to be sure, a great many things I disagree with in this book, but I did find much to appreciate as well, and as a writer who tries to appreciate the good more than I deprecate what is lacking, I can see why this book has such a strong appeal for Hellenistic Christians who are trying to justify their own belief system in a mystical union with a God who is already in some kind of mystical union among various persons. Even where there is a lot of error, though, I do appreciate the author and others like her for wrestling with the longing to be at one with God and the knowledge that becoming like Him is a lengthy and difficult process that few are successful in entirely.
 See, for example: