Stage Two of Monastic Purification

Wikis > Stage Two of Monastic Purification


We have looked in some detail at stage one of monastic purification, using the Rule of Benedict as our guide. Now we look at stage two of monastic purification, using the book “The Interior Castle” by Teresa of Avila as our guide.


In brief we can say that stage one involves the use of the will in practicing the monastic disciplines in order to bring purification, and  stage two involves the sovereign actions of God, that are beyond our will, in bringing purification. A related concept is that stage one is more outward than stage two, which is very inward. Likewise the movement from meditation to contemplation is part of the movement from stage one to stage two.


The bridge between the stages is prayer. That is, by applying the will to seek God in prayer a person will experience and release actions of God that take the person beyond the normal limits of mere effort. Applying the will to principles and commandments has value, but applying the will to seeking God advances the person beyond their own limitations. There is a great deal of interaction between a person’s effort and the need for grace in both stages of purification, but in stage two the parts of the person being purified are for the most part beyond the control of the mind. This includes ubiquitous human traits as self interest, as well as elements such as disturbing emotional activity, addictions, besetting sins, temptations, oppressions and imaginations. Time with God even transforms character deficits such as pride and spiritual blindness.


The monastic and contemplative literature contains many descriptions and explanations of the process of purification. Usually the incremental and progressive nature of this process is symbolized as a journey. For example, John of the Cross likens the spiritual journey to climbing a mountain. Thus, his book on “The Ascent of Mt. Carmel” describes the early stages of purification, and his book “The Dark Night” describes the later stages of purification. See the essay series beginning with The Dark Night for a detailed look at his teaching.


Teresa of Avila’s book describes the journey of purification in terms of a person who travels into a large castle, from the outer rooms to the inner chamber. The outer rooms correspond to the earlier stages of purification and the inner rooms to the later stages. Here are Teresa’s introductory statements from chapter one of her book:


“WHILE I was begging our Lord to-day to speak for me, since I knew not what to say nor how to commence this work (Teresa had been asked to write a book about prayer for her fellow sisters in the convent) which obedience has laid upon me, an idea occurred to me which I will explain, and which will serve as a foundation for that I am about to write.”

“I thought of the soul as resembling a castle, formed of a single diamond or a very transparent crystal, and containing many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions. If we reflect, sisters, we shall see that the soul of the just man is but a paradise, in which, God tells us, He takes His delight. What, do you imagine, must that dwelling be in which a King so mighty, so wise, and so pure, containing in Himself all good, can delight to rest? Nothing can be compared to the great beauty and capabilities of a soul; however keen our intellects may be, they are as unable to comprehend them as to comprehend God, for, as He has told us, He created us in His own image and likeness.” 

“As this is so, we need not tire ourselves by trying to realize all the beauty of this castle, although, being His creature, there is all the difference between the soul and God that there is between the creature and the Creator; the fact that it is made in God’s image teaches us how great are its dignity and loveliness. It is no small misfortune and disgrace that, through our own fault, we neither understand our nature nor our origin. Would it not be gross ignorance, my daughters, if, when a man was questioned about his name, or country, or parents, he could not answer? Stupid as this would be, it is unspeakably more foolish to care to learn nothing of our nature except that we possess bodies, and only to realize vaguely that we have souls, because people say so and it is a doctrine of faith. Rarely do we reflect upon what gifts our souls may possess, Who dwells within them, or how extremely precious they are. Therefore we do little to preserve their beauty; all our care is concentrated on our bodies, which are but the coarse setting of the diamond, or the outer walls of the castle.”

This interior castle is very large, and represents symbolically the complexity of the interior soul of a human. Thus, even though the castle only has 7 “rooms” it is actually very large and the journey is very long. Each room in the castle is a “mansion” with multiple subdivisions and a great deal of complexity. Here is how Teresa describes it: “These mansions are not arranged in a row one behind another, but variously, some above, others below, others at each side; and in the center and midst of it all is the chiefest mansion, where the most secret things pass between God and the soul.”

The first 3 rooms roughly correspond to what we are calling stage one of monastic purification. Here is a summary of the first 3 mansions (taken from the introduction to Allison Peers’ edition of the Interior Castle):

“FIRST MANSIONS. This chapter begins with a meditation on the excellence and dignity of the human soul, made as it is in the image and likeness of God: the author laments that more pains are not taken to perfect it. The souls in the first mansions are in a state of grace, but are still very much in love with the venomous creatures outside the castle-that is, the occasions of sin-and need a long and searching discipline before they can make any progress. So they stay for a long time in the Mansions of Humility, in which, since the light and heat from within reach them only in a faint and diffused form, all is cold and dim.”

“SECOND MANSIONS. But all the time the soul is anxious to penetrate farther into the castle, so it seeks every opportunity of advancement-sermons, edifying conversations, good company and so on. It is doing its utmost to put its desires into practice: these are the Mansions of the Practice of Prayer. It is not completely secure from the attacks of the poisonous reptiles which infest the courtyard of the castle, but its powers of resisting are increasing. There is more warmth and light here than in the First Mansions.”

“THIRD MANSIONS. The description of these Mansions of Exemplary Life begins with stern exhortations on the dangers of trusting to one’s own strength and to the virtues one has already acquired, which must still of necessity be very weak. Yet, although the soul reaches the Third Mansions may still fall back, it has attained a high standard of virtue. Controlled by discipline and penance and disposed to performing acts of charity toward others, it has acquired prudence and discretion and orders its life well. Its limitations are those of vision: it has not yet experienced to the full the inspiring force of love. It has not made a full self-oblation, a total self surrender. Its love is still governed by reason, and so its progress is slow. It suffers from aridity, and is given only occasional glimpses into the Mansions beyond.

The next essay, continuing our examination of stage two of monastic purification, then begins in the fourth mansion of Teresa, described by Allison Peers as “where the supernatural element of the mystical life first enters: that is to say, it is no longer by its own efforts that the soul is acquiring what it gains. Henceforth the soul’s part will become increasingly less and God’s part increasingly greater.”

Here then we enter into the beginning of advanced contemplation.  We find the transition from mediation to contemplation, the start of infused knowledge, the peace that passes understanding and the visitations and consolations of God. We go now to consolations in the fourth mansion.