Backpacking with Teresa
Since Teresa of Avila came from the upper class of 16th century Spain, her life and spiritual understanding of God was highly infused by her own local context. In her most famous work, The Interior Castle, she begins with what might seem a surprising description of the outside of the castle as being “foul, dark and infested with toads, vipers and other venomous creatures.” In her 16th century context, living in the walled city of Avila and in a cloister no less, being outside and exposed to the natural world could be a dangerous and undesirable endeavor. Her masterwork then goes on to describe how the soul comes closer to God as it reaches the palaces that are successively closer to the center of the castle.
To many of us, who nowadays so often feel trapped indoors, and who often use our weekends to flee the cities and flock to the outdoors, the idea of retreating indoors to find God might seem less appealing. I wonder, then, if we can honor St. Teresa on her feast day by extending her vision of God to the outer world, and envisioning the soul’s journey on a spiritual pilgrimage of a backpacking trip?
I began to think of the soul as if it were a mountain range, in which there were many mountains with peaks, just as in Heaven there are many beautiful places to rest. I can find nothing with which to compare the great beauty of a soul and its great capacity–so there is no point in fatiguing ourselves by attempting to comprehend the beauty of this mountain range, as we will no doubt fail.
Many souls remain in the valleys below; they are not interested in trekking into the mountains, and have no idea what they are missing. We will say no more of these; let us think of those souls who do eventually set out to discover the mountains. Often, these would-be hikers are still very much absorbed in worldly affairs, and only think of the beauty of the mountains a few times a month. Eventually they make their way into the foothills, but so many of life’s technologies and distractions are still accessible to them that they are unable to appreciate the beauty of the created world around them.
Now, those interested in setting out further must not think of these mountains as arranged in a row, one behind another, but fix your attention on the center, the peak above all other peaks that brings you closest to experiencing the vastness of God’s creation. Think of a spiral staircase, which one may circle many times before reaching the very top. With regard to these first mountaintops I can give you some very useful information out of my own experience.
I must tell you, for example, to think of them as being crisscrossed by not just a few trails, but a very large number. There are many ways in which souls enter them, always with good intentions; but as the devil’s intentions are always very bad, he has many legions of evil spirits on each trail to prevent souls from continuing their journey: spirits such as aches in our bones, forgetfulness of necessary gear, or the many worries and concerns of the worldly life that keep us from devoting more of our time to the expedition. The devil is less successful with those who are nearer to the highest peak; but at this early stage, there are many who have no hope or intention of making it all the way, who are easily vanquished by the steady upward trajectory of the path.
You must note that the stunning views and the glory of God’s creation which are so readily experienced at the highest peak are hardly apparent in these lowest of peaks at all; for although they are not hard and gray, urban a full of daily distractions, as when the soul is trapped indoors and in the city, they are to some extent infested with the creep of digital distractions, because there are so many bad things–cell phones and smart watches and plastic-wrapped scientifically formulated energy snacks–which have come in with the soul that they prevent it from seeing the glory of God’s creation.
I will stop at this point, both to acknowledge that one must not take the metaphors too seriously, and also that the metaphor is fitting enough that this could go on for much longer than I have room or time to write. I am grateful for translator E. Allison Peers’ edition of The Interior Castle, from which I have heinously lifted passages right out of the book, altering them where befits the exercise. And I am grateful to you, dear reader, for coming on this journey with me. May we all remember St. Teresa of Avila on this day, a pioneer of taking our local context and imbuing it with deep spirituality and an earnest search for God, and continue to do likewise in our own lives.