TWO LEVELS OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE FOURTH MANSION
In her book “The Interior Castle” Teresa of Avila describes the progressive ability of a person to know God, internally and intimately, as they progress, by prayer, into the inner mansions of their soul.
As discussed in consolations of the fourth mansions, the pilgrim eventually begins to sense God’s presence inwardly, experiencing the beauty and comfort of God that is radiating from the inner most chamber of the believer’s heart.
She begins this discussion by pointing out that a person usually has to spend a great deal of time in the earlier disciplines of the will, often enduring dryness and aridity, before they begin to sense the subtle “still small voice” of the bridegroom. Here is her introductory statement:
“As these Mansions are now getting near to the place where the King dwells, they are of great beauty and there are such exquisite things to be seen and appreciated in them that the understanding is incapable of describing them in any way accurately without being completely obscure to those devoid of experience. But any experienced person will understand quite well, especially if his experience has been considerable. It seems that, in order to reach these Mansions, one must have lived for a long time in the others; as a rule one must have been in those which we have just described, but there is no infallible rule about it, as you must often have heard, for the Lord gives when He wills and as He wills and to whom He wills, and, as the gifts are His own, this is doing no injustice to anyone.”
Teresa then goes on to point out that this consoling presence, being spiritual and subtle, must coexist and compete with the noise and distractions encountered earlier, which are still present. That is, the person now hears two “voices” at the same time: their own thoughts and a deeper understanding that God is present. She identifies the presence of God as stemming from His response to our love for Him, which in earlier stages was purified by persistence in prayer despite dryness and an inability to hear His voice. Here is a section from her discussion of the fourth mansions:
“If you would progress a long way on this road and ascend to the Mansions of your desire, the important thing is not to think much, but to love much; do, then, whatever most arouses you to love. Perhaps we do not know what love is: it would not surprise me a great deal to learn this, for love consists, not in the extent of our happiness, but in the firmness of our determination to try to please God in everything, and to endeavour, in all possible ways, not to offend Him, and to pray Him ever to advance the honor and glory of His Son and the growth of the Catholic Church. Those are the signs of love; do not imagine that the important thing is never to be thinking of anything else and that if your mind becomes slightly distracted all is lost.”
“I have sometimes been terribly oppressed by this turmoil of thoughts and it is only just over four years ago that I came to understand by experience that thought (or, to put it more clearly, imagination) is not the same thing as understanding…for, as the understanding is one of the faculties of the soul, I found it very hard to see why it was sometimes so timid (subtle and quiet); whereas thoughts, as a rule, fly so fast that only God can restrain them…It exasperated me to see the faculties of the soul,(in this case, the understanding)…occupied with God and recollected in Him, and the thought, on the other hand, confused and excited.”
Teresa then goes on to point out that the presence of scattered, carnal and unrestrained thoughts and distractions, which seem to be in opposition to the peace of feeling love for God and love from God, often brings the person into a sense of failure and condemnation. Thus the person gets depressed (she uses the older term melancholia) and so discouraged as to stop praying:
“Just as we cannot stop the movement of the heavens, revolving as they do with such speed, so we cannot restrain our thought. And then we send all the faculties of the soul after it, thinking we are lost, and have misused the time that we are spending in the presence of God. Yet the soul may perhaps be wholly united with Him in the Mansions very near His presence, while thought remains in the outskirts of the castle, suffering the assaults of a thousand wild and venomous creatures and from this suffering winning merit. So this must not upset us, and we must not abandon the struggle, as the devil tries to make us do. Most of these trials and times of unrest come from the fact that we do not understand ourselves.”
“O Lord, do Thou remember how much we have to suffer on this road through lack of knowledge! The worst of it is that, as we do not realize we need to know more when we think about Thee, we cannot ask those who know; indeed we have not even any idea what there is for us to ask them. So we suffer terrible trials because we do not understand ourselves; and we worry over what is not bad at all, but good, and think it very wrong. Hence proceed the afflictions of many people who practice prayer, and their complaints of interior trials — especially if they are unlearned people — so that they become melancholy, and their health declines, and they even abandon prayer altogether, because they fail to realize that there is an interior world close at hand.” (despite the fact that their thoughts are unruly).
“It is not good for us to be disturbed by our thoughts or to worry about them in the slightest; for if we do not worry and if the devil is responsible for them they will cease, and if they proceed, as they do, from the weakness which we inherit from the sin of Adam, and from many other weaknesses, let us have patience and bear everything for the love of God. Similarly we are obliged to eat and sleep, and we cannot escape from these obligations, though they are a great burden to us.”
Now, notice that inherent in these discussions (which are aimed at lessening the guilt and sense of failure that we experience when our thoughts are wandering in prayer) is the further concept that a person can be conscious of two levels of experience at the same time. The person can feel a subtle and quiet sense of rest, peace, approval and comfort and at the same time be distracted by their thoughts. Thus, we have the beginning of the two levels of consciousness that characterize the practice of contemplative prayer. As a person advances in prayer, and moves further into the castle, there can be 2 subsequent experiences that are a continuation of this beginning. First, the person may learn to “ignore” distractions and focus on loving God. This can sometimes occur even when the person cannot “feel” any presence of God, in which case it is described as “naked faith”. Or, secondly, the person may be granted, at least sometimes, an increased sense of God’s presence. Occasionally some individuals have such intensity of God’s presence that they express these times with words such as “ecstasy” or “rapture”. Although these are very pleasant experiences, and valuable if granted, they should still not be the goal of inward prayer. Thus the monastics teach that there is more virtue in sitting before God, turning a loving attention towards Him, than there is in seeking intense consolations.
We will now look at some of underlying practices that aid a person in advancing in contemplation. We look next then at the concept of meditation versus contemplation.