A Rationalist Reviews a Mystic: What Could Go Wrong?

The Interior CastleThe Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book took me a really long time to read. It’s not especially dense or complex (although it does get convoluted in some places). The real problem was that, for most of the book, I had little to no common ground with the author’s experience. I kept putting the book down and only decided to finish it in 2016’s Lenten season (which I did not even do, ultimately, missing Easter by about a week).

The reason for this disconnect between me and St. Teresa is this: I’m a fairly practical person. I’m not prone to much in the way of spiritual experience, which has the upside of making my faith pretty rational, and the downside of making it pretty unemotional. So while I readily admit that mysticism is a valid Christian experience for some people–like Teresa of Ávila–it’s not something I have any significant experience with.

So if, like me, you’re looking to read this book as a guide to deepening your faith, it may prove a non-starter if you’re not already open to a more mystical faith.

With that starting caveat, let me present the positives and negatives to this book. (Keep in mind that my negatives may not mean much for you mystics out there.)

Two parts of this book struck me as very good: First, on page 116 of my edition, Teresa provides and important perspective and reminder during the dry periods of our faith. The Lord gives us dry spells as a reminder, she writes, to make us realize that all the good things we have come from Him, which endears us to Him all the more and brings us closer in communion with His will. Too often, we feel abandoned during such times, as though He has left us to suffer to no purpose and with no end, but rather, His distance calls out to us and brings us to pursue Him all the more.

Second, on page 133, Teresa gives us a glimpse of the pain of condemnation, not caused by the torments of hell, but by the sight of our Lord: “I can tell you truly that, wicked as I am, I have never feared the torments of hell, for they seem nothing by comparison with the thought of the wrath which the damned will see in the Lord’s eyes–those eyes so lovely and tender and benign.” That image struck me deeply; God is Love so completely, and in His love, the wretchedness I have done brings forth from His tender eyes such wrath as I cannot imagine. This is a tremendous example of perfect contrition.

A third point works in Teresa’s favor, by my reading, but less well than these first two. Throughout the book, Teresa generally recognizes the philosophical principles of personhood in a way that many people (especially ancient Gnostics and modern pseudo-philosophers) fail to grasp: we are not embodied souls, or ensouled bodies, but a full combination of soul, spirit, and body. The only problem I have with her representation of this is that the parts seem almost divested of one another; a spirit or a soul acting separately from the other, without impact on the body, as if she were sharp enough to divide joints and marrow (Hebrews 4). But this is a small complaint.

Now for my negative points.

Teresa seems to have a general disdain for priests, especially as confessors. At one point (p100) she does laud “learned confessors,” but in general terms (p99, p115) she seems to think very little of what a confessor can offer to someone who is striving to improve his relationship with God–possibly because her confessors frequently were much less mystical than she, and being not mystical, they worried about mystical experiences, since (especially from an outside perspective) it seems very easy to misjudge things mystical as demonic (or vice versa). At any rate, I thought the opinion of priests that came through this text was pretty negative, and I didn’t like it.

Reading this book would have been so, so, so much easier if she had only used the first person when talking about herself. The translators and editors were always quick to point out when the subject of Teresa’s stories was actually herself, usually through reference to her other works, though she denies it at least once (p112). The real issue is that Teresa’s prose (presumably in the original Spanish, though it may be purely a translation problem) becomes so convoluted and twisted that reading it becomes a chore–when she could have shortened the paragraph by ten lines and simplified the whole of it by saying, “I said or thought or did such and such.” It was as though the entire book was spent saying, “Oh, not me! I’m… asking for a friend.”

Frequently, Teresa will comment on how unqualified she is to be writing this book. From a rational perspective, I agreed with her repeatedly. Her grasp of Scripture was even troubling, as accustomed as I am to writers like Augustine and Aquinas, whose references are often spot-on. She waffles constantly, and in several places says things like, “Someone said this in the Bible, I think.” And if she does guess, she has almost equal chances to be right or wrong about it. Raised a Bible-believing Protestant, I instantly doubt any spiritual advisor who doesn’t know his Scriptures.

On a related note, at one point, she claims that there is no greater love than when Jesus prayed for his disciples’ union with God (p154); the translator even used that phrasing (“I do not know what greater love there can be than this”). This flies directly in the face of Jesus’ own use of that phrase in John 15 (and her assertion is not helped by the fact that she does not know where in Scripture Jesus prayed this prayer).

The last thing that bugged me enough to mention was her position on marriage. Granted, most of those who are in celibate vocations, especially in Church history (I’m looking at you, St. Jerome), have negative opinions of marriage, but Teresa’s bothered me at the time. In describing the spiritual journey from isolated sinner to Christian united with Christ, she made an analogy to matrimony (the same analogy that St. Paul made outright in Ephesians 5, and numerous saints and popes have made since), but describes it in shallow terms. It is only “a rough comparison,” but she can find no better; the “spiritual joys and consolations given by the Lord are a thousand leagues removed from those experienced in marriage.” Perhaps I am overreacting, but the Church has vocations to marriage even more than to the priesthood and to holy orders, and with good reason: the grace and joy that accompany the sacrament of Matrimony are no meager things. Even so, I may be reacting too harshly; Catholic favor toward married life has taken a long time to come to fruition, and I cannot blame Teresa too much for being a product of her time.

All in all, this is an important work that may be beneficial to some, but to me–and to perhaps to others of primarily rational faith–it provided little direction or comfort.

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