Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches. VI


Lecture (English)


St. Teresa. The Growth of the Mystical Life


The Doctrine of St. Teresa

On the occasion of the third centenary of St. Teresa’s passing to the heavenly life, the General of the Jesuits, Father Martin, at that time professor at Salamanca, gave a really magnificent eulogy, not only to glorify the great saint of Avila, the glory and praise of Spain, but also to classify her doctrine. This speech has been translated into several languages. In the German translation it is called: “An elaborated treatise of the mystic doctrine of St. Teresa and at the same time a charming picture of a great soul.” That eulogy is inserted in the new edition of the standard work on the life of St. Teresa, Ribera’s Vida de Santa Teresa de Jesus, edited at Barcelona in 1908, as an introduction to the mystical life and the mystical doctrine of the saint. In his opinion the first three mansions of the Interior Castle are of a more ascetic character. Then he paints the last four degrees of the mystical life in the following words: “In the prayer of recollection, by the gentle invitation of the Divine Shepherd, the powers or faculties feel themselves drawn, as it were, to the very center of the soul; in this state they can and must answer to that divine call; in the prayer of quiet they are elevated to the Lord and so great is the enjoyment they taste in the presence of their Beloved, that they are elevated to an ecstatic state by which their natural activity is [67] stunned. This union with God makes the soul sleep the sleep of peace and love and, brought into that state, it is no longer able to think of any means to tear itself from this mystical suspension and dissolution in God. The soul thus dissolved in God dies to the world and to itself in the spiritual marriage which is celebrated in the sixth mansion and in the seventh mansion it rises to a new life. In this state it devotes itself fully to the services of its heavenly Bridegroom with Whom it is united with an unbreakable tie of love.” Let us explain these four degrees a little more.

The Last Four Degrees of the Mystical Life

First, in the fourth mansion of the Castle, St. Teresa speaks of recollection, of the necessity of finding God in the center of the soul: God Who dwells in us. A most perfect union with Him must be attained. For St. Teresa, that recollection leads to a state of quiet and satisfaction, of enthrallment by that which the soul, after the recollection, sees in itself as the greatest good, namely, its Beloved, Who dwells in the soul and Who should not be sought elsewhere. The knowledge of possessing the Beloved, of being in His Presence gives the soul a quiet pleasure, enthralls the powers of the soul, carries all its attention to God.

In the fifth mansion, the faculties of the soul dare, as it were, inaccessible to the impressions other things should like to make. It seems that they are blunted to the external life and are carried away in the contemplation of Him Who rises high above all others and claims all contemplation. They seem as in a spiritual sleep, the soul dreams of its Beloved and although the different impressions from the external world still try to influence us and to disturb and to interrupt this sleep and although the [68] soul sometimes awakes from this dream, still it is little accessible to all those impressions and it does its best to subside into that gentle slumber and to devote itself entirely to the contemplation of its Beloved. Often that spiritual sleep overcomes it and it is no longer able to occupy itself with earthly things or to tear itself from this slumber.

In the sixth mansion, the soul is altogether immersed in the contemplation and the enjoyment of the object of its love and to the world, it is as though dead and forlorn. It flings itself, as it were, in the arms of its Beloved and becomes engaged to Him. It should like to stay with Him. The world no longer appeals to it, it has no eye nor ear for the world. God is its only good, in Him it will rest. In the knowledge of its union with Him, the soul is so happy that never more should it like to be separated from him. Its faithfulness in that state being tried, the Beloved cements it in His love and celebrates with the soul the spiritual marriage of unbreakable union and of the most intimate intercourse.

In the seventh mansion, the soul is living only in and through the Beloved. The soul has devoted itself entirely to its Bridegroom and is a ready tool in God’s hands, Whose hands it does not leave and from Whose espousal it is not drawn away, even by contact with the world. It has risen to a new life, a life in which the natural and the supernatural are merged in a wonderful way. Nothing is able to separate the soul from the contemplation of its Beloved, Whom it worships within itself and embraces with expressions of its love; Whom it sees in all things; Whose will it adores and glorifies; with Whom, in a word, it lives in an intimate union and to Whom it has not only devoted itself, but is also lovingly drawn, never to escape again. [69]

Recollection and quiet, slumber and spiritual sleep, passage and death, resurrection and new life infused by God – these are the four degrees of the mystical life described by St. Teresa in four successive psychological states, each of more intimate intercourse with God.

The Necessity of Recollection for Finding God in the Soul

St. Teresa paints the mystical life as something which develops in the soul, according to the latter’s natural ability, as the ultimate realization of man’s powers. These have been implanted by God in man’s nature and will be realized when the soul is aware of its possibility to reach that high degree of perfection and therefore gives up itself wholly into the hands of the Lord Who alone is able to carry it to the highest of elevations. For all this, nothing else is asked of the soul than that it accomplish God’s wishes and desires, put its trust in Him and in Him only finds its happiness. He likes to have an ordered love and He Himself will order that love in the soul. He forbids not the love of created things but wills that the soul love Him above all, and all else only in Him, through Him and with Him. Because its love is too unsettled, God in the first place asks of the soul to turn into itself and to contemplate Him as living in the center of its heart. He is standing at the door of that innermost mansion, knocking and asking the soul to come to Him and not to wander about in the external mansions as if He, its Host, were not yet at hand. It must forsake and abandon all it has and join itself to Him in its innermost part. Once admitted into that inner circle, it may inspect all and pass thence through the whole castle. Then all belongs to the soul just as all belongs to God. [70]

So the mystical life is a methodical way, an accommodation of the faculties of the soul to the object of knowledge and love. Because God, Who gives happiness and joy, is the highest and most satisfying object of that knowledge and love, so in the method of love, He must rank first. That God must rank first follows not only from the surpassingly infinite perfection of the character and nature of the Divine Being in Himself, but also from the dependence upon God of all we know and love. God is the Creator and Conservator of all beings and in His workings His finger touches us. But nowhere else is God so near as in ourselves. There is the first place we must try to find and to see Him.

Harmony Resulting Between Natural and Supernatural

Here also there is a marvelous harmony between nature and supernature, between the life of grace and the mystic, superabundant influx of grace. God, so to say, enlarges His creature and raises it to its highest perfection. There is such a gradual development that it should not be too arduous for nature; but at the same time there is such a supreme rise above all powers of nature that only divine grace is able to lift it to those lofty heights, to lead nature to the ideal established by God. Yet no matter how much this high perfection goes beyond the power of nature, it is, nonetheless, a true accomplishment of that nature, a realization of that which is placed in it by God as a possibility, although it can be realized only by His immediate intervention.

The Diamond Castle

In her diamond castle of the soul, St. Teresa places the sun as a source of light in the inmost mansion and has it shoot its rays to the numberless neighboring mansions. In the most external the [71] solar rays pierce only dimly because all sorts of hindrances restrain that radiation. But that light shining out from the center forces us to open our eyes and to approach the inner mansions, there to contemplate the light in all its limpidity and to be illumined by its splendor. Here, Teresa had the image of the light beaming from the bottom of the soul as well as that of the knocking and calling of the Lord. Who calls the soul to come to the innermost mansion. In the external circle of those mansions the call sounds dim, but happy the man who, hearing that voice, answers the call. That first grace is the messenger of an ever greater influx of grace. As the first grace St. Teresa mentions the ability of the soul to see the ‘approach’ of the Bridegroom, and to understand His voice. In no other way can the soul reach this grace than along the way of recollection. And though it may be true that the first hearing, the first seeing, is to be regarded as a grace of God, Who all at once shines His light into the soul and suddenly makes His voice be heard, yet an answer must be given to that invitation of love and the soul must release itself from that which enthralled it till now. The eyes must be rubbed to see clearer and better what God, already in the external mansions, shows to them who have eyes to see and ears to hear. God can and will enthrall and bind the soul. He delights it to rest and slumber in Him but only then when the soul has succeeded in tearing itself away from that which binds it to the world in the external mansions and in placing itself under the mighty rays of the sun which is described as being able to pervade all things coming within its rays.

The Indescribable Beauty of the Soul and Our Lamentable Indifference to It

St. Teresa informs her untrained sisters of this image in the simplest way: “Let us regard our [72] souls as a castle,” she writes, “which is made wholly of a single diamond or a pure crystal and in which there are many mansions. Indeed, my sisters, thinking over this, the soul is nothing else than a paradise in which God, as He Himself says, has His delight. There is nothing with which I can compare the great beauty and marvelous receptivity of a soul. Indeed, no matter how keen our sense may be, we shall hardly be able to understand it, any more than we are able to know God. He Himself says that we are created to His image and to His likeness. And this being so, and so it is, it is in vain to wish to fathom the beauty of this castle. For us the fact that the divine Majesty says the soul is created to His image is enough to inform us of its great dignity and beauty. For us it is no little grief and no little shame that by our own fault we do not understand ourselves and do not know who we are. Seldom we regard the treasures the soul may possess or who is living in it or the value it has. Picture this castle, as I have said, as having many mansions, some upstairs, some downstairs, others at the sides. In the center, in the inner part of all these mansions, is the most important, the place where the most secret things between God and the soul happen. It is necessary that you call all your attention to this.”

Some pages further on, she writes: “Return to our beautiful and magnificent castle and consider in what manner we may enter. What I may say now seems to be absurd, for if the castle is the soul, then it is plain that it is not necessary for the soul to enter because soul and castle are one and the same. For it would be absurd to invite a person who is already in a room to enter it. But know that there is a great difference between being present and being present. Many souls are only behind the outer walls, where the waiters are; they do not try to [73] enter the castle itself. They do not know what is hidden in that precious place, nor who is dwelling there, nor what the mansions are which the castle contains. No doubt, in some spiritual books dealing with prayer, you have already read that they advise the soul to recollect. Well, then, what I have said is the same – Recollection.”

So I could go on, but these examples from the first chapter of the Interior Castle of St. Teresa show plainly that her thesis on the mystical life are built on the base that God created the soul and maintains it to His image and likeness, that He Himself dwells in the inner mansion of the soul and that consequently the soul should take the first steps along the road of recollection to meet Him Who, in the innermost part of the soul, is inviting it to His embrace and to the union with Himself.

Affective Prayer Based on Exercise of Intellect

On opening her book, one reads what a high value she sets on imaginative and intellectual meditation, though she likes to see it interrupted and alternated with acts of love and gratitude. She admits that there can be a time in which the soul is so filled with love that it is no longer necessary to awaken love by the effects of imaginative and intellectual meditation. She expressly warns also that when God has filled the soul with acts of love and gratitude, of admiration and joy, imaginative and intellectual meditation and active contemplation cannot be neglected, because they are the general way of moving the will to which we have to return.

Her Whole Philosophy: Effort Essential

For the rest, one should read the works of St. Teresa to see that reasoning and logical evolution take a high place in her doctrine. How many com- [74] parisons she has given to impart to her sisters the idea of the most sublime things! Indeed, she admits and declares her inability to make understood the gifts of God in the mystical influx of grace. Full of gratitude, she says that in one moment of elucidation given by God the soul learns more than years of study and active contemplation can reveal. But she never neglects contemplative prayer, meditation and active contemplation. She also always appreciates at its highest the guidance of a specific director. Her doctrine is not that of Quietism. She ever insists on the practice of virtues even in the highest states of mystical contemplation and in the most intimate union with God. The first three degrees of our approach to God are not only strides on the way of the exercise of virtue but she will have this effort continued to the end and looks at it, first, as the best preparation and as a proof of our receptivity, and secondly, as a required adornment of the soul that has been the privilege of being chosen as the Bride of the Lord and thirdly as the promised fruit of our intercourse with God. True, there is also mention here of the infused virtues; of acting under the irresistible pressure of God’s grace; but more than once St. Teresa warns against delusion and she expressly says that no virtue may be named true as long as it is not tried and proved by voluntary acts. She desires no abolition of the natural order through the divine residence but an ever-increasing refinement, to be evidenced also in the effects of the different faculties. Indeed, here and there the effects of imagination and remembrance, even those of sense and will are painted as annoying; they are compared with the wild flutterings of the bats, the jumping of wild animals, by which we are waylaid and threatened in entering the mysterious castle, but here it is a question of the unbridled effects of these faculties, among which [75] harmony should be established. Therefore, recollection is the first necessity. Even in the highest states of the mystical life we meet human nature in all the splendor of a harmonious development. Even in heaven, body and soul will be in harmonious union. In the highest states of mystical life, in this unbreakable union, in this common life, in which there is the most perfect harmony between the Divine and the human, ecstasy, rapture and visions are only accidental. Truly these latter are a revelation of union with God and of the seizure of the soul, but they are not the first requirement, nor the essential. Essential is the life of union, the new life after our resurrection from the death of the old life.

Positive View of Spiritual Life: Resurrection Must Follow Death

To reach this life of union a long way must be traversed. In the beginning, one striving for recollection will see that a heavy fight against nature is necessary; much must die in us in order that God may live in us free and unhindered. There is a life that in its first degrees might rather be called passing away. But Teresa will not see the way to the union with God as a mere negative one; death must be a passing to a new life. While all that is a hindrance to the kingdom of God in us is killed, at the same time the divine Gardener must strew the seed of virtues and we should plant and look after the garden of our heart, because by and by when the sun is high, the flowers will shoot up in that garden as a revelation of a new spring time. For a great part, that care, that watering is put in our own hands. Not only should we weed, but also plant and water.

The Solicitude of God: Spiritual Chess

But the great Gardener is our Helper; or, to use the image of St. Teresa, He leads the water of His [76] grace along different brooks and canals to the garden of our heart and sends down His abundant rain at the right time, thus taking out of our hands the work of watering. St. Teresa illustrates this by the ancient, medieval treatise on ‘Spiritual Chess’. She says we should play a spiritual chess game with the Beloved of our heart and that we should checkmate Him. And she adds that He cannot escape our moves and moreover would not even wish to escape. By this she gives us to understand that although we must do our best by playing well, the whole play is so calculated that at last the king is checkmated. The more play the queen, that is, our Modesty, has, the sooner will the king be captured.

Consequently, the mysticism of Teresa, no matter how sublime in the description of the sweet intercourse with God, is on the other hand real and practical.

Mary Our Model in Attaining First Degree of Mystic Life: God’s Birth in Us

And now a final idea. God, acting in us and dwelling in us, is the starting point of the mystical life. In the activity of God we should see the continuation of the creation, just as this activity is the continuation and the further revelation of the eternal birth of the Son from the Father and of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son. The knowledge of the presence of God in us, the indwelling of the Holy Trinity, should again be awakened in our lives. God should again dwell in us, should be born again in us. God’s Son has taken on human nature, so that we could realize again the union of our nature with the divine. We should unite ourselves with Christ and in, with and through Him, with the Holy Trinity.

No creature shared that grace in a higher degree than Mary. She, our Mother, is our example of the [77] manner in which God must be born again in us. On the one hand, we should recognize ourselves as her children, because her son is our Brother. On the other, she will also teach us how to conceive Christ and bear Him and how to bear Him.

Let us say after Mary, with St. Teresa: Ecce ancilla Domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum – “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word.”


  1. This lecture is published in: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches, Chicago 1936, 66-77 (Lecture VI). In the summer of 1935, Titus Brandsma gave lectures in the United States. Among others he was in Washington, in Chicago and in Niagara Falls to speak about Carmelite mysticism. See also the design for these lectures: Carmelite Mysticism. Ten Lectures.


© Nederlandse Provincie Karmelieten

Published: Titus Brandsma Instituut 2020