As we increase our skills in any endeavor, we’re typically handed more challenges. This is true in leadership: You succeed and your manager gives you additional opportunities and challenges. You perform well in sports and you may draw a more difficult opponent. These are the rewards of continued growth and execution: Tangible benefits, increased confidence in our skills, and more difficult assignments. The same is true spiritually.
A Problem-Free Life
I’ve encountered Christians with a simplistic view of life. They “follow God” and believe they should be rewarded with minimal conflict and, for all practical purposes, a difficulty free life. They believe disruptive things shouldn’t happen to “good Christians”. They see the conflict and challenges of ordinary life as a consequence for sin, something lacking spiritually, or some form of “spiritual warfare” disrupting their convenient life.
Christian communities reinforce “the difficulty free life” idea with their stories. “I prayed and God opened parking spot opened up in front of the building.” Obviously God must listen to them! We measure their spirituality – and our spirituality – accordingly. Rarely do people say, “I prayed and had to park eight blocks away, walk through the rain, and was late for the meeting. God must listen to me!” We do this collectively as well: The sound system at church doesn’t work. “It must be spiritual warfare.” Why else would it happen if we’re doing great things for God?
The underlying teaching of this approach is that our external disruptions, trials, and chaos happen because we are less spiritual or spiritual beginners who can grow their way out of trials and external chaos. Teresa says, “It will seem to you that I am speaking to those who are beginning and that after this beginner’s stage souls can rest.” It doesn’t work that way.
The Inverse Relationship Between External Chaos and Interior Calm
Teresa explains there can be an inverse relationship between external chaos and interior calm: The “calm these souls have interiorly is for the sake of their having much less calm exteriorly”. This interior calm propels us into a more complex and chaotic life. In fact, Teresa says, the souls that experience this interior calm have “much less desire to have exterior calm”. I’m oversimplifying, but here are several formulas:
- Ordinary life with limited “spiritual” support: External Chaos = Internal Chaos
- Spiritually centered with quality support: External Chaos = Interior Calm
- Teresa of Avila modifies formula two: The Inevitable Increase in External Chaos = An Exponential Increase in Internal Calm.
The spiritually mature person is immersed in external chaos. They just learn not absorb it internally.* Then “the soul wages more war from the center than it did when it was outside suffering with them”. We learn the external chaos is not where the actual battle is. Through a calm center we launch an “assault” on the powers of evil and chaos through inner peace and joy. And then we find spiritual rest, not through external circumstances, but in the Interior Castle of our souls.
*Note: Interior calm doesn’t mean a mature person is exempt from experiencing suffering, struggles, or mental health issues as if they’re non-human. In addition to centering, prayer, and meditation — counselors, spiritual guides, quality reading, yoga, solitude, and friendships can be catalysts to finding a calm interior. We also need to learn to establish boundaries with some people and/or their behaviors.
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.