THE FIRST MANSION

by Father Gabriel Barry, O.C.D.


I. INTRODUCTION

It is not easy to speak about Christian prayer. Like all the basic things of life, it is something eminently simple and beautiful, and to analyze it or subdivide, tends to obscure this fact. Even St. Teresa, great authority though she was, reacted strongly when asked to write about prayer. In very first page of the Interior Castle, we read: "Few tasks which I have been given have been so difficult for me as this present one of writing about things related to prayer."(1)

In spite of the high degree of inner maturity she had attained, she was reluctant to write about these matters of the spirit, more especially when there was a question of communicating them to others. She knew that, try as she may, she could never be entirely successful. Some of the human heritage of sin was bound to show through what she would write. Also, like all of God's good servants, she trusted any kind of undue eagerness to speak of God's special favors. But she also knew that the power of God was working through her, that truth and light and goodness would come from Christ and flow on to the pages of her book.

With that in mind, she set aside her hesitance, and did what her superiors had asked. The result was Interior Castle, one of the great classics of spiritual writing. It presents the interior life of man in terms of a castle made out of single diamond, comprising seven courts or mansions. The beauty of this castle is unsurpassable and resplendent; it is a veritable pearl of the orient. One after another, St. Teresa leads us through the inner rooms of this wondrous palace, until we reach the last mansion where the King of Glory dwells. God's life and light are felt throughout the entire castle, but his abode is in the deep center, at the very heart of reality. For in truth, God is the foundation of all reality, and His splendor pervades it all. St. Teresa uses all the powers of her virile, luminous mind to describe the various mansions of the castle. Each one represents a stage of perfection and virtuous endeavor to draw closer to God. Each one, too, has its own special characteristics. But this sevenfold division is not meant to be understood in a materialistic sense, as if there were seven clean cut compartments arranged one after another, and once we had passed through any of them, we leave it behind forever. This is not what St. Teresa meant. We ought to think of it more in progressive terms of expanding growth, as St. Teresa herself indicates when she uses the imagery of the tree or palmito.(2) Right through the full range of the spiritual life, there is a consistent growth in maturity and depth.

For example, those in the First Mansion are largely at the stage of repentance, the stage of those called by Christ to metanoia and a new way of life. They have found God; they are returning to him, like the prodigal son, after having eaten the food of swine.(3) They are striving to consolidate their relationship with Him by practicing self-denial, and by building up habits of prayer and virtuous living. But obviously, this attitude, though characteristic of the First Mansion, does not end there. It continues throughout all the mansions. Rather I should say, it is caught up in the characteristics of the Second Mansion, in a gradual process of deepening and transforming. Later on, the Third Mansion supervenes to take in the other two, making them more solid, more balanced and better related to divine love. And so on through the others.

This conference is confined to discussing the first Mansion. I propose to refer to a few of St. Teresa's statements. But it would be well to read all she has written in the two chapters that comprise this Mansion, as well as what she has to say in her Autobiography concerning First Water.(4) These are supplemented by many chapters in the Way of Perfection, which is full of practical advice.

II. PRAYER

But before going on, let us revert for a moment to the subject of Prayer. Petition is the basic human prayer. At one and the same time, it is a call for help and a cry of praise, welling up from the soul of man. It is also our way of cooperating with God, asking Him to do what we could never do of our own unaided strength. The prayer of petition, then, at least implicitly, is an act of trust and faith, and contains some amount of incipient love. Christ Himself, has taught us to use it in the Our Father, "a prayer that included all we need, both spiritual and temporal."(5)

However, prayer does not consist in petition alone. Having in some measure got to know who God is, it is natural for us to want to deepen that acquaintance. This brings about another attitude of mind, which can best be expressed as a "search" for God. St. John of the Cross speaks of this in the magnificent poems, The Dark Night and the Spiritual Canticle. For example:

On a dark night
Kindled in love with yearnings
-O happy chance-
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

This "searching" for God causes another manner of prayer to come into prominence. It is known by various names: interior prayer, silent prayer, meditation, mental prayer. It is not a distinct kind from petition, which may in fact be expressed in a non verbal way. But this inner form of prayer rises above both words and mere petitions. It concentrates on the more spiritual aspects of man's reaching out for God. But it never ceases to be an acknowledgment of our condition as creatures, recognizing who God is, who we are, and our continual need for God. At least implicitly, the element of petition remains. St. Teresa's commentary on the Our Father which concludes the Way of Perfection shows clearly that the seven basic petitions which our Lord taught us, can lead even to the heights of mystical prayer. All authentic prayer is ultimately fashioned from the stuff of faith, trust and love.

III. SPIRITUAL GROWTH

At one end of the scale, then, is man, created and finite, with his great endowments, his many limitations, his achievements and failures. At the other end is God, the Uncreated, the Infinite, the All-loving and All-wise. He has made man to His own image, and He wants man to pray. This means that He wants man to draw near to Himself, to wait for Him in loving patience, to commit himself to Him in love. That is how we learn to be worthy both of God and of the nature He has given us. Striving to know God is not just a vain of futile impulse on the part of man. God Himself has planted it in the deep heart's core, for eternal life consists in knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.(6) The longing for the infinite is part of man's very being. If there were no original sin, his entire life would have been an uninterrupted and ever-deepening communion with God. He would live in His abiding presence, as did our parents in paradise. Prayer is one of the principal means of bringing a gradual restoration of that happy condition.

However, in our present state, there can be no direct and immediate contact between the finite creature and the Infinite God. Just as the blazing light of the sun has to be toned down to be adapted to the human eye, so too, the Light that is God has to be attuned to the human spirit and the medium by which this is done is faith, "the proportionate means of communion with God." In order that these two extremes be united, namely the soul and Divine Wisdom, it will be necessary for them to attain to agreement, by means of a certain mutual resemblance. It follows that the soul must be simple and pure-Not that God would not give spiritual wisdom all at once if the two extremes, which are human and divine, sense and spirit could concur and unite in one act without the intervention of many other acts.(7) This means that a gradual rapprochement takes place. God takes the first step by his grace, then man responds, and so on until man and God meet in the Beatific Vision of eternal glory. Progress in prayer is an ever deepening experience of Him who comes closer and closer to us. We, on our part, open up more and more to receive Him, and as St. Augustine has pointed out this capacity is the greatest gift we have. It will be obvious that various stages of growth or illumination can be distinguished in the movement of the soul toward God. Spiritual writers have made many distinctions, approaching the question from different points of view. In these conferences however, we mean to comment mainly on St. Teresa's seven fold scale in the Interior Castle, she describes seven steps or stages that can be detected in spiritual growth, from the time when the soul turns to God in repentance, right up to the time when she is transformed into Christ in love. This division is based on the experience or reaction of the human spirit in relation to God. At one stage man's own efforts are most in evidence; later one becomes more conscious to God's work. But as I have already indicated, there is a real continuity from beginning to end, and the essential elements which constitute Christian prayer are presented from the outset.

IV. IN THE FIRST MANSION

The First Mansion is inhabited by men and women whom God has began to draw to Himself from the life of lukewarm Christian living or worldliness. They belong to the class, mentioned in the first conference, Who are not without certain good convictions, but who rarely pray. "They are very much absorbed in worldly affairs," writes St. Teresa, "but their desires are good. Sometimes, though infrequently, they commend themselves to the Lord; and they think about the state of their souls, though not very carefully. Full of a thousand preoccupations as they are they pray only a few times a month, and as a rule they are thinking all the time of their preoccupations, for they are very much attached to them and where their treasure is, there is their heart also. From time to time however, they shake their minds free of them....Eventually, they entered the first room of the floor. They have done a great deal by entering at all."(8)

In one way or another God attracts persons of this kind to Himself. This experience is what the Bible calls, "the revealing of the sin." God implores them to return to Him, to change their hearts, to mend their ways, to renew their minds. He gives them the light to perceive the reality of sin, a deliberate spurning of our Creator's love, a choice of darkness in preference to light. And truly as St. Teresa says, "no thic