St. Teresa of Ávila wrote one of the greatest spiritual guides ever: The Interior Castle. She had a vision of the spiritual life as a diamond castle, with seven sets of “mansions.” These mansions go deeper to the center of our soul – where God resides.

1. Outside of the Castle

Here lie the snakes and venomous creatures. Life outside of the Interior Castle is a life without God, living in sin. When the ways of sin and attachments bite us, they leave us paralyzed.

How do we escape this empty way of life?

Repentance and prayer. Our only hope for salvation is to go to God. First, we must ask for forgiveness. Then we must move toward Him through our prayer, our interior life.

St. Teresa of Ávila by Peter Paul Rubens (1615)
St. Teresa of Ávila by Peter Paul Rubens (1615)

2. The First Mansions

Even though God has forgiven the soul, it still has lingering desires to sin. On top of sins, the soul also has many attachments to esteem and worldly things.

St. Teresa’s most important advice for the beginner is to try to rid themselves of sin and attachments. Jesus said that the riches and pleasures of the world can still choke those who hear the word of God.

The chief goal of prayer is to better love God and neighbor. If the soul doesn’t have love, its prayer will suffer. Love is possible for those who banish selfishness from their lives.

Some secondary thoughts from St. Teresa:

• Humility is essential to all growth in the spiritual life. Recognize who you are and recognize who God is.
• Recognize how good the created world is. Seeing the Creator and His beauty in the world should replace attachments.
• Meditate on spiritual things, especially the Gospels.

3. The Second Mansions

In this stage, the soul is only partially detached from sin and the allurements of the world. But there’s still much work for God to do.

God attracts the soul through holy conversations, sermons, and graces in prayer time.

But, the world still appears attractive. The soul clings to its belongings and to what other people think about it.

So what does St. Teresa recommend?

• Avoid associating with “evil” or “mediocre” people. Instead, associate with people pursuing Christ.
• Begin to “embrace the Cross” rather than running away from it. Don’t stop at accepting sufferings, begin to actually desire them (for the Lord’s sake).
• Make following God’s will a central part of your life.
• Don’t give up when you fall. Go to God for forgiveness and continue the race.
• Stay faithful to daily prayer.

4. The Third Mansions

Souls in this stage avoid even venial sins. They use their time well, spend hours in recollection, and desire penance. They also continue to perform acts of charity toward their neighbors.

Despite this, God still desires more for this soul. This includes a deeper freedom to love and more spiritual joys in prayer.

St. Teresa writes that “their love is not yet ardent enough to overwhelm their reason.”

She adds: “perfection consists not in consolations, but in the increase of love.

Expect and persevere through all spiritual dryness and desolations in prayer. This can include the “night of the senses“. Here, God purifies the soul of both worldly and spiritual attachments to consolation.

This stage may last for a long time. St. Teresa recommends doing what will open the soul up to God’s action. Recognize God’s presence within the soul in prayer, opening yourself to grace.

5. The Fourth Mansions

Reaching this stage is a major transition. This marks a move from the Purgative Way” to the “Illuminative Way.” St. Teresa dives into many spiritual terms.

Active Recollection – Present in the first three stages, this requires an effort to recognize God’s presence in prayer. This includes withdrawing all the faculties of the mind to ponder God and even speak with Him

Supernatural Recollection – The soul in the fourth mansions begins to experience this. God alone gives this grace, an loving awareness of God. We cannot bring about supernatural recollection through our own efforts. This prayer always transforms the person for the better. God takes over the will over time (uniting it with His) and then even the intellect and the imagination.

The Prayer of Quiet – The prayer of quiet is “a quiet, deep and peaceful happiness in the will.” This happiness remains even though the soul does not understand what it going on. Here the will is so occupied in contentment and joy in God that not even the memory or intellect can interrupt it. Like supernatural recollection, the prayer of quiet is “infused” (not by our own efforts). It grows our virtue and reduces our desires for worldly things. We desire prayer and to persevere in it, all while becoming more selfless for God.

St. Teresa lists three conditions for continued spiritual growth:

• Never give up the habitual practice of prayer.
• Continue to detach from everything that is not of God.
• Seek greater solitude (without neglecting work or duty), in imitation of Christ.

6. The Fifth Mansions

This stage is a much more advanced reflection of the previous. Here the “faculties are almost totally united with God but not so absorbed as not to function . . . [they] have only the ability to be occupied completely with God.” God’s entrance into the soul in the fourth mansions reaches a fullness in the fifth.

This type of prayer is “the prayer of union.” Here the soul loves God with such intensity that it is even forgetful of itself. As the soul grows in love, it also grows in detachment from selfishness.

The fruits of this prayer are more intense and transformative. They include a desire to praise God, to do penance and suffer for Him, to have solitude, and for all souls to know God.

Having experienced this, finite things no longer satisfy this soul. Even sufferings bring about contentment and joy, if suffered for the Lord. This soul experiences grief at not being able to serve the Lord as He deserves. Also, the sheer amount of souls who do not know the Lord or offend the Lord brings deep pain.

7. The Sixth Mansions

Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1647-1652)
Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1647-1652)

In this stage, the soul moves from the “Illuminative Way” to the “Unitive Way.” St. Teresa writes many chapters to this stage alone, along with many terms:

Ecstasy/Rapture – St. Teresa uses these terms for the same type of prayer. In this type, one’s “will is fully occupied with Him” and “fully awake to the things of God.” It is so deep that the soul will never forget the experience after it happens. She describes the “bodily energies” like seeing, hearing, and touching disappearing. This can be either gradual and quick. In certain moments and for a short time, the soul even loses the faculties of the intellect and memory. Ecstatic prayer can lost for hours and can happen often, without any control over when.

Transport/Flight of the Spirit – St. Teresa also uses these terms for the same type. A transport always comes about quickly. In a transport “the soul really seems to have left the body; on the other hand, it is clear that the person is not dead, though for a few moments he cannot even himself be sure if the soul is in the body or no. He feels as if he has been in another word.”

Impulse – An impulse is a frequent, sometimes habitual desire. It involves remembering that the soul is separated from God and thus a deep sorrow. This results in the soul both desiring to serve God better and to leave the exile of life for heaven.

Wounding – In this type of prayer, it is as if “an arrow is thrust into the heart, or into the soul itself. Thus the wound causes a severe pain.” Although the pain hurts, it is also delightful. It passes through “as a flash of lightning and leaves everything in our nature that is earthly reduced to powder . . . It instantaneously enchains the faculties.” The soul “burns fiercely” and “is parched with thirst [for God].” The only cure for these wounds is the Beatific Vision in heaven.

Betrothal – This is the period before the “spiritual marriage” of the seventh mansions. While betrothed for marriage, the soul still feels frequent separations from God.

Levitation – Levitation is often linked with the flight of the spirit. This time, it takes the body as well. The fruits of physical levitation are “a strong fear of offending so awesome a God” and “a very great love for Him.” Modern scholars sometimes differentiate this gift from the others as a miraculous gift.

Despite these incredible graces, the soul remains rooted in humility. The soul desires to use these graces for the growth of God’s kingdom. As the soul advances in the sixth mansions, the raptures begin to end.

It’s important to know that spiritual dryness still occurs in the sixth mansions.

8. The Seventh Mansions

The final stage of contemplation on earth is “transforming union“. The last major advancement is the Beatific Vision in heaven.

St. Teresa explains the intellectual vision that begins the seventh mansions:

“First of all the spirit becomes enkindled and is illumined, as it were, by a cloud of the greatest brightness. It sees these three Persons, individually, and yet, by a wonderful kind of knowledge which is given to it, the soul realizes that most certainly and truly all these three Persons are one Substance and one Power and one Knowledge and one God alone; so that what we hold by faith the soul may be said here to grasp by sight, although nothing is seen by the eyes, either of the body or of the soul, for it is no ordinary vision.”

St. Teresa says in this state the soul can both be contemplative and active in the world at the same time. Spiritual marriage is spiritual, in the depths of the soul. Here “the soul remains all the time in that center with its God.” The presence of the Trinity “is so impossible to doubt.” God and the soul are united.