Opening Passages: From the Life:
If I had not been so wicked, the possession of devout and God-fearing parents, together with the favour of God's grace, would have been enough to make me good. My father was fond of reading holy books, and had some in Spanish so that his children might read them too. These, and the pains my mother took in teaching us to pray and educating us in devotion to Our Lady and certain Saints, began to rouse me at the age, I think, of six or seven. It was a help to me that I never saw my parents inclined to anything but virtue, and many virtues they had. (p. 23)
From The Interior Castle:
Not many things that I have been ordered to under obedience have been as difficult for me as is this present task of writing about prayer. First, ti doesn't seem that the Lord is giving me either the spirit or the desire to undertake the work. Second, I have been experiencing now for three months such great noise and weakness in my head that I've found it a hardship even to write concerning necessary business matters. But, knowing that the strength given by obedience usually lessens the difficulty of things that seem impossible, I resolved to carry out the task very willingly, even though my human nature seems greatly distressed. Fro the Lord hasn't given me so much virtue that my nature in the midst of its struggle with continual sickness and duties of so many kinds doesn't feel strong aversion toward such a task. May He, in whose mercy I trust and who has helped me in other more difficult things so as to favor me, do this work for me. (p. 33)
Summary: St. Teresa's Life covers the period from her early years to her founding of the reformed convent, St. Joseph's in Àvila. Two themes intertwine throughout the actual narrative portion, based on two kinds of impediments people may have in the life of prayer.
The first kind of impediment is that which is put in place by oneself. Teresa is frank that she often impeded her own progress; part of the charm of the work is that it is a guidebook by which she warns others not to make the mistakes she made. Coleridge in his notes on St. Teresa was puzzled by her tendency to account herself the "most wicked of sinners", which seemed to him a kind of obvious lie; but, besides the oddity of the poet not grasping the naturalness of the superlative expression in order to express a more forceful condemnation, the more general point is that the things of which she speaks were impediments to union with God. In a like manner, this answers the puzzle people occasionally have about Teresa's forceful condemnations of things that do not seem so very bad, or even bad at all: they are impediments to union, and just as a thing may be minor in itself but serious in troubling a marriage, so a thing minor in itself may be far more grave when considered as an obstacle to a greater good.
The remedy for this kind of impediment is self-knowledge, which, however, is a difficult matter. One of the notable things about Teresa's discussions of self-knowledge is that it is clear that in her view self-knowledge is not something we can fully attain by ourselves; ultimately, of course, we will need the grace of God, but we also need the aid of others. Self-knowledge is social; it requires association with others, in love of God and love of neighbor.
The second kind of impediment is more interesting, storywise, and as interesting psychologically. One of the recurring themes of the Life is that of persecution by good people. Over and over again Teresa's progress is made more difficult by the opposition of good and decent people; and over and over again the most serious and terrible opponents are good and decent, and sometimes holy, people. There is no ironic attribution here; the whole point is that the persecutors are genuinely good and decent, and at times even genuinely holy. The problem arises because while the people in question may be good people acting on good motives, they do not fully understand what is happening. They do not have the experiences Teresa has, and she cannot fully explain them to them in words. Scholars often know about the things Teresa describes, and occasionally more than she does (although her spiritual reading was prodigious, it was not focused on technical and rigorous exposition), but for them it is an abstract conclusion depending on having the right premises, not something known by intimate familiarity. Teresa's experiences strike other people as dangerous -- which they are -- and as possible temptations by the devil -- which is a worry Teresa herself has to think through carefully -- and as forms of spiritual pride -- which is wrong, but understandable given that much of what she does is the sort of thing that could indeed be motivated by spiritual pride, although not always the way in which she does it.
The remedy for this kind of impediment is love of God. The good will persecute the good when they do not know the things they would need to know in order to avoid it; this is not actually abnormal. But this is also not as important, in the greater scheme of things, as it might sound; because goodness, being a work of God, is ultimately consistent, and all of these trials and troubles caused by good people, difficult though they might be, further the progress of Teresa's maturity and insight, and also contribute in the end to the increase of the goodness in what she is able to accomplish. Thus Teresa portrays reliance on the Lord as the primary mainstay throughout such difficulties.
Were we going through Teresa's life, we would have read the Foundations next, which talks of Teresa's trials and troubles and triumphs after the founding of St. Joseph's, and if we were looking at the growth in her spiritual understanding, we would probably look at The Way of Perfection, but there is indeed a special connection between the Life and the Interior Castle that makes it appropriate to fit them together. The entire middle of the Life, from about Chapter 11 to about Chapter 31, the greater portion of the book, is concerned not with telling a story so much as giving an account of the life of prayer. It is narratively a digression, but it is not a gratuitous one, since understanding the complexities of the life of prayer is essential for understanding Teresa's own life, and particularly what is behind her achievement in the founding of St. Joseph's. Interior Castle, written about fourteen years later, sees Teresa considering the same matters from a more mature perspective. The Four Waters, which is the scheme she uses for organizing her account of progress of prayer in the Life, only take us up to the sixth mansion in the Seven Mansions (moradas = apartments or dwelling-places) scheme she uses in the Interior Castle. She has progressed beyond the stage at which she wrote the Life and therefore has a better understanding of the things she talked about in that work, as she explicitly notes at several points. What is more, the work is an attempt to review the same material from that more advanced perspective. The reason why she was required to write the book, was that the Life was still being examined by the Inquisition, so she didn't have a copy of it; and once when in discussion about the spiritual life with her confessor, Father Gratian, she said that she had discussed the matter at greater length in her Life, of which she didn't have the copy. Father Gratian told her to write it down again, without the biographical reflection, and so she did. Thus Interior Castle revisits the self-knowledge theme of the earlier work and puts many of the claims made there in new light.
It is not my purpose here to look in any detail at the schematic of the spiritual life given in these works (a useful summary by Jordan Aumann, O.P, is given here), since I am here concerned more with the books as literary works. They are rich in metaphor, vigorous in language, abundant in insight; the Life, in particular, is a psychologically interesting narrative, and The Interior Castle is practically a prose poem. But they are both written with practical focus, since all of St. Teresa's focus was in some sense practical; they are about a life, one of moral and spiritual progress. Teresa herself is clear enough that the schemes she gives will only be approximated in the lives of other people -- as she says, although she looks at only seven moradas, "in each of these there are many others, below and above and to the sides, with lovely gardens and fountains and labyrinths, such delightful things that you would want to be dissolved in praises of the great God who created the soul in His own image and likeness" (p. 196). The works are not a rigid manual, a scholarly work for scholars. Rather, they are a sharing of experiences by one who has experienced them, a travelogue of the interior life.
Favorite Passages: From the Life, St. Teresa complaining about the difficulty of living a spiritual life and at the same time navigating a culture based on honor and avoiding offense:
...if we take care, as we rightly should, always to please God and hate the world, I do not see how at the same time we can be equally careful to please those who live in the world in matters that are continually changing. If this etiquette could be learnt once and for all, it might be tolerable. But even the correct addressing of letters demands the establishment of a University chair; there ought to be lectures in the art -- or whatever you call it. In one case one corner of the paper has to be left blank, and in another case another; and suddenly a man who was not even a 'Magnificence', has to be described as 'Illustrious'. (p. 282)
From The Interior Castle:
You must have already heard about His marvels manifested in the way silk originates, for only He could have invented something like that. The silkworms come from seeds about the size of little grains of pepper. (I have never seen this but have heard of it, and so if something in the explanation gets distorted it won't be my fault.) When the warm weather comes and the leaves begin to appear on the mulberry tree, the seeds start to live, for they are dead until then. The worms nourish themselves on the mulberry leaves until, having grown to full size, they settle on some twigs. There with their little mouths they themselves go about spinning the silk and making some very thick little cocoons in which they enclose themselves. The silkworm, which is fat and ugly, then dies, and a little white butterfly, which is very pretty, comes forth from the cocoon. (p. 91)
Recommendation: The Life is definitely a must-read; it is one of the great autobiographies of Western civilization, and deservedly considered so. The Interior Castle is Teresa's masterpiece, and a very beautiful work; but it's probably the case that you need to be in the right mindset to read it.
Teresa of Avila, The Life of Saint Teresa of Àila by Herself, Cohen, tr. Penguin Books (New York: 1957).
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, trs. Paulist Press (New York: 1979).