The Paradox of the Will in the Interior Castle

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The following was a college essay written by Maria Keller. It has been edited and approved by Mary Boneno. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Maria Keller, University of Notre Dame

In her spiritual guidebook, The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila explores the paradox of a strengthened will as one ascends to higher dwellings while also exploring a greater reliance on God and a closer alignment of one’s will with His. I will examine the portrayal of the will in the various dwelling places throughout the Interior Castle in order to better understand Teresa’s theology of the will. I first examine the power of the will by laying out the description of fallen souls in a state of mortal sin. The will is part of the initial source of this spiritual journey, without which one could not surpass the first dwelling place, which focuses on self-knowledge. However, Teresa also encourages readers to recognize the fault in their own will, and not strain against impossible weaknesses through their own power alone. Rather, she instructs readers to sacrifice their will and beseech God for his mercy. The beauty in this sacrifice is that the will is not absurd; rather, the will is fulfilled in God’s perfect love. By growing closer to divine omnipotence as one ascends the interior castle, one’s will becomes stronger and gains greater freedom. The soul’s willingness to sacrifice everything for Christ is rewarded with the rapture in the sixth dwelling place, and the surrendering of one’s will to God is a sign of the will’s increasing strength, rather than its weakness.

Before exploring the paradox of a sacrificed will and a perfected will in God, I will touch on Teresa’s explanation of the opposite paradox: the broken will. For Teresa, turning away from God is not a preservation of our own free will; rather, it is an enslavement of our will to worldly things. One can lose their will by neglecting prayer and falling into mortal sin. Teresa introduces the phenomenon of broken wills with an astute analogy: “Not long ago a very learned man told me that souls who do not practice prayer are like people with paralyzed or crippled bodies; even though they have hands and feet they cannot give orders to their hands and feet.”[1] Souls that have fallen away from prayer are actually deprived of their will. Teresa further claims that “though they have so rich a nature and the power to converse with none other than God, there is no remedy.”[2] Teresa is describing a fundamental loss of the will, but not a change in the essence of a human being. The loss of one’s will is not equivalent to the loss of all virtue. Worldly individuals still may have the capacity for holiness and closeness to God.

However, “if these souls do not strive to understand and cure their great misery, they will be changed into statues of salt, unable to turn their heads to look at themselves, just as Lot’s wife was changed for having turned her head.”[3] The will is profoundly connected to one’s capacity for introspection and self-knowledge, and therefore knowledge of God because God resides in our souls. Teresa explains that “the whole aim of any person who is beginning prayer…should be that he work and prepare himself with determination and every possible effort to bring his will into conformity with God’s will.”[4] If souls that are ‘crippled’ are not ordered to rise by the Lord Himself, “they are quite unfortunate and in serious danger.”[5] Teresa makes it clear that souls who have broken wills cannot ascend through the interior castle.

Assuming one’s soul is in a state of grace, Teresa explains her spiritual ladder of the will. Ascending to higher states involves acknowledgement that our will is weak, and often unable to control the mind. Particularly in the lower dwelling places, Teresa encourages readers to “guard [them]selves…from extraneous cares.”[6] Teresa does not mean that we should fail to avoid sin; there are so many battles waging over our souls that we cannot waste our strength by focusing on irrelevant concerns.[7] Teresa urges us to avoid overconfidence in our own works, because they ultimately do not protect us from fear of moral failure.[8] Human works, although they are preparations for union with God’s will, cannot save humans without grace. Christ does not need “our works. He needs the determination of our wills.”[9]

Ultimately, Teresa urges readers to differentiate between when we can rely on our own will and when we must merely beseech God for his mercy. When describing the delight of prayer of quiet, Teresa claims that it “is not something that can be imagined, because however diligent our efforts we cannot acquire it.”[10] In the higher dwelling places, Teresa continues to urge readers not to over-exercise the will, especially in trying to stop the functions of the mind. She claims that this is impossible: “Just as we cannot stop the movement of the heavens, but they proceed in rapid motion, so neither can we stop our mind; and then the faculties of the soul go with it, and we think we are lost and have wasted the time spent before God.”[11] However, Teresa still advises that we “must continue grinding our flour and not fail to work the will and the intellect.”[12]

Therefore, Teresa is not claiming that we abandon the will because it is weak; rather, she is proposing that we beseech God to aid us because we are weak, and continue to try to conform our will to His. This beseeching is an act of the will, but a seemingly smaller act, as “in this work of the spirit the one who thinks less and has less desire to act does more.”[13] Despite appearing weak, pleading with God for aid is a sign of the soul’s strength. It involves sacrificing any self-love or admiration for one’s own virtues, and instead dedicating this love to God. As the soul is made in the image and likeness of God, seeing beyond this good to its source is the greatest task that the will can achieve with the grace of God.

Despite the soul’s prayers for aid, it is plagued by spiritual battle with various temptations and demons, throughout the Interior Castle. The soul “will continue to grow if it doesn’t turn back now to offending God because if it does, then everything will be lost however high on the summit the soul may be.”[14] However, the power of Satan over the soul begins to diminish, especially after the betrothal of the soul to Christ in the fifth dwelling place, when Satan begins to fear the soul completely surrendered to Christ. Despite the declining power of Satan, “there is no enclosure so fenced in that he cannot enter, or desert so withdrawn that he fails to go there.”[15] Therefore, the will must remain vigilant in order to resist temptation.

However, as the will grows stronger and the soul grows closer to God in the fourth dwelling place, temptations become “the occasion of gain.”[16] Teresa does not claim that these temptations are no longer powerful, but they certainly decrease in potency as the will is more closely conformed to the will of God. Closeness to God, and spiritual delights “can be verified in the fact that the soul is not as tied down as it was before in things pertaining to the service of God, but has much more freedom.”[17] Teresa does not argue that the soul no longer desires to perform good works; rather, “sometimes it even desires [suffering] because there also remains a strong will to do something for God.”[18] The will is no longer chained to fear of Hell; it is freed by an overwhelming love for God. However, the will can still fall, and Teresa advises readers to avoid occasions of sin. Even the sin of overestimating the new strength of one’s will can lead a Christian astray, such as the woman Teresa mentions who overexerted herself and deceived herself into believing that she had fallen into a spiritual sleep.[19]

The role of the will becomes particularly clear in the analogy of the silkworm. The silkworm, “starts to live when by the heat of the Holy Spirit it begins to benefit through the general help given to us all by God and through the remedies left by Him to His Church.”[20] The silkworm, by receiving these gifts from God and the Church, “begins to live and to sustain itself by these things, and by good meditations, until it is grown.”[21] The will prepares us to build our life in Christ, by taking away from ourselves.[22] Our work is “taking away our self-love and self-will, our attachment to any earthly thing, and by performing deeds of penance, prayer, mortification, [and] obedience.”[23] Although we are responsible for beginning our work, God ultimately will finish it for us.[24] Furthermore, we are called to eliminate ‘self-will,’ rather than our will itself. The will should not be focused on fulfilling its own wayward and earthly desires; it should be willing what God wills and loving what He loves.

The soul who is unified with God’s will is afflicted by “nothing in earthly events.”[25] It is important to remember that alignment with God’s will does not remove all suffering for Teresa. Rather, some suffering is desired, such as the suffering that brings the soul closer to God. Other forms of suffering that Christ experienced, such as compassion for others, is certainly not lost. After the extreme ecstasy in the sixth dwelling place, the will remains so absorbed and the intellect so withdrawn, for a day and even days, that the latter seems incapable of understanding anything that doesn’t lead to awakening the will to love, and the will is wide awake to this love and asleep to becoming attached to any creature.[26]

The will becomes so powerful that it is briefly unmoved by temptation or distraction from God’s love in the sixth dwelling place. However, the soul who has finally surrendered everything to God’s will recognizes that “in itself it no longer has any part to play” and is taken up in the rapture.[27] These experiences may seem to contradict each other, but the absorption of the human will into God’s will is not a sign of weakness. Rather, accepting human weakness and the necessity of God’s grace for salvation has helped the will grow stronger in its resistance to sin and temptation. Therefore, the disappearance of the will during rapture is evidence of the relative strength of one’s will.

The unity of the will with God in the seventh dwelling place does not mean it is utterly absorbed in contemplation of God with no will of its own. Rather, “the soul is much more occupied than before with everything pertaining to the service of God.”[28] The soul is wholly unified with God, as streams of light combine into one, but it does not lack the will.[29] Rather, the will is dedicated even more intently to fulfilling its duties. The marital union with Christ “disposes the soul to be able to do what was said with a resolute will.”[30]

For Teresa of Avila, the strength of one’s will is in its ability to accept its own weakness and trust in God. The failure of the will is to rely too much on oneself and one’s own desires. The will is weakened by this failure, in some cases to the extent that it can no longer ascend the interior castle. However, through the grace of God, even the souls in a state of mortal sin can regain the strength of the will to resist temptation. In order to grow in strength, souls must recognize their own powerlessness and plead for God’s help. They must do their utmost to prepare themselves to experience spiritual delights and holiness, and this preparation is founded on humility and a recognition of one’s own fallen nature. As the soul grows in holiness and recognizes its own need for God, the will grows in strength and is less subject to temptation. The will’s strength is evident when a soul does not try to resist the overwhelming power of God during rapture. Conformity with the will of God is not contrary to maintaining a strong will; rather, the will is only strong through its obedience to God. 


Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1979.

[1] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1979), 38.

[2] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 38.

[3] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 38.

[4] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 52.

[5] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 38.

[6] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 46.

[7] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 46.

[8] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 57.

[9] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 59.

[10] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 75.

[11] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 71.

[12] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 72.

[13] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 79.

[14] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 82.

[15] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 105.

[16] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 68.

[17] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 82.

[18] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 82.

[19] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 83.

[20] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 92.

[21] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 92.

[22] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 92.

[23] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 93.

[24] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 92.

[25] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 98.

[26] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 131-132.

[27] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 134.

[28] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 175.

[29] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 179.

[30] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 185.

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