Teresa of Avila: Interior Castle: Seventh Mansions: Chapter Four

The Interior Castle is a book about prayer and the intimacy we can have with Jesus Christ (“Spiritual Marriage”). The details of ascetic and mystical prayer can be complex theology. Therefore, Teresa of Avila periodically brings us back to the central practices of the Christian life: Love and humility along with their corresponding good works.

Every skilled theologian or exceptional leader learns to find (and consistently recapture) the “core issues” of his or her venture. In fact, an unwillingness to do so indicates a self-serving agenda that seeks to control others and their time. They also encumber their “followers” with unrealistic and unprofitable demands. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned: Is it the Churches concern to erect a spiritual tyranny over men, by dictating to them what must be believed and performed in order to be saved, and by presuming to enforce that belief and behavior with the sanctions of temporal and eternal punishment? (Who put the church in charge your life anyway?)

Teresa mastered the “core issues” of the faith. This is why she was an exceptional theologian, reformer, and leader. She said, “I only wish to inform you that in order to profit by this path and ascend to the dwelling places we desire, the important thing is not to think much but to love much, and so do that which best stirs you to love.” This is not anti-intellectualism, but it does warn about retreating into learning as a substitute for love. The same is true of prayer. Certainly prayer cultivates valuable intimacy with God and a peaceful life. Yet, it should also produce wisdom and good works in the daily activities of our life – particularly with our key relationships.

Bruce Lee, another master of “core issues”, said: It is not daily increase, but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity. It is the half-way cultivation that runs to ornamentation. So it is not how much fixed knowledge one has accumulated; rather it is what one can apply alively that counts.” 

I encourage simplification and the mastery of core issues. Do we center our key relationships in love and humility? Does our prayer produce wisdom and good works? Does our learning supply actionable content? Or, is our life running the way of “ornamentation”? It looks good. It impresses people. But it adds little value to self or others.


For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.

Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (Bruce Lee Library) Tuttle Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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The Sword

Much of our thinking revolves around a work and reward system.  If I work hard, I’m rewarded. If I don’t work hard, I deal with the consequences. We generally believe the work/reward system governs life – or should. If the work/reward system doesn’t work, we experience injustice. If we don’t get something we’ve worked for or someone else gets something they didn’t work as hard for, we believe it to be unfair.

The work/reward system also gives us the “imposter syndrome”. We’ve worked hard and get rewarded, but more reward than we believe we deserve. We see our shortcomings and wonder when everyone else will find out we’re an imposter (even though we’re not). We don’t believe we’re everything others believe us to be. This may be shame-based thinking, but the mindset is still the work/reward system.

The Judeo-Christian tradition, up to a point, accepts a work/reward premise. If we do right, God will bless us. Read Psalms. Read Proverbs. Read the book of Job. This is why Job was confused: “I lived right and now I’m suffering.” This was also the mindset of Job’s friends: “Bad things are happening to you, therefore you must have some sin.” Repent! We ultimately find at the end of Job, there were more complex things happening than the simple work/reward system related to Job’s behavior.

So if we follow Christ, live right, and our motives are right — we will be blessed. Right? Probably. But here’s the caveat. We will also suffer and this doesn’t fit neatly into the work/reward system. Teresa of Avila has an interesting observation about our blessings (“spiritual favors”). “Thus I hold for certain that these favors are meant to fortify our weakness . . . that we may be able to imitate him in his great sufferings.” So my very blessings from God may also be his way of strengthening me for future suffering (which in turn brings blessing, renewal, and redemption to others).

Teresa appeals to the biblical saints and their suffering. Mary, mother of Jesus, was blessed, but suffered. The Apostle Paul was blessed with visions, but suffered. And Peter, Teresa says, “Went straight to his death. And it was no small mercy from the Lord that Peter found someone to provide him with death.”

Let’s dig deeper into Mary’s blessing and suffering. In Luke 2, “The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.'” (Blessed) Later in the birth narrative Luke introduces Simeon: “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple . . . Simeon took him [Jesus] in his arms and praised God saying” this child would ultimately become “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Blessing, renewal, and redemption.) Simeon continues: “And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them . . .”

But then, Simeon says to Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”. (Mary, there will be an immense amount of chaos and opposition around your baby.) The blessing of Jesus comes with suffering. Simeon concludes by saying to Mary, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

If you follow Jesus, you will be blessed (i.e. it will be worth it). But, like Mary, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 


For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.

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Should I Worry About Sin?

Teresa of Avila: Interior Castle: Seventh Mansions: Book Four

Discussions about sin can cause various reactions. Some intuitively recognize there should be appropriate guilt for doing something wrong (e.g. immoral, unjust, unfair). But, for others, the word “sin” surfaces a history of self-condemning shame and/or the censorious judgmental of others. Let’s explore the subject of sin in more detail:

  • Sin is the absence of love. It dehumanizes self and/or others.
  • Sin is the not a failure to comply with an external religious and legalistic code.  The “legal code” version of sin leads many in religious circles to make severe judgments about the character, motives, and lifestyle choices of others. It also blinds them to their own gossip, judgmental attitudes, resentment, lack of joy, and ingratitude.
  • Teresa of Avila separates sin into two forms: Venial sin (less intentional and less serious sins) and Mortal Sin (intentional or grave sins). I’ve had a number of friends ask the rhetorical question: “Are there degrees of sin?” with the implied answer of “no”. But, sin has different forms of severity. (I deal with this in more detail in the Tree of Life.)

The “Spiritually Mature” and Their Struggle
In this section of the Interior Castle, Teresa discusses “spiritually mature” people and their relationship with sin. These individuals have the intention not to commit sin, including the less intentional, less severe sins. But there is an assumption, by others, that because of their spiritual depth, they don’t struggle with sin. But they do! These individuals are aware of their “imperfections” and it concerns them that their behavior could cause damage to others. They, sometimes out of ignorance, do things they shouldn’t do and don’t do things they should do. This is part of the reason the spiritually mature can be so humble and non-judgmental: They know their own hearts and ignorance — so they cast aside self-righteousness.

Should We Worry About Sin?

  • In one sense: YES! We should be concerned about sin. This is for all the reasons noted above. And so we take measures to eliminate our own sin knowing it could be damaging to self and others. We also take whatever steps we can to immunize ourselves against the destructive behaviors of others.
  • In another sense, NO! We don’t worry about sin because of forgiveness. “There is . . . no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Since God does not condemn us, we can also forgive ourselves and eliminate shame. Once this happens, our forgiveness can flow into our other relationships. We forgive others. Forgiving others will also set us free from our anger about their past behaviors. Until we can reach that point, we’re still giving them a measure of control over our present and future. Let me add, extending forgiveness does not mean we reenter a destructive relationship. We must combine grace with boundaries.

Sin, grace, and forgiveness are key messages in Christianity. We move from sin (e.g. destructive behaviors). We discard religious legal codes designed to control people. We release self-condemnation. We embrace grace and forgiveness for ourselves. We extend forgiveness and grace to others. We establish healthy and appropriate boundaries.


For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.

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Gratefulness: Favorite Things From 2017

Favorite Books I Read This Year

  • Artist of Life by Bruce Lee: A classic book on martial arts, philosophy, simplicity, and self-expression.
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity. (Bruce Lee)


Favorite Movies


Favorite Photo I Think I Took:
We have many skilled photographers in our family. I’m not one of them. So if I have a good photo on my phone, I always entertain the possibility someone borrowed it to take the picture. But, I think I actually took this photo:

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Best Spiritual Lesson Re-learned
90% of our spiritual life is recognizing God delights in us (i.e. he loves us, likes us, and enjoys us) and he presents us with unlimited possibilities. This is summarized in Psalm 18: “He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.”

Attached is a blog post I wrote about this idea in more detail. It combines one of my childhood memories about Christmas, an old Christmas Hymn, and an early experience with God.


Favorite Busking Video in the New York City Subway
I love New York. I also love busking in the subway (I don’t actually do the busking, I’m only a spectator.) For some subway riders, paying attention to these musicians can result in quite the surprise:

Favorite Album
Semper Femina by Laura Marling

Here is a cut from her album.

Favorite Surprise of the Year
Scott and I went to school together since the first grade. When we hit seventh grade, we had developed a great friendship and spent a lot of time together! Some of my greatest memories were those times. Scott and his amazing family made a significant difference in my life 45 years ago (a difference lasting an entire lifetime!).

Scott moved to Alaska after high school and we lost touch. I hadn’t seen him in 30 years – and only once in 40. About a month ago I received a surprise call inviting me to dinner and Scott was going to join us.

Out of that dinner came another story. The people that bought Scott’s childhood home were doing some remodeling. They found a piece of paper in the wall that had been there over 50 years and called his mom. Of all things, it was one of Scott’s first grade writing assignments in which he had to write about a classmate. Guess Who?

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Favorite Place to Visit
“Favorite” was too complicated to narrow down, but here was one great place: The Jostedalsbreen Glacier. (Note the blue glacial ice)

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Favorite Thing I Wrote This Year
We were “abandoned” on an island in the Norwegian Sea. (Spoiler Alert – We made it back.)

Favorite People
I have amazing family, friends, and co-workers. My appreciation and gratefulness for high quality relationships grew more than ever in 2017. I’ve also had the good fortune this year to make new friends and reconnect with many family and friends I haven’t see in a long time.

Thanks, to each of you for being such a meaningful part of my life. I wish you all a fabulous 2018.

But before I go, I have to award my final item: My Favorite Person of the Year.

This goes to Janet for a record 39 years in a row.

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In the Bleak Mid-Winter

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. (Psalm 22.9-10)

I was raised in pre-climate change “Minn-a-soda”:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

In my family of origin, Christmas Eve was the major time of celebration. There was an abundance of presents, children and grandchildren, and nieces and nephews. Christmas Eve also came with an abundance of fighting, competition, temper tantrums, and scheming. This was from the adults.

In this context was my favorite childhood Christmas memory. I left the house Christmas Eve afternoon and went ice-skating for several hours. My friends were already celebrating or traveling, so I went alone — or should I say in solitude. I pretty much had the rink and chalet to myself. It was snowing. It was perfect.

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

There was a public nativity scene in North Mankato. Off to the side was a simple message: “Wise Men Still Seek Him”. While there were a few scattered attempts to get us to church as kids, most of my theology came from TV and Christmas songs. Yet this nativity scene fascinated me. Why? Because I believed this story and in this baby.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

Without being taught, I already had a faith in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John explains this revelation:

  • “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
  • “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
  • “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

As an eleven-year old boy, I already knew that light. He made himself “visible” to me. Later in life I connected with him at a deeper level. But as a child, I didn’t know what to do with this light. So I did what I could:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

The wise may still seek him according to the nativity scene, but there is also a bigger issue at play: He came to seek me! He found a way to reach me apart from the church, theological training, or good works. This is the part many miss about Christianity. It’s the complete acceptance by Jesus Christ of who we are — just as we are. Once we embrace our status that: “We are loved”, it opens up new possibilities. We can then begin the acceptance of ourselves and discard the limiting, and sometimes debilitating, fear and shame that sometimes controls our lives. If God accepts us, we can accept ourselves. Once, we can get to a deeper acceptance of ourselves, we become free to love others: John says, “We love because he first loved us.”

Teresa of Avila, in her book The Interior Castle, writes about Jesus Christ indwelling of our souls and the value he places on our souls:

“So then, what do you think that abode [our souls] will be like where a King so powerful, so wise, so pure, so full of all good things takes his delight? I don’t find anything comparable to the magnificent beauty of a soul and its marvelous capacity.”

If Jesus Christ indwells us, what must our souls be like? This Christmas season, I encourage you to embrace your core identity: Someone loved by Jesus Christ — completely accepted — just as your are. And remember: He still seeks you!

My favorite version of In the Bleak Mid-Winter is by Shawn Colvin

Photo: by Janet Small – Nativity Arrangement by Our Grandchildren



For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.

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