‘…it seems to me that we will never know ourselves unless we seek to know God. Glimpsing his greatness, we recognize our own powerlessness; gazing upon his purity, we notice where we are impure; pondering his humility, we see how far from humble we are… Test us, Beloved, you who know the truth, so that we may know ourselves.’
The Life of St. Teresa of Ávila
The Way of the Mystic: St. Teresa of Avila's Life and Teaching
Spotify Podcast: Selected Verses and Teachings for Meditation
Podcast - The Interior Castle Audio Book
Audio files from Christian Classics Ethereal Library
The Interior Castle (1588)
St. Teresa of Avila
In Summary

The Self is a castle, with many walls to be scaled and guards to be disarmed before one can penetrate its deepest chambers, where the presence of God awaits as the lover and ruler of our hearts.


‘What’s a wretched little person like me doing engaging in something as lofty as prayer?’ Teresa of Avila writes, reminding us of her insignificance on nearly every page. Indeed, in order to have a work of theology published as a female in the 1500s, Teresa of Avila had to constantly humble herself before her audience, keeping up the illusion that the local male priest was still her spiritual superior, lest she be tried for heresy by the Spanish Inquisition. While she was certainly willing to die for her beliefs—e.g., she ran away at the age of seven hoping to become a martyr — her subtle tact and humble brilliance allowed her to quietly reform the Spanish church from within, standing in stark contrast to the posturing and bravado of a Luther. From the ashes of Teresa’s humility arose one of the starkest works of spirituality in the Western canon, The Interior Castle (1588), which is still pondered and pored over today by feminists, theologians, philosophers, and psychologists alike.

While the world was concerned by her female body, she was busy ascending into the heights of her soul. Around the age of forty, Teresa began to receive intensive visions of a spiritual castle within the human self, with God dwelling in its innermost chamber. Her own greatest sceptic, Teresa spent years trying to determine if these raptures came from God, Satan, or her own mind. Almost embarrassed of her heightened state, she once purportedly began to spontaneously levitate in front of everyone at church, and, in annoyance, instructed God to ‘Put me down!’ She had no idea why God would have chosen her above others, and only transcribed her visions upon being directly ordered to do so by her superiors, who knew they were in the presence of greatness, even if she did not.


According to Teresa, the soul is like ‘a castle made exclusively of diamond or some other very clear crystal.’ Through prayer, we can enter the seven layers of our own spiritual castle, like a ‘hedgehog curling up or a turtle drawing into its shell.’ The first layer is a room of self-knowledge, where we are humbled by confrontation with the stark reality of our sinfulness, realising our need to turn away from worldly pleasure and towards God. Going deeper into the second layer, we begin growing in holiness, prayer, and our desire for God. This draws the attention of Satan, whose ‘reptiles’ sneak through the walls to try and remind us of the outside world and the pleasures once enjoyed beyond the castle. Breaking through to the third layer, the soul has survived the initial wave of temptations and now faces the longer attritions of prayerful dry spells and worldly abstention, which solidifies a much deeper and unwavering kind of devotion. 

While the initial three rooms require actively purging our sins, the fourth room is where we become more passive in the process, as God begins to take over. One may stride through the outer courts of the castle but they have to be invited into its private chambers. While God was always present in some form, he now begins to interact more directly, spontaneously gifting us with supernatural prayers and deeper moments of intimacy. In other words, the King of the castle is beginning to court us. We enjoy his gifts all the more intensely because we are less distracted by the temptations of worldly pleasure — which, though not gone, begin to feel increasingly remote and trivial. By the fifth layer, we are on the cusp of betrothal to the King, experiencing the initial stages of union with God. Though this heightened intimacy does not last, the truth of it remains in Teresa’s mind, making her certain that ‘God was in her; she was in God.’ 

The marital imagery continues in the sixth room, as we wait with anticipation for our wedding day, often erupting in ecstatic visions and jubilations. Yet the waiting period brings with it the hardest trials of all, as depression, persecution, and even physical illness test how truly unwavering our devotion is to our beloved. Surviving this, we enter the deepest and final sanctum of the castle, joining the King in his personal chambers to consummate the marriage, becoming one with God. In these throes of intimacy, we reach the relative perfection that is available to us in this life, setting aside our own needs in order to serve, love, and suffer for our beloved.


If Teresa’s visions are indicative of reality, then there is a piercing and profound intimacy with the divine that is available to us all. God is not far off in the clouds nor hovering upon some distant mountain but resides within each and every one of us. Divinity dwells within our innermost chamber. Teresa intentionally uses this imagery of the marriage bed, not for its vulgarity but for its sanctity. There is arguably no greater image of unity than two bodies becoming one flesh, and thus no greater way to communicate the extent of our possible union with God. We are not peasants peering over the walls hoping to get a glimpse of majesty; no, we are the beloved of the King, who strides through the castle to be fully united with what is his.  

In line with this, Teresa is advocating for a rigorous interior life, one that demands self-knowledge, humility, and reflective prayer. Some have argued that Spanish literature still bears the traces of this interiority today, urged on and guided by one of its most treasured mothers. All those who wish to find God within themselves, or to cultivate a psychologically and religiously attuned interiority, will find this book to be essential reading.

Further Reading By This Author

In addition to her crowning achievement, The Interior Castle, Teresa’s writings also include The Way of Perfection, The Book of the Foundations, and her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus.

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