I've been reading Fr. Marie-Eugene's volumes on Carmelite spirituality--I Want To See God and I Am a Daughter of the Church. Brilliant. They've been a good preparation for the coming weeks of childbirth, sleeplessness, and general inability to read anything more demanding than Curious George.
So, until the baby comes, I want to have a series of posts on Teresa of Avila's "mansions" of the soul. Her schema is a way of understanding spiritual growth--away from darkness and toward the light of Christ, away from self and toward intimacy with God. The main thing to keep in mind is that spiritual growth ultimately depends on the action of God. It is not a hard science. God can raise a soul rapidly from the lowest mansions to the heights of consummation with him; the same ascent in another soul may take years and years. God is all mercy and, therefore, for us, all mystery!
These posts are mainly a way for me to organize my thoughts and understand Teresa (and my own soul better). If you are a Carmelite (or a Carmelite-at-heart) and know how I could better express these states of the soul, please correct me.
Teresa's soul is a castle, in the center of which dwells God. The soul is, first and foremost, a "paradise in which the Master dwells and in which He delights." If we do not accept the beauty of the soul, we cannot know the creator who loves it.
The first mansions (or rooms) are vast, encircling the entire periphery of the castle. "There are many ways in which souls enter them." Most souls, she seems to say, live in these anterooms. They are in a state of grace--that is, they have not definitively severed themselves from God's mercy. They do not, however, pray regularly: Teresa says they may pray only once or twice a month. Because of this, they remain vulnerable to their own inclinations to reject God.
This, of course, leads Teresa to a long passage on the nature of sin-- what used to be commonly called "mortal sin" --and hell. Hell, she insists, is not something God does to us. We choose to exclude ourselves from Him--in her imagery, from the castle. It is willful self-exclusion from his love--usually in the form of an intentional, fully-aware disobedience to his law.
Souls in the first castle must not stay in these outer rooms. Teresa, like a good mother, both fears for them and longs for them to move more deeply into their Father's love. She notes that, because these souls are so attached to their sinful tendencies and behavior, fear of hell or suffering is often the motivation for their conversion. They see the evil consequences of a life of lukewarm and, sometimes, sinful action and resolve to "flee to God."
In making that resolution, they already find themselves in the second mansion.
Some thoughts on contemplating the first mansion:
It is so important for us to understand, even empathize with our fellow men who live in this state. Teresa herself was given experiences, both of hell and of the first mansions, and these increased her love of and zeal for souls. Refusing to think about hell or souls who live without pursuing God leads either to indifference ("Oh, they're all right. God will take care of them himself.") or to judgmentalism ("If you break this law, you're damned. Too bad for you. You should have checked into the second mansion."). Seeing someone who lives a distracted, mediocre, fearful life concerned with "making it" in the material world should instead inspire a desire to invite them (gently and in a way most attractive to that individual soul) to desire God first.