“ Like a rose among thorns, so is my beloved among the maidens” Rabbi Hizkiyah, quoting the Song of Songs in the first chapter of the Zohar1


Teresa’s Interior Castle, a classic text of Christian mysticism, was written as a guide to her fellow Carmelite sisters, to provide a path to spiritual purification, ultimately culminating in a sort of ‘marriage’, a union with the divine Majesty. The Soul is imagined as a castle, with the divine union-marriage at the center, the chapters of the text are divided into ‘Mansions’, each representing a new stage of spiritual evolution, a new dimension of the relationship between the soul and God.

Passing through the castle is the process of spiritual improvement; to pass through the ‘walls’ into the ‘interior mansions’ of the castle one must scale the walls, and confront the vicious ‘animals’ of sin and distraction.  Traveling from mansion to mansion the soul of the practitioner develops and becomes gradually removed from the superfluous and impure mental states and personal desires and pride.  The practitioner is engaged in a process of transformation, like the silkworm, the soul must be transformed, in alchemical terms, transmuted from its base, worldly nature to a pure and spiritually improved state. Teresa employs the silkworm as a symbolic analog to the practitioner, building for oneself a sort of ‘shelter’ in which to weather ones own transmutation, in Teresa’s case, the varying stages of personal development and spiritual evolution. The use of the silkworm also embodies the difficulties and hardships innate to the process of spiritual transformation, the silkworm must die, to arrive at the pure soul, the soul which can marry God, the old soul must die, the prior life abandoned in favor of the emergent, spiritual being which bursts from the shell of the old life.

            Ultimately the goal is the spiritual marriage to God, by the sixth mansion a sort of ‘betrothal’ has begun, but the soul is not yet prepared to abandon itself to the total authority of divine will, and the total rapture of all encompassing divine love, the self must be surrendered, and the old ‘life’ of the soul lost, replaced with a purified spiritual essence, prepared to abandon worldly concerns and embrace God’s all encompassing love.

Surrendering oneself to the divine will is a vital component of the process. One must gradually abandon the ego driven perception of the self as a being who has engaged in these spiritual practices as a result of their own holiness, and embrace the divine will, which is the only prerequisite and requirement for success on this path. “I will only warn you that, when you learn or hear that God is granting souls these graces, you must never beseech or desire Him to lead you along this road.”2

            Chapter nine of the sixth mansion hammers this point home, and provides some elucidation on the nature of the skepticism regarding the soul itself. “The soul, then, has these yearnings and tears and sighs, together with the strong impulses which have already been described.” 3 Without God’s will this process his impossible, one cannot engage or progress in this spiritual path, “…it must be clearly understood that no limitations can be set to God’s acts and that He can raise a soul to the highest point….”4

            Looking at Teresa’s philosophy in greater depth is benefited by a brief explanation of Zoharic and contemporary Kabbalistic interpretations of divine love and union, which, though in marked contrast to Teresa’s guide for spiritual advancement and divine union, still displays the variety of views surrounding the motif’s of Divine love and marriage, present not only in Judeo-Christian liturgy but also in the varied esoteric and mystical traditions in 14th-16th century Spain.

Spain was a hotbed of religious evolution, especially mystical, in the years before and after Teresa lived. Jewish Mysticism, especially, is said to have undergone some of its most noticeable and radical evolutions, culminating with the composition of one of the most famous, and by Jews revered, Kabbalistic texts, the Zohar.  First appearing in the 13th century, the Zohar introduced and solidified many concepts, which soon came to proliferate Kabbalistic texts, particularly the ascription of femininity to aspects of the Divine (The shechinah) and ensuing poetic allegories of erotic encounters. In looking at Spanish mysticism this divine eroticism is important, however, it is very easy to overstate the apparent similarities between traditions. The ‘sexual’ relationship depicted in the Zohar is not merely one between God and the Nation of Israel, despite the use of courtly allegory to describe the Jews all consuming passionate love for God, rather, the sexual imagery in the Zohar relates to an act of procreation and emanation within the Divine. With the exception of Moses, who is understood esoterically within Zoharic literature to have ended his physical relations with his wife after beginning spiritual ‘relations’ with God5, it is not Man who’s relation to God is sexualized, but the ‘parts’ (Sephira) of the Divine whole, from whose interactions flow creation. From the divine nothingness above the ‘Crown’ flow varying aspects of divinity, and from the ‘interactions’ of these elements, new aspects come into being, finally coalescing and initiating the creation of the world.  The imagery of God and the Nation (or Assembly) of Israel as lovers is, however, much older than the Zohar. Even more confounding is the clear association of the shechinah, classically understood as the Divine presence, and feminized in the Zohar, with the nation of Israel itself! Regardless of the esoteric significance of the sexual imagery in the Zohar, the symbolic associations of divine eroticism between God and the Jewish people must have been a part of the popular imagination.  The earliest, and most canonical, evidence for this is the Shir Hashirim, The Song of Songs, in which the relationship between God and the Jews is symbolically depicted as a discourse between lovers.

Though it is doubtful Teresa would have had access to, let alone knowledge of, the Zohar, it is hard to believe these general esoteric ideas and themes would not have inspired her in anyway. The Song of Songs has a long history in Christianity too, unsurprisingly, typifying the lovers as God and the soul. Teresa’s Spain was, evidently, still rife with religious upheaval. Evident, not only because of the obvious influence of the Counter-Reformation and ebbing tide of Jewish and Muslim mystical literature (given their recent expulsion), but also from Teresa’s own frequent run ins with the Spanish Inquisition, reflective, I feel, of the kind of schismatic attitudes which often accompany the development of esoteric and mystical doctrines. (This was certainly the case with Spanish Kabbalah, viewed as heterodox by Church and some contemporary Talmudic authorities alike)

            It was during her imprisonment that she composed the Interior Castle, a guide, ostensibly written for the sisters of the Discalced Carmelite order, to Teresa’s mystical practices and philosophy of the soul. From the Castle we are able to gleam a good deal of her understanding of both the state of the soul, along with the methods for engaging in an internal, spiritual journey through the soul, to a spiritual marriage with God, and her own understanding of the relationship between Christ and Man, as typified by the aforementioned spiritual marriage.  

Teresa’s mystical journey, divided into varied, progressing stages, ultimately leading to mystical ‘union’ is not the union of the ‘self’ into the ‘one’, which Mysticism is so often generalized as, or even the dissolution of ‘self’ as seen in Buddhism, but a gradual casting off, of the distractions of the human condition, which make the passionate abandonment to Christ impossible for us in our daily lives, so evident is this concern, that each Mansion begins with a brief note describing what follows, and as is the case in the Fourth Mansion, occasionally providing guidance based on the practitioner using her guide’s personal difficulties. (“This chapter is very profitable for those who suffer greatly from distractions during prayer” 6)This pragmatism is very interesting, and is quite distinct from the speculative, abstract nature of Zoharic literature, Teresa’s focus on practical advice for those in the meditative equipoise of Christian Prayer is, in this regard, somewhat Buddhist. It is a guide for meditation, elaborating on the different methods for practice, and elucidating stages. Active prayer is the first stage of the process, and it is depicted in the first three mansions, contemplative, or mystical, prayer is more advanced and transcendental, and (in another Buddhist turn) begins the process of allowing the soul’s desires to fall away, removing the mental obstacles from total union with God. Divine will, being a major aspect of Teresa’s theology, is the only real way to achieve union, all efforts and desires of the soul are at best superfluous and at worst distractions, and must be purged, God’s will is embraced utterly and human desire quelled as afflictive and encouraging a false sense of independence from the divine will. Only then, when one abandons themselves utterly to God’s will and love, can the Interior Castle be traversed, and the divine marriage be enacted.


1 Matt, Daniel C. The Zohar. Vol. 1. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2004. Print. 1:1 a

2 Teresa, and E. Allison Peers. Interior Castle. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2007. Print. 136

3 Teresa, 141

4 Teresa, 141

5 Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken, 1961

6 Teresa,, 44

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