The Common Good
August 2005

A Garden of Righteousness

by Mirabai Starr | August 2005

What does a 16th century mystic have to say to 21st century peacemakers?

Teresa of Avila,

Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spaniard, is known not only for her mystical raptures but also for her practical activism. The Interior Castle, Teresa’s most famous treatise on the spiritual path, written in 1577, may be seen as more than a prescription for achieving personal union with the Divine - it can serve as a clear set of guidelines for conscious peacemaking in the world.

At 51, Teresa took the reforms she had advocated in the convent out to the rest of the church. "She braved burning sun, ice and snow, thieves, and rat-infested inns to found more convents," writes Terry Matz in The Daybook of Saints. The papal representative called her "a restless, disobedient gadabout who has gone about teaching as though she were a professor." "She often had to enter a town secretly in the middle of the night to avoid causing a riot," continues Matz.

The Interior Castle is the fruit of a vision Teresa had near the end of her life. She perceived the soul as a crystal palace, so radiantly beautiful that the Beloved himself chooses to dwell at its center. Our purpose is to make the journey within, passing through seven dwellings, to achieve union with God. At every step, the single clearest test of our love for God is whether we are loving one another in tangible ways.

Before even entering the castle of the soul, Teresa says, it is important to acknowledge our inherent goodness. We are worthy of taking this journey toward the union of love. We are worthy of doing the work of making this world a more peaceful one.

Our primary navigational tool along this path is contemplative practice. This can take many forms: sitting in silent meditation, walking alone in nature, or absorbing ourselves in creating or appreciating art. It involves the conscious cultivation of silence, stillness, and surrender. Only when we have restrained the urge to impose our own remedies upon this broken world can we hear what is truly needed.

IN THE FIRST dwelling we practice self-knowledge. The task is to recognize reality just as it is. We begin to be released from delusion about ourselves and the world. We experience both humility and gratitude.

At this early stage, it is difficult for us to see the light emanating from deep within, where the glorious object of our longing dwells. Accustomed to looking outside ourselves for both the problem and its solution, we are easily distracted. We are still concerned about what other people think. We tend to project wisdom and authority on those who do not necessarily have the clarity we need to guide us correctly.

As our self-awareness increases, so do our powers of discernment. The more we perceive, the more deeply troubled we become. In the second dwelling we hunger for wise discourse. We are drawn to meaningful conversation, books, lectures, and sermons. These are the indirect voices the Beloved is using to call us home, Teresa says.

Inspired by these teachings, we begin to look beyond personal gratification and are moved by an urge toward service. When we become confused by the clamor of needs, we must be gentle with ourselves, taking time to be still and listen to the inner quiet until we regain our perspective.

It is tempting at this stage to hide behind the trappings of our cause, but we need to recommit to authenticity of being. "Don’t think you have to use esoteric jargon or dabble in the mysteries of the unknown," Teresa warns us.

In the third dwelling, we have a tendency to become deadly earnest and take ourselves far too seriously. We struggle to avoid our own imperfections and to conceal them when we fail. It is here that we may become obsessed with our cause and resent anyone who does not share it. As we grow increasingly self-righteous and hypercritical, we stumble into the "martyr trap." We must beware, Teresa says, of "glorifying our tribulations."

This can be a lonely place; our purpose may begin to ring hollow. In the absence of external affirmation, we begin to wonder if our efforts are worth it. We need to curtail the impulse to fill up the emptiness and instead yield to it. "Don’t assume God has any need for our doing," Teresa admonishes. "What [God] needs is our being."

IN THE FOURTH dwelling, we begin to trust the process instead of trying to control it. As we stop trying to figure it all out with our minds, we find ourselves dropping into our hearts. "The important thing," says Teresa, "is not to think much, but to love much, and so to do whatever best awakens us to love."

To emphasize the value of surrender to the divine will, Teresa offers a metaphor. Visualize two basins. One is filled by water that comes from far away, flowing through a series of elaborately engineered aqueducts. This is a labor-intensive project, accompanied by noisy splashing. This represents the kind of inspiration and consolation that comes from effort of personal will.

The second basin rests on a wellspring from which the water bubbles gently and fills the vessel in silence. This represents a soul that has learned to be still and allow herself to be the recipient of grace. She has achieved a state of quietude and equanimity. She has relinquished her attachment to the fruits of her actions and placed her trust in the Beloved.

In the "prayer of recollection," the seeker is instructed to draw her attention gently inward. From this place of stillness, she is able to enter the "prayer of quiet." Her mind is at rest. She neither identifies with the "turmoil of thoughts" nor tries to control the chaos of the "monkey mind." As a result of contemplative practice, our being naturally expands to accommodate grace.

This is a nurturing state, Teresa tells us, like nursing from the breast of the Mother. Stay with the gift of serenity, she says, but do not hold your breath, afraid to break the spell of your newfound peace. From this place, we remember our ultimate purpose and are able to follow our true calling.

IN THE FIFTH dwelling, we offer up everything to the object of our longing. It is a state of wild abandon, but it is not careless or unconscious. An increased sense of clarity and connectedness opens into a transcendent awareness.

In this stage of the journey the old self dies. Only by surrendering the ego to the fires of transformation can we get out of our own way and truly be of service. This "prayer of union" is a state of unlearning and unknowing that makes us more receptive to a higher knowledge. Fanaticism falls away.

Paradoxically, we are left with an unshakable certitude about our experience. "God presses...so fully against the inside of the soul," Teresa writes, "that when she returns to herself, the soul has no doubt whatsoever that God was within her and she was within God."

Teresa compares the soul to a silkworm. The tiny nugget is quickened to life by the warmth of contemplative practice. Feeding on the leaves of the tree that shelters her, which represents spiritual community, she grows plump and vital. Then she spins the silken cocoon in which to die. Only through this annihilation of the old self can she emerge as a graceful white butterfly.

Now, says Teresa, what used to drain us energizes us. Habitual anxiety gives way to peaceful detachment. Inspired by those who have sacrificed themselves in service of peace and justice, we are willing to suffer for our cause. We are sustained by an ineffable sense of intimacy with our source, accompanied by a renewed generosity of spirit. Even if we are no longer driven by the zeal we felt at the beginning, we have the impulse to share our enthusiasm for the journey.

The most significant shift at this stage is that love of one another has become more important than love of our cause. We tend our immediate relationships before charging off to save humanity. While our faith in the invisible power that sustains us has deepened, we remain vigilant to self-delusion. We are less apt to believe in our imaginary virtues. We are learning to trust that our efforts are being guided and supported by hands far greater than ours.

IN THE SIXTH dwelling, we suffer "the beautiful wound" of love-longing. Having been so deeply touched by intimacy with our source, we suffer the agony of separation and the yearning to return to that state of connectedness. We are plagued by a sense the rest of the world does not have a clue about what really matters. We feel misunderstood, even persecuted.

This is a time of unrelenting trials. They often take the form of physical ailments, political provocation, and interpersonal conflict. We may find ourselves the target of damaging gossip or the victim of inept leadership. We begin to mistrust the heightened awareness that we have enjoyed in the past. We turn to the familiar rituals that used to support us and they begin to feel empty, meaningless, and even impossible to practice.

What is happening here, says Teresa, is that the Beloved is playing with the soul. He is blowing on the ember of her love so that the fire will burn hotter. He wants her longing to intensify to such a degree that she will go to any lengths to reach him. Be grateful, Teresa counsels, for this sweet suffering.

A growing perception of the external world as an illusion makes it easier to remain calm and disinterested in petty dramas, but can lead us to wonder if we should even bother to do anything anymore. Do not try to fill the void. Surrender. Continue to serve selflessly and be grateful.

It is also important to practice self-care, to mitigate potential burnout. Teresa’s prescription: Eat well, sleep adequately. And engage in regular contemplative prayer. To inspire "holy courage," keep your goals and your role models in mind. "It seems to me that if we were to truly accept our powerlessness," Teresa remarks, "we would be both humble and brave."

IN THE SEVENTH dwelling, the Beloved brings us into the innermost chamber to become one with God. This is where the great paradox of the mystical path unfolds. Once lover and Beloved merge, only love remains. There is no separate self left to enjoy the fruits of her lifelong yearning.

"In total union, no separation is possible. The soul remains perpetually in that center with her God," Teresa writes. "The spiritual marriage is like rain falling from the sky into a river or pool. There is nothing but water. It is impossible to separate sky-water from land-water."

In the wake of such an experience, we find ourselves free to function unimpeded by the doubts and fatigue that used to plague us. We feel that the object of our greatest love is with us wherever we go now and that we will never be truly alone again.

The unshakable equanimity this instills increases our energy for selfless service. We no longer burn with longing nor require rapturous states to inspire us. Silence becomes our refuge and our wellspring. We empty ourselves so that we may be filled with God. We clear our own agendas to make space for the true task.

And this task, it turns out, is simple: Love one another. Focus on those nearest to you, and when they are well cared for, expand your circle of generosity. Regularly dip down into the silence and stillness at your core.

"This is what I would like for you to strive for, friends," Teresa writes. "We should engage in prayer - thirst for it, even - not because it feels good, but because it gives us the strength to be of service."

Mirabai Starr is the author of new translations of Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross and The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila. She is a certified grief counselor and an adjunct professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of New Mexico, Taos.

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