"Teresa of Avila and The Interior Castle" 9 of 11 in a series on The Reformation (John 14:1-18)

Mark Longhurst, November 12, 2017
Part of the Pentecost series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

First Congregational Church
John 14:1-18
Teresa of Avila and The Interior Castle
Rev. Mark Longhurst

The soul is a castle, 16th century mystic Teresa of Avila says. It’s a castle in which God Herself dwells, at the center of which God gleams like a diamond. In Teresa’s classic work The Interior Castle, the soul’s castle holds seven different dwelling places on the way to love’s radiant center, which is the place where God and the soul meet in intimacy. But castles are cavernous, and stumbling upon treasure is often precarious. There are dark corners in castles, twists and turns, secret passageways and multiple rooms in which we lose our way. And that’s for those of us who make it into the soul’s castle in the first place. Many of us, she says, remain in the outer courtyard, on the surface or exterior of life, and we’re unable to access our inner lives and thus we are unable to abide in God.

Jesus in John’s gospel simply tells that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places. And while interpreters of this passage have often pictured John’s dwelling places as a heavenly hotel suite for the afterlife, we astute readers of John’s gospel know that this Father’s house is available to us now. The Father’s house is that kingdom of God realm in which we participate here, in this reality, and then also in whatever worlds are to come.

Teresa writes this book The Interior Castle because a Catholic superior tells her too. The first paragraph is her complaining about it: she’s already written the content in other works, she says; she doesn’t really have the time, she says. Check At this point in her life she is a famous and politically well-connected woman, and yet her status itself is upheld by her obedience to the hierarchy. In a time in which women’s vocational choices are limited between child-bearer and nun, Teresa chooses nun. Women in these days are not allowed to read Scripture aloud, much less write books, preach sermons, and teach men how to pray, all of which, by the way, Teresa ends up doing. Muslim women who convert to Christianity face possible banishment for wearing headscarves, but Christian women risk punishment for scarves, too, for fear they are engaging in illicit sexual activity. And for the women who do sleep with men other than their husbands, well, a law permits the husbands to publicly execute their wives and their lovers.

It’s no wonder, then, why Teresa peppers her writings with excessive examples of self-flagellation, reproach, and over-emphasization of loyalty to the Catholic Church. One the ironies about this time period is that monastic life creates a pocket of freedom for women to exercise agency and leadership. In this context, Teresa manages to become the founder of a new, reformed order, the Discalced or “barefoot” Carmelites. These are monks and nuns living out a simple, more stripped down version of Christian life, as opposed to the “well heeled” or Calced Carmelites. They are a little too comfortable in their convent suites, Teresa thought, and John of the Cross, too, and indeed, monasteries wield much of the wealth and power in their day.

The doorway into the castle is prayer. The doorway is prayer. And Teresa’s doorway is connected to Jesus’s rules for entry, too: “Believe in God; believe also in me.” This is the way into the dwelling places. On first glance, this appears to be yet another doctrinal spear to bludgeon nonbelievers. And certainly, Christians have turned John 14:6, “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life” into a clobber text arrogantly to declare the wrongheadedness of other religions. But belief in John’s gospel, as we explored last year in depth, is not about hard and fast exclusionary lines. Belief in John’s gospel is about trust; it is a posture of relationship, the willingness to say “Yes” to the divine. And we cannot pray, or communicate, or—that longstanding Johannine theme—abide in God, unless we first trust. It’s trust and prayer that bring us into the inner realms of the castle, the Father’s house.

For some reason, however, we religious types have persuaded ourselves that religion is primarily about other things than the thing itself. We say, “I go to church for the community.” But isn’t that what the Rotary Club is for? We say, I go to church to be a part of social justice efforts,” but what makes us different than Greylock Together or Four Freedoms Coalition? We say, “I go to church to learn about the Bible,” but learning about the Bible and theology is far different than knowing God, loving God, discovering God in the soul. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for community and social justice and biblical-theological education, especially through the church, but there’s a way in which we risk losing our essence if church does not ground itself in the invitation to the soul’s interior castle.

And yet there’s a long accumulated history of churches failing to be about the thing that we are ostensibly about. There is not a lot of room for the soul, as we’ve explored, in Luther’s 16th century Germany. Even in Luther’s Reformation itself, as we learned at last week’s 2nd Hour, the soul’s relationship with God becomes eclipsed in a maelstrom of apocalypticism, fear, grandiosity, and political calculation based on bizarre claims to angelic visions. But there is likewise not a lot of room for soul in Teresa of Avila’s 16th century Spain, either. These are the days of religious renewal movements, such as the Jesuits; days of mystical awakening, such as with Teresa and John of the Cross; and yet these are days of Catholic repression and reaction.

And in Spain, the 16th century brings days of the Spanish Inquisition. Isabel and Ferdinand have forced Jews to convert to Christianity or be expelled from the country. Thousands choose to convert rather than flee, including Teresa’s own grandfather Juan. He becomes a converso, a convert, and decades before Teresa is born, he is forced to walk a walk of shame through his town of Toledo, with other converts and their families. Teresa’s father Alfonso is likely there. Much like Hester Prynne’s “A” in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, the Catholics compel Teresa’s grandfather Juan to wear a robe, a penitential garment for the occasion called a sambenito, which bears a cross and flame on the back. For the rest of his life, Juan climbs the ladder of social hierarchy and never looks back, carrying his Jewish heritage as a hidden and dangerous secret.
And of course in John’s day, people do not wish to hear about the soul, or the kingdom of God, any more than they do now. Jesus, after all, is about to be put to death at the hands of the religious and political authorities. His most dangerous act is not overthrowing an imperial system, but rather claiming that “I and the Father are one.” Criticizing a religious system and insisting on the immediacy of divine experience is never popular, because then you are demonstrating that you don’t need the church anymore. You may choose loyalty to the church still, as Teresa does, as Jesus does to his divine Father with his disciples, but you once you taste the Divine embrace, you don’t need the Father’s exterior house anymore. There seems to be a dependency built structure of religion, however, a way in which churches subtly keep souls disempowered and coming back for more.

Much of what Jesus is up to in John is simply insisting on making room to enter the interior castle. “Yes,” there is room in this world for the soul. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. . Jesus stands in the Jerusalem Temple, earlier in John, and says, “Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days.” (John 2:19). In other words, “I AM the temple, I am the castle in which God makes her home. Or, likewise earlier in John, Jesus ends disputes about whether Jews or Samaritan temples are the proper place to worship, whether Congregationalists or Episcopalians have a corner on the market: “the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.” The Father’s house is nothing less than the kingdom of God within, as well as without, and this realm, while infinitely more expansive than us, nevertheless kisses us in our innermost realm, the soul. It is up to us to enter in.

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John 14:1-18

14:1 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (ESV)

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