Or perhaps, like my sister Donna, you've had your DNA tested to discover your racial and ethnic heritage. My sisters and I were surprised to discover that we have some previously unknown ethnic strands, including Jewish and Greek. I think that all of us feel more grounded, more secure in our self-knowledge and our identity, when we know some of our ancestral roots.
But there are other layers to our self-knowledge that we may be spiritually unconscious of: we may be unconscious of our souls. We may be unconscious of the Presence of God in our lives because we think that no one is greater than human beings, that believing in a God is a self-delusion. This is a greater tragedy than not knowing our biological parents or ancestors, for God is our Supreme Parent and we are created in God's Image. Or - we may believe in God and believe that we have souls, but we have given no or little thought or energy to discovering what this really means for our lives.
St. Teresa of Avila, in her masterpiece "The Interior Castle," says
"What a shame that, through our own unconsciousness, we do not know ourselves! Wouldn't a person look foolish, friends, if you asked him who he was
and he didn't know, had no idea who his father or mother were or what country he came from? If this seems stupid to you, know that our own stupidity is incomparably greater when we do not strive to know who we are. What transcends the body? We have heard that we have souls, and our faith compels us to believe that it is true. But we rarely consider the soul's excellent qualities or who it is that dwells within her or how precious she really is. And we don't bother to tend her beauty."
True, our intellects, no matter how sharp they are, cannot comprehend our souls any more than they can comprehend God. But once we are humble enough to admit that creation could not have invented itself and that there must be a Supreme Being, once we are humble enough to know that we encounter the depth of life in the depth of our own souls where that Supreme Being dwells, then we have discovered lasting hope. We have discovered that the reason for our existence is the creative overflowing of God's love; we have hope that our lives will never end but will be united forever with God our Eternal Lover.
St. Teresa of Avila had a vision of the human soul, which she and other spiritual writers refer to in feminine language. She says
"It came to me that the soul is like a castle made exclusively like diamond or some other very clear crystal. In this castle there are a multitude of dwellings, just as in heaven there are many mansions......a garden in which the Beloved takes great delight. What do you think a place might be like that such a king - so powerful and wise, so pure and filled with all good things - would find so delightful? ....He created us in His own image. If this is true (which it is), there is no point wearing ourselves out trying to fathom the beauty of this castle with our mere minds. Even though the castle is a created thing, there is a vast difference between Creator and creature, so the fact that the soul is made in God's image means that it is impossible for us to understand her sublime dignity and loveliness."
But part of our unconsciousness about who we really are, part of our lack of humility, is that we do not tend our soul's beauty. "All our attention is focused on the rough matrix of the diamond, the outer walls of the castle, which are none other than these bodies of ours." (St. Teresa).
God is the Sun dwelling in the center of our souls; His glorious Light is reflected and refracted through every room! Drawn by the promise of this Light of Hope and Love, how can we enter this castle? "If this castle is the soul, you obviously cannot enter it, because it is inside yourself. It would be absurd to suggest that someone go into a room she is already in! But, remember, there are many different ways to BE in a place."
Prayer is the doorway into our souls. True prayer is having an attentive, mindful awareness of Who we are talking to, and humbly looking into the depths of our souls aware of Who dwells there. Teresa sounds a cautionary note about prayer. Those who get into the habit of addressing the Magnificent One as if God were their servant (those who demand that God answer their prayers the way THEY want them answered!) - or those who let whatever pops into their heads come out of their mouths, simply repeating prayers they've learned without thought or attention - these people are not praying.
Then, what of those who don't pray at all? Here Teresa is even more direct.
"Souls who do not practice prayer are like people whose limbs are paralyzed. Even though they have hands and feet, they cannot command them." Without prayer we cannot move our spiritual legs to walk into the castle! If we don't pray, we'll end up hanging around the courtyard outside the castle, preoccupied with what is happening in the exterior world of our bodies, held back by the guards, the agents of evil, which Teresa envisions as slippery, poisonous reptiles who try to convince us that the spiritual world doesn't exist, or is unimportant. If we don't pray, we'll be so used to dealing with these nasty creatures that inhabit the outer walls that we'll become almost like them.
If we pray occasionally - say, a few times a month - our intentions are good. Every once in awhile, we're trying to put ourselves into God's hands, reflecting on who we are as God's children, even if our prayers are short and our attention is fleeting. We're still somewhat absorbed in the world's frantic distractions. But we can enter the front doors of the castle. We can walk into those first lower rooms. We can begin to experience the first rays of the Light of Love and Hope emanating from our Beloved Who dwells in the center.
But because the world is still too important to the souls who pray little, some of those slithery evil reptiles follow them into the first rooms, actively working to deceive them so that they'll turn around and leave. These souls are vulnerable to deception because they are still too attached to pleasure, to others' opinions, to pride, and ambition. One of these evil reptiles is the spirit of Fear. Teresa hears Fear's cajoling voice making these souls question themselves and what other people will think of them for starting to pray - something that not many, if any, of the people they hang around with are doing. The soul entwined in fear thinks
"Are they looking at me or not? Will everything go wrong for me if I take this path? What's a wretched little person like me doing engaging in anything so lofty as prayer? Won't I be perceived as (acting) superior if I don't follow the road everyone else is on? ....Besides, I doubt I'd make any progress anyway, and I'm likely to just cause trouble to good people. Someone like me doesn't need to make herself into anything special."
This spirit of unhealthy Fear is the greatest enemy to Hope! How can we hope in a good God if we doubt that this God loves us and wants to be with us ever and ever more closely? What is the antidote to the poison of the spirit of Fear?
The first antidote is recognizing that Fear is NOT humility! These unhealthy, destructive fears arise from not truly knowing ourselves. "Fear distorts knowledge of self. What we should really be afraid of is obsessing over ourselves and never getting free of ourselves! And so I say, my friends, let us set our eyes on Christ, our good, and on His saints. That is where we will learn true humility. Then our understanding will be enhanced. Then self-knowledge will not make us timid and cowardly."
Fear keeps us from loving God and loving each other. Only the soul who is free from fear can avoid attempting to be a manipulator of others (including God) or avoid being easily manipulated.
This is the first dwelling of the interior castle, a dwelling so rich and precious that the soul can wander through numberless rooms, slowly advancing forward. Our souls still don't entirely grasp the magnificence of this dwelling; we're still distracted by our roller-coaster lives, our anxieties, and the people around us who have no concept of a spiritual life. The serpents still try to entangle our feet in their coils. Christ's light still seems dim to us. But we've made a beginning. If we can begin to pray more and more frequently and fervently, if we can reach out to others with God's love, we will eventually be able to enter the second section of that magnificent inner edifice where God makes His home with us and calls us to hope in everlasting life.
Mirabai Starr, translator of this version of "The Interior Castle," comments
"In every room of the interior castle, Teresa is there, reminding the seeker not to rest in a false sense of personal accomplishment but to remember always to praise God and love each other."