of Avila (1515- 1582)
Catholic belief, prayers and spiritual teaching
of Avila (1515- 1582)
By St Teresa of Avila
In which there are Two Chapters.
Describe the hideousness of a soul in mortal sin, some part of which God was pleased to manifest to a certain person. Says something also of self-knowledge. This chapter is profitable, since it contains some noteworthy matters. Explains in what sense the Mansions are to be understood.
Before passing on, I want you to consider what will be the state of this castle, so beautiful and resplendent this Orient pearl, this tree of life, planted in the living waters of life -- namely, in God -- when the soul falls into a mortal sin. No thicker darkness exists, and there is nothing dark and black which is not much less so than this. You need know only one thing about it -- that, although the Sun Himself, Who has given it all its splendour and beauty, is still there in the centre of the soul, it is as if He were not there for any participation which the soul has in Him, though it is as capable of enjoying Him as is the crystal of reflecting the sun.
While in a state like this the soul will find
profit in nothing, and hence, being as it is in
mortal sin, none of the good works it may do will be
of any avail to win it glory; for they will not
have their origin in that First Principle, which is
God, through Whom alone our virtue is true virtue.
And, since this soul has separated itself from Him,
it cannot be pleasing in His eyes; for, after all,
the intention of a person who commits a mortal sin is
not to please Him but to give pleasure to the devil;
and, as the devil is darkness itself, the poor soul
becomes darkness itself likewise.
May you be no less anxious, daughters, to pray
earnestly to God for those who are in this state and
who, with all their works, have become sheer
darkness. For, just as all the streamlets that flow
from a clear spring are as clear as the spring
itself, so the works of a soul in grace are pleasing
in the eyes both of God and of men, since they
proceed from this spring of life, in which the soul
is as a tree planted. It would give no shade and
yield no fruit if it proceeded not thence, for the
spring sustains it and prevents it from drying up and
causes it to produce good fruit. When the soul, on
the other hand, through its own fault, leaves this
spring and becomes rooted in a pool of pitch-black,
evil-smelling water, it produces nothing but misery
If we can remember these two things, sisters, the
time you have spent in reading all this, and the time
I have spent in writing it, will not have been lost.
Wise and learned men know them quite well, but we
women are slow and need instruction in everything. So
perhaps it may be the Lord's will that these
comparisons shall be brought to our notice. May He be
pleased of His goodness to give us grace to
I fully realize how important it is for you that I should explain certain interior matters to the best of my ability; for we continually hear what a good thing prayer is, and our Constitutions oblige us to engage in it for so many hours daily, yet they tell us nothing beyond what we ourselves have to do and say very little about the work done by the Lord in the soul -- I mean, supernatural work.
As I describe the things He does, and give various
explanations of them, it will be very helpful for us
to think of this celestial building which is within
us and is so little understood by mortals, although
many of them frequent it. And although the Lord has
thrown some light upon many matters of which I have
written, I do not think I have understood some of
them, especially the most difficult, as well as I do
now. The trouble, as I have said, is that, before I
can get to them, I shall have to explain many things
that are well known -- it is bound to be so when a
person is as stupid as I.
It is very important that no soul which practises prayer, whether little or much, should be subjected to undue constraint or limitation. Since God has given it such dignity, it must be allowed to roam through these mansions -- through those above, those below and those on either side. It must not be compelled to remain for a long time in one single room -- not, at least, unless it is in the room of self-knowledge. How necessary that is (and be sure you understand me here) even to those whom the Lord keeps in the same mansion in which He Himself is!
However high a state the soul may have attained, self-knowledge is incumbent upon it, and this it will never be able to neglect even should it so desire. Humility must always be doing its work like a bee making its honey in the hive: without humility all will be lost. Still, we should remember that the bee is constantly flying about from flower to flower, and in the same way, believe me, the soul must sometimes emerge from self-knowledge and soar aloft in meditation upon the greatness and the majesty of its God.
Doing this will help it to realize its own
baseness better than thinking of its own nature, and
it will be freer from the reptiles which enter the
first rooms -- that is, the rooms of self-knowledge.
For although, as I say, it is through the abundant
mercy of God that the soul studies to know itself,
yet one can have too much of a good thing, as the
saying goes, and believe me, we shall reach much
greater heights of virtue by thinking upon the virtue
of God than if we stay in our own little plot of
ground and tie ourselves down to it completely.
As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble. There are two advantages in this.
We were saying just now how black and noisome are
the streams that flow from souls in mortal sin.
Similarly, although this is not the same thing -- God
forbid! It is only a comparison -- so long as we are
buried in the wretchedness of our earthly nature
these streams of ours will never disengage themselves
from the slough of cowardice, pusillanimity and fear.
We shall always be glancing around and saying: "Are
people looking at me or not?" "If I take a certain
path shall I come to any harm?" "Dare I begin such
and such a task?" "Is it pride that is impelling me
to do so?" "Can anyone as wretched as I engage in so
lofty an exercise as prayer?" "Will people think
better of me if I refrain from following the crowd?"
"For extremes are not good," they say, "even in
virtue; and I am such a sinner that if I were to fail
I should only have farther to fall; perhaps I shall
make no progress and in that case I shall only be
doing good people harm; anyway, a person like myself
has no need to make herself singular."
It is for this reason, daughters, that I say we
must set our eyes upon Christ our Good, from Whom we
shall learn true humility, and also upon His saints.
Our understanding, as I have said, will then be
ennobled, and self-knowledge will not make us
timorous and fearful; for, although this is only
the first Mansion, it contains riches of great price,
and any who can elude the reptiles which are to be
found in it will not fail to go farther. Terrible are
the crafts and wiles which the devil uses to prevent
souls from learning to know themselves and
understanding his ways.
Those who find themselves in this state need to
take every opportunity of repairing to His Majesty,
and to make His blessed Mother their intercessor, and
also His saints, so that these may do battle for
them, since their own servants have little strength
for defending themselves. In reality it is necessary
in every state of life for our help to come from God.
May His Majesty grant us this through His mercy.
It is as if one were to enter a place flooded by sunlight with his eyes so full of dust that he could hardly open them. The room itself is light enough, but he cannot enjoy the light because he is prevented from doing so by these wild beasts and animals, which force him to close his eyes to everything but themselves. This seems to me to be the condition of a soul which, though not in a bad state, is so completely absorbed in things of the world and so deeply immersed, as I have said, in possessions or honours or business, that, although as a matter of fact it would like to gaze at the castle and enjoy its beauty, it is prevented from doing so, and seems quite unable to free itself from all these impediments.
Everyone, however, who wishes to enter
the second Mansions, will be well advised, as far
as his state of life permits, to try to put aside
all unnecessary affairs and business. For those
who hope to reach the principal Mansion, this is
so important that unless they begin in this way I
do not believe they will ever be able to get
there. Nor, indeed, even though it has entered
the castle, is the soul free from great peril in
the Mansion which it actually inhabits; for,
being among such poisonous things, it cannot, at
some time or another, escape being bitten by
Beware, my daughters, of cares which have nothing
to do with you. Remember that in few of the mansions
of this castle are we free from struggles with
devils. It is true that in some of them, the wardens,
who, as I think I said, are the faculties, have
strength for the fight; but it is most important that
we should not cease to be watchful against the
devil's wiles, lest he deceive us in the guise of an
angel of light. For there are a multitude of ways in
which he can deceive us, and gradually make his way
into the castle, and until he is actually there we do
not realize it.
Another sister is inspired with zeal for the
greatest possible perfection. This, again, is a very
good thing; but the result of it might be that she
would think any little fault on the part of the
sisters a serious failure, and would always be
looking out for such things and running to the
prioress about them; sometimes she might even be so
zealous about religious observances as to be unable
to see her own faults; and this the others, observing
only her zeal about their misdeeds and not
understanding the excellence of her intentions, might
well take none too kindly.
Let us refrain from indiscreet zeal, which may do
us great harm: let each one of you look to herself.
As I have said a great deal to you about this
elsewhere I will not enlarge on it further.
This would also apply to the sisters, where the
fault was a grave one: to say nothing through fear
that taking the matter up would be yielding to
temptation would itself be to yield to temptation.
However, to prevent deception by the devil, it should
be strongly stressed that no sister must discuss such
things with any other, for from this practice the
devil can pluck great advantage and start habits of
slander; these matters must be discussed, as I have
said, only with the person whose concern they are.
Here, glory be to God, we keep almost continuous
silence, so that the opportunity does not arise; none
the less, it is well that we should be on our guard.