A Brief Description of the Soul and the Spiritual Life from Saint Teresa of Avila

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By Nick Dinunzio, Mount St. Mary’s

I spend a lot of time wondering how people live without any conception of the spiritual life. This is not in an effort of pride, but an effort of pure wonder due to my myopic viewpoint. I understand life in a way that includes both the physical and spiritual, but there are certainly others who deny the spiritual and attempt, as I do on the other side, to develop well thought out arguments to support their position. My goal for this discussion is not to argue, but to contextualize the spiritual life in comparison with my wonder through Saint Teresa’s lens. 

Saint Teresa of Avila clearly describes the necessity of the spiritual life, and if this is true then there ought to be something missing from a life of pure physicality, no? The answer could very well be no, but Teresa accounts for those who may not have a desire to dive deeper into the mansions of the soul as expressed in The Interior Castle. Her description of people who deny entering the mansions is not only of secular people. It includes myself, and all people who struggle in the spiritual life (i.e. everyone). Teresa says that “many souls live in the courtyard of the building where the sentinels stand, neither caring to enter farther, nor to know who dwells in that most delightful place, what is in it and what rooms it contains”. The quantifier she uses is “many” which is indicative of the vast majority of souls that exist. She would, given her outward humility in the text, understand herself as one who worked tirelessly to enter into the mansions of the soul. She counts herself among all other souls as one who struggles regularly. She frequently labels herself as “stupid” and inept in many practices. It seems unquestionable to her, nonetheless, that the spiritual journey is that which must be sought after by all people. She outlines the necessity for any soul to enter into the spiritual life and comments on the seemingly hopeless nature of some cases: 

“Certain books on prayer that you have read advise the soul to enter into itself, and this is what I mean. I was recently told by a great theologian that souls without prayer are like bodies, palsied and lame, having hands and feet they cannot use. Just so, there are souls so infirm and accustomed to think of nothing but earthly matters, that there seems no cure for them. It appears impossible for them to retire into their own hearts; accustomed as they are to be with the reptiles and other creatures which live outside the castle, they have come at last to imitate their habits. Though these souls are by their nature so richly endowed, capable of communion even with God Himself, yet their case seems hopeless. Unless they endeavor to understand and remedy their most miserable plight, their minds will become, as it were, bereft of movement, just as Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt for looking backwards in disobedience to God’s command.”

Despite her tendency to be reductive toward her own work, she discusses the fundamental need for a person to enter the soul. She cites a great theologian who aids in her articulation of how souls who do not enter into themselves have no control over normal spiritual functions. She uses an analogy that links the fundamental usage of one’s limbs to show how basic and necessary it is for one to enter into their own soul.  

She goes on to say that those who are unaware of or incontinent in their pursuit of virtue are focused wholly on the world. There is no transcendent understanding of life that relates the agent back to God through prayer or relationship. Those who take no care to begin to enter into their souls through prayer have dulled spiritual senses. They have spiritual senses that cannot make any spiritual inclination into an intelligible thought that could then be an action. The constant dwelling with creatures “which live outside the castle” leaves them in a state of vegetation. Their natures are disposed to all the greatness that God has to offer in the spiritual life but hope still seems lost. The world has a tendency to make us into its subjects. Through endless thoughts about work and responsibility we can get lost in the mire of the day-to-day. All people, then, have the same problem at one point or another. We are all hopeless cases at certain times in life, but God has a funny way of calling us home. Thus, it seems to me that there is a small difference between “secular” and “religious” people. Firstly, the commonality is that we are all disposed to the same kinds of virtues and vices. The common difference, then, is the acknowledgement of the need to enter into the soul. This discussion could be cast aside in its totality because of its lack of practical assistance in what the world deems to be important. Saint Teresa is writing to make it clear to us that God is calling for all people to notice the problem of the world. She wants us to notice how much the world can weigh us down and dull our spiritual senses. Everyone has this problem. The solution is nothing short of the grace to be absurdly vigilant. 

One must “endeavor to understand and remedy” their most significant issues. Otherwise, one is left to become spiritually unfeeling. The scriptural equivalent is Lot’s wife, who is turned to salt for her lack of faith and vigilance. Teresa proposes that there is, undoubtedly, a supreme need for one to venture into themself. The spiritual journey must be taken by every soul for the sake of its communion with God. In my own work toward this goal, I have found that it is increasingly difficult to convince others of this need. The entering of one’s soul is such a basic idea, yet it still passes many souls, even the ones that work towards that exact goal. Teresa is essentially trying to make the point that the spiritual life should be a basic experience for all people because it is part of their nature to tend to and enter their soul. This is not always easy, but with God’s help it becomes possible, yet due to our fickle nature, still difficult. 

Returning to my initial wonder, about how some people deny the spiritual journey in existence or importance, I think that what I have come to see through Teresa’s work is that there are cases in which people refuse to discover their nature. Nevertheless, it seems clear that not all people have the same spiritual desires. How can we treat them? The answer is simply with the appeal to the basic understanding that spirituality is not something strange or out of the ordinary. The world has so enveloped the spiritual to the point in which it is foreign and something strange to discuss. There are many viewpoints that see different callings in human nature, but I think that Teresa is correct in that the spiritual is still a fundamental aspect of humanity. This is, by no means, an attempt at reconciling other spiritualties that would be out of Teresa’s scope of view, but the spiritual life for her in terms of Catholicism.  

I have quite the distance to travel in this journey, and I am still very much at the beginning. There is, however, a clear idea that emerges from learning about the existence of this process. The world makes the spiritual journey difficult. It is so difficult that without grace it would be impossible. The silver-lining in this difficulty is, as in every difficulty, the opportunity for even greater holiness than if the world made it easy. The added difficulty from the world makes the sweetness to come in the next life that much sweeter. My viewpoint and understanding is that there is a thing called “the soul” that one must come to know. Saint Teresa’s task is to describe how this can be done. My wonder, though, seems to persist. What do those who deny spirituality, for good or bad reasons, think about the labeling of the spiritual journey as “fundamental”? I wager that I will wait an obscenely long time before I have an answer that can be generally applied to this group of people. My desire is to understand their perspective, so that it can be added to this discussion and contribute to the development of truth. I think that this is something to consider for the protection of our faith because it becomes easier to understand philosophy, theology, and the spiritual life through the acknowledgement and consideration of the world’s persistent objections to them. A thing’s opposite often makes it easier to observe the object in question. Logical stability is revealed through the battle between opposing ideas when the opposing sides maintain their dialogue and have the humility to surrender themselves to what is true about human nature and spirituality. 

Edited by Christopher Centrella

5 Responses

    1. Thank you so much. Our website is always looking for ways to collaborate with other good Catholic blogs. Send us a message if you’re interested in future collaboration!

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