I fully intended to continue on a course toward Easter with reflections on Passion Week . . . but on Saturday afternoon I was notified that my mother (in another state) had had a stroke and to come right away. So I sat by her bedside in ICU until we switched to “comfort care.” She slipped from this life to the next early yesterday morning . . .
Thank God that I was able to fly to be with her; thank God that she was relieved of her suffering quickly; thank God that my siblings are functioning well together, camping out in mom’s apartment in order to make the earthly transitions now required.
A Mass of the Resurrection will be held next Monday. I am feeling a little lost and “off,” having temporarily abandoned my pulmonary rehab regimen and losing a lot of sleep. Today things are a little calmer and more under “my” control, so I’m hoping to get my routines back in place . . .
I’m sure I will be reflecting on Mom’s life and legacy in this space, but not yet. “It’s complicated,” as mother-daughter relationships are prone to be. But for now, I am comforted by the Psalmist’s observation: “Precious in God’s sight is the death of his saints.”
Thank you for your prayers, fellow sojourners! And I am so glad for the Resurrection!
When I first read Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle as a seminary student, I got about half-way through it. She was writing about experiences I had never had and using terms I could not comprehend. Her ardor was unimaginable to me, so I put it aside and wrote an honest book report (Help! I have no idea what this woman is talking about!). I have not picked it up since, but am very grateful for Thomas Ashbrook’s unpacking in Mansions of the Heart, upon which this blog series has been based. His accessible tour of the castle and its mansions has given me a handle on what is still to come in my walk with Jesus.
The seventh mansion represents the fulfillment of our spiritual quest, into the very heart of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. If the first mansion was the foyer into the castle, the seventh mansion is the Safe Room at the very center. Arrival here is to have survived the Dark Nights, the divided loyalties, and the mountaintop ecstasies of faith. Entry into the presence of our Savior is to finally experience the Christian life as normal, uncontested (almost), and a natural way to live. I think of a car driver after twenty years behind the wheel: actions and responses are instinctive and second-nature.
And so it is in the spiritual life: someday this is going to be as free and natural as breathing. Yes, well, that is saying something, considering my current condition. I am four weeks post-op now, having had the upper left lobe of my lung removed (along with the shrunken cancer tumor within). Let’s just say, breathing does not come effortlessly, wheezing reminds me daily of my constricted airways, and my body is not getting quite enough oxygen. I do respiratory exercises three times a day to open the lungs and give those air sacs a chance to expand. I practice deep breathing, to maximize the air flow and develop greater lung capacity. If this isn’t a metaphor for Christian discipleship, I don’t know what is!
According to Teresa, the seventh mansion is navigated by way of three experiences or movements that carry us to the end of our earthly lives. Ashbrook lists them:
(1) We are given a unique vision of the Trinity, which transforms our “understanding” of God in Three Persons into an experiential knowledge. (2) Jesus reveals Himself to us in His humanity, similar to the way He revealed Himself to the disciples after His resurrection, and draws us into oneness likened to spiritual marriage. (3) Then, for the rest of our lives, we live in an ongoing and deepening relationship of unique union with God. They are distinct experiences, but they overlap and are related. (Mansions, 193)
The seventh mansion is not a state of continuous euphoria or daily ecstasy. Rather, having passed the dramatic roller coaster of the sixth mansion, with those pesky Dark Nights to shake one to the core, the seventh mansion is characterized by steady breathing in dynamic rhythm with the heartbeat of God. The tussles are over, the fellowship unhindered, and service to others fueled by the continuous infusion of God’s power is effective and selfless. One is completely free because one is completely surrendered to Jesus!
Dallas Willard used to talk about this dynamic, and I had a hard time understanding it then, but now I get it. He said the goal of the Christian life was to be in such union with Christ that we would be free to do what we wanted. Being the Calvinist I am, with a deep mistrust of my own “totally depraved” instincts, I was mystified by this vision. But Dallas’ point was, when you are in communion with the Lord, his will becomes your will and you experience the freedom Adam and Eve had before the Fall to “naturally” (i.e. in the Spirit) do what Jesus would do if he were in your shoes. Since he is, you can!
Consequently, prayer at this stage is a continuous trusting silence before God, “an adoring attentiveness to the Holy Trinity” (Mansions, 204). In this silence there is full union with the Trinity, and a sense that their prayer becomes our prayer. [Remember how, in Romans 8, it is noted that both the Holy Spirit and Jesus himself intercede for us to the Father!] We simply enter into their prayer life and are transformed by it. It is sustained in everyday life by God’s loving touches that draw our attention to him and keep us in his rhythm. It is also fueled by extended times of solitude and silence. Prayer such as this keeps us in the present moment, where God is sufficient and gracious and powerful. With this kind of security, the Enemy—try as it might—cannot get our full attention and is repulsed and resisted. We must remain vigilant against self-deception or spiritual pride, but God helps us by his Spirit. We are also tempted to spend all our time with God and overlook our neighbor. So again, we remain accountable to the Christian community and translate the great blessing from God into blessing for others in day-to-day ministry.
This navigation through the seven mansions of the interior castle has been a faith-stretcher for me and I hope an encouragement to you. As we progress through this season of Lent, may the Lord draw us ever closer into his heart and show us his true, triune nature!
It is said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but this conventional wisdom is put to the test during a period Christians have a hard time talking about. For an intimate look at the Dark Night, which itself is not a mansion in Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle but a dynamic, we turn to her sixteenth-century contemporary John of the Cross. He describes a condition of the spiritual life that flummoxes and disturbs the Jesus-follower, especially if one does not see it coming or understand its purpose. But even if one does, the experience is heart-wrenching enough—and sometimes long enough—to have the most advanced of saints trembling in a very dark place.
The first type of Dark Night involves a cessation of anything the senses pick up as to the presence and activity of God. John of the Cross calls this the “dark night of the senses” (Mansions, 154-163). It is not our imagination (belying the old challenge, “If God seems far away, guess who moved?”), but God is actually launching us on a new challenge intended to mature us as disciples by putting us on our own for a time.
Think of it this way: when we were babies, our cries when we were hungry or diaper-dirty were swiftly heard and heeded. We were fed or our diapers changed. Our parents’ God-given job at this stage of our life was to respond to our needs with such consistency that we would trust them and bond with them as we overcame the hurdles of infancy. As we grew older, we were taught how to walk, feed ourselves, learn at school, positively reinforced with pats on the back, gold stars on a chart, or a special treat on a Sunday afternoon. If our growing-up environment was healthy, our emotional and psychological maturing developed us into stable, self-reliant adults. If our parents did their job right (and I realize many fail, but hang in here with me), we have absorbed their wisdom and found a way to live consistently with their values and protections. Such “children” rise up to call their parents blessed.
God loves us so much, and our early Christian life is a time during which God shows that love by responding to our needs, pouring out blessing in large and small doses as needed. We accumulate experiences of spiritual touches that build our faith. But in order for us to be mature in Christ, we cannot be allowed by God forever to assume that following Jesus is about our feeling great, blessed, comforted, etc. Ultimately, God wants us to know that our relationship with him does not rise and fall on blessings (the creation) but on him alone (the Creator, Romans 1). And so, in order to test our progress, God withholds the blessings for a time in order to reveal the state of our dependencies.
By way of encouragement, God is doing something active: purifying our souls of those attachments and dependencies on things that cater to our weaknesses. If we are to trust solely in Jesus, we cannot depend on anything else for security, love, or affirmation. If we are to trust solely in God, we must be in touch with what it is we cannot trust in ourselves. During the Dark Night of the Senses, God withholds the “consolations” (the sense of blessing) and anything that feeds our spiritual pride, so that our only reason for living is for God’s sake (not even “our own spiritual growth”).
E. Stanley Jones, a life-long Methodist missionary in India, after decades of service suffered a catastrophic stroke and was bedridden. A Catholic bishop came to consult with him one day, pouring out his feelings upon retiring from service in the archdiocese. He was bemoaning the fact that he missed having a staff, missed the pomp and ceremony of his office, missed the authority he had carried. He was a sorry sack, pouring out his loss and the grief it was causing him, even to the point of shaking his faith in God. Jones, from his bed, looked at this pitiful man and told him, All these years you have relied on the props of your office to hold up your faith. I have lost everything and am confined to a bed, but my faith is strong because it never depended on props to keep it alive. Now that is a purified soul!
Ordinary Christians advancing on the road to spiritual maturity and union with God have those times and seasons when, from a sensory point of view, God seems absent and unresponsive. Prayer gets us nowhere; it seems our supplications hit the ceiling and fall right back down into our laps. We derive no blessing from worship, no consolation from prayer, no fruit of Bible study. God is putting us to the test with the question, Do you rely on blessing, consolation, and fruit more than you depend on Me? God gives us the opportunity to live without those spiritual perks for a time, in order to establish confidence in the presence and power of God as he knows himself to be and for his own sake, not ours. The deeper we travel through the mansions toward the center of the castle, the more spiritual life is about God and the less it is about us. This is progress!
We must stifle the tendency to “work harder” to wrest from God’s hand the blessings that we miss. The Dark Night of the Senses is a Lenten season of deprivation God orchestrates and we endure, so that on the other side we are convinced and secure in God’s love alone.
John of the Cross speaks of an even deeper level of Dark Night, that of the Soul. This is perhaps more frightening as it associates with our fear of abandonment, rejection, and despair. Not only is God seemingly absent, but we are mortified by the true state of our souls and its weaknesses, propensity to sin, and the hopelessness of our condition without the redeeming work of Christ. Our hunger and thirst for righteousness is met by God’s silence for a time, sometimes years, until God feels we have had enough purifying.
Protestants sometimes have a problem with the concept of “purification,” because we believe that our salvation was fully effected by Jesus Christ upon the cross and there is no further price to pay to satisfy God. So let me say here, the Dark Night is not about paying a price, earning grace, or even pleasing God. It is a ruthless dealing with the Old Nature that wants to depend, still and in very practical ways, on things and people and not on God. If we want to be Christ-like, we will be one with the Father. But this oneness means forsaking all the other things we say aren’t important, but it turns out they really are. As the writer of Hebrews said, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). Since we have not willingly chosen to resist the sin that so easily entangles us, God—graciously and patiently—will purge our souls of their unholy dependencies. Does it hurt? Unspeakably. Will we survive? God knows our hearts and what we can bear. Will it ever end? Not sure; ask Mother Teresa:
Perhaps the greatest example of the Dark Night of the Soul in recent memory is provided by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In the early 1950’s God spoke to her and directed her to start a radical mission to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. She uprooted her life and started a new order there, and God blessed her with a place, a cadre of dedicated Sisters, and financial support. God’s presence with her was tangible and she was empowered to launch an amazing ministry. After she was fully committed and the work had begun, God absented himself from her. Her prayer life went dry and her soul cried out to the One who had led her into this risky and costly ministry.
In the book Come, Be My Light, her fifty-year spiritual torment is chronicled by the priest responsible for investigating her life for Catholic sainthood. In the book, Brian Kolodiejchuk traces her spiritual development by means of correspondence with her spiritual directors and father confessors. Her experience can only be described as excruciating. After twenty-five years of daily mass, spiritual devotion, and desolation, something finally made sense to Teresa. God was allowing her to experience the abandonment and despair common with the very people she was reaching through her ministry on the streets of Calcutta. Her compassion for them, in Jesus’ name, helped her to smile and pour out the love of Jesus to them. But even until her death, there was never again an outpouring of blessing or even a sense that God was with her. She simply kept talking to God in prayer, offering her life as a living sacrifice, not for earning God’s favor but simply to love him by doing simple things for others.
I don’t think sharing my own experience of Dark Nights can add to those of these great saints of the church, but I have had them and wouldn’t wish them on anybody. Except for the fact that when God does show up again, there is nothing sweeter, more reassuring, or more thrilling than to be face-to-face once again with the God who never stopped loving me.
My husband and I were married two weeks after college graduation and almost four years after meeting. Our courtship had weathered difficulties and challenges, revealing our true characters to each other. Over the years, our love grew through from square-dance flirting to solid commitment to passion (yes, in that order, although my husband might have a different view . . .). The process of falling in love involved a deeper knowledge of my beloved, an appreciation of his fine qualities, a willingness to submit my life to his care, and a mysterious chemistry that simply bound us together in intimate communion. This is the life experience I tap into in order to understand what is coming for me in relationship with my Lord and Savior.
Teresa of Avila describes the Sixth Mansion in terms of passionate love for God. The wooing of God as of a Groom calling out to his Bride redefines the relationship. In previous mansions, the love of God is received more as a Father’s love for his child. In this mansion, Teresa describes the intensity of passion and focus virtually in sexual terms, which is simply an extension of the New Testament’s recurring image of the Church as Christ’s Bride (culminating in Revelation 19:7 and 21:2ff) and the metaphor likening human marriage to the relationship between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:21ff).
One experiences this level of intensity as a continuation and deepening of the fifth mansion, so the line between the two stages is often blurry. Prayer and contemplation become one’s greatest desire. Alongside this is an accompanying detachment from things and worldly values, which simply become less important or motivating that knowing Jesus. Paul expressed this sentiment in an autobiographical reflection, when he wrote: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ . . .” (Philippians 3:7-11). The reality is that the interest in stuff—food, gadgets, winning, Mad Men reruns, whatever—drop away as a passion for God overtakes all other attachments.
Meanwhile, in service to others one experiences a deep desire for a level of freedom that allows one to be responsive to the Holy Spirit’s leading. This translates for me into the longing not to be tied down to a “ministry job” in order to “waste time with God” and to be available to the people who need a touch of God’s love, wisdom, encouragement, or instruction. I have recently entered this space and realized that an experience in the hospital, of which I wrote here, had identified the restlessness in my soul about the form my ministry would take as I came out of this lung cancer season. The discernment about next steps is ongoing, but the ember is lit and I harbor considerable excitement for its potential.
In order for me to advance into the Sixth Mansion, it is important for me to give over prime time in my day to quiet-alone conversation with and contemplation of God. This requires considerable weeding, as in Matthew 13; courage in the making of good choices; and humility, as I realize how much there is of God I do not know yet.
Not that God is holding anything back. God in this stage continues to make himself known directly and indirectly, and it is the experience of sixth mansion dwellers to hear God speak, to be ecstatic with joy at the throne of grace, to taste heaven. I have had some of these experiences in years past, and know them to be genuine. And yet they are punctuated by periods—sometimes years—of relative silence on God’s part. To this reality I would like to add some reflection in my next post. But for now, it is important to acknowledge how heavily invested the Enemy is in our spiritual derailment, even to the point of counterfeiting God’s voice. For this reason, I offer Teresa’s three tests to ensure that our spiritual experiences are from God (see Mansions, 181): 1) the power and authority “words from God” bear, such that as we hear them God puts into effect what they say (theologians call this the performative word of God); 2) “the great quiet left in the soul,” the peace that accompanies recollection and makes one ready to praise God; and 3) a lasting memory of what God said because of the deep impression it made.
In my next post, we will stop out to explore the “agony” side of the agony and ecstasy of our relationship with God.
Next: The Sixth Mansion (Part II): Dark Night of the Soul
Have you ever wondered what Jesus was really praying for in the High Priestly Prayer when he asked his heavenly Father to make us one with Jesus as Jesus is one with the Father? (John 17:22-23). The idea of oneness conjures up different images. I have come into contact with a distinctly Eastern religious view of “oneness with the Universe.” As I understand the concept, the goal of life and the event at death is a complete absorption of one’s personhood and personality into The One Cosmic Being. Only that Universe remains in existence, all other beings having become a part of it. Oneness in this case means the complete assimilation of persons into an all-encompassing being and the loss of their individual identities. This view is not espoused in the Christian worldview.
Oneness with God in the Christian understanding has to do with a complete and accurate alignment of one’s life to God’s. The person still exists and functions as a volitional individual, but in Christ his or her will is lovingly wrapped in and shaped by the will of God such that the person ultimately becomes “Christ-like” (1 John 3:2). The New Testament offers plenty of evidence that we each retain our unique personhood, because we were each created in the image of God. When we die, we each are judged before the throne, we each are assigned to either heaven or hell according to God’s sovereign judgment of where we belong. The Book of Revelation points (twice—Rev. 5:10 and 22:5) to the vision of God’s people “reigning with him,” suggesting rather strongly that not only do we retain our individuality but we are also given responsibilities to carry out in the New Heaven and New Earth. There will always be a “Mary” and a “Stanley,” whose sole purpose is to love God, glorify him forever, and do his bidding according to his purposes. All for God.
So as we approach the Fifth Mansion in Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle,” we come with a deepening desire to be so close to Jesus that we cannot be separated by circumstance, competing agendas, or spiritual forces. We do not have the ongoing experience of this ultimate unity with God (that is the hallmark of the Seventh Mansion), but we want it more than anything. Lent is a good time to cultivate this desire.
We have fallen in love with Jesus, so to speak, and will do anything to demonstrate our love and loyalty to God by submitting to his central place in our lives. In the power of this spiritual magnet, our ministry takes on new effectiveness (often without our realizing this is happening). At this stage, “Work has become prayer; prayer has become work, all loving God” (Mansions of the Heart, 134).
I remember a particular day when I took a turn in the Fifth Mansion (it is not a place I dwell in consistently, a sign of how much more work Jesus must do in my life. . .). It was the day before one of the trials in a PC(USA) remedial case, and we (my attorney and I) only knew it would be stretching and difficult, requiring a prolonged and intense spiritual, emotional, and intellectual effort. God was strongly impressing upon me that this trial was an opportunity to love him with “all [my] heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love my neighbor . . .” (Mark 12:30). I realized that the work had become my expression of love to God in the fullest sense; I brought all I had and put it at his altar as my prayer. During that day of giving testimony, I felt as one with God’s purposes as I ever have, fully used of him (in the best sense), fully alive, and in awe of what God was doing in our midst.
Prayer in the Fifth Mansion takes the form of contemplation leading to “absorption and silence” before God. This is where we become speechless before our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, simply in awe of his beauty and power and deeply grateful for his love. Rather than bringing lists of petitions, we are more apt at this point to hold a person before God for his attentive care, healing, transformation, whatever . . . God knows and loves this person and knows exactly what is needed.
Alongside these experiences of wonder before the throne of grace, we also find ourselves more in tune than ever with our failings and the sin that so easily entangles us. A holy but persistent discontent overtakes us as we long to do better, be pure of heart, and free of old hurts. During this time, God can even “disappear” for awhile, I think to set us up, along with the Psalmist (Psalm 13), to know how much we need the Lord and how bereft we are without him. God’s invisible silence also invites us to trust not in our feelings about God but in God himself, whether he shows up or not. The devil, meanwhile, is allowed to dig away at our weak spots, unearthing the places where spiritual repentance and strengthening are needed. When we see how we flop, and consider what happened in retrospect, we learn where we got off track and what would have been the remedy—for next time! These very concrete spiritual experiences of longing, lapses, and learning are what God uses to shape us ever more closely in his image. Tough? You bet. Necessary? Absolutely. Survivable? Most certainly! Because the one ushering us through this mansion is the Shepherd of our souls.
Is there anything we can do at this stage to promote the work Christ would like to accomplish within us? We continue to pray as full participants in this divine conversation. We continue to read and study the Bible, so that our experience is always checked and “grounded in the boundaries of orthodox Christianity” (Mansions, 122). We continue to meet with other Christians to experience Christ’s life in our midst. We seek spiritual counsel from a mentor or spiritual director. And we arrange our life and our world to allow for time alone in peace and quiet with God. We do not feel guilty about “wasting time with God,” because beholding him and listening, enjoying the intercession of both Jesus (Romans 8:34) and the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26) are very fruitful spiritual endeavors, empowering us to serve the Lord and our neighbor with pure love and joy.
Next: The Sixth Mansion, The Passion of God’s Love
One of the spiritual accomplishments of this year’s bout with lung cancer has been an exit from the rat race. Actually, that transition has been long in coming, since I left the full-time pastorate at the very end of 2006. Various projects kept me busy and over-stimulated for another five years, but I have been working at home alone in a virtually self-directed manner since then. Last Fall this illness hit and its treatment modulated my pace down to a slow-motion ride through Disneyland’s Space Mountain.
This prolonged experience seems to coincide with further spiritual development identified by Teresa of Avila as the fourth and fifth mansions of her “interior castle.” Some of the details of my personal development are too tricky to share here (for reasons of appropriate confidentiality), but I am drawing from experience when I try to explain the fourth stage, discovering the love of Jesus. It is a transitional stage by Teresa’s reckoning, identified by seeking rather than finding (just yet).
What characterizes this stage more than anything is seeking to know and experience the love of Jesus Christ. Hunger and thirst for an intimate relationship with our Lord, motivated more by love than obligation, is the focus of prayer and ministry. It isn’t a quest to appease a dissatisfied God, but to become content and calm in the knowledge of God’s love for me. For this reason, it introduces the beginnings of “infused prayer” that involves waiting on God’s agenda for our time together rather than defining it on my own terms. Waiting upon the Lord, opening up to the topics God wants to address in my soul, relegates my list and my agenda to a lower priority for the time being. The focus turns simply to getting to know God better by beholding him, much like the psalmist described in Psalm 27:4:
One thing I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD,
and to inquire in his temple.
Perhaps out of spiritual self-defense, we naturally try to find a balance between the hyperactive “Martha” and the reflective “Mary.” Rather than “Business first, prayer second,” the longing in the fourth mansion is for “Prayer first, business second.” Martin Luther was a model of this priority of soul-feeding prayer. His secretary—assisting him with his translation of the Bible into German while exiled in the Wartburg Castle—was known to have ragged on the Reformer for spending way too much time in prayer (up to three hours in the early morning) when there was so much urgency to get the translation finished. And yet Martin, like so many saints in church history, felt his efforts fueled only by his time beholding God’s glory and seeking guidance and instruction for the day.
God, meanwhile, is taking the initiative to reveal his glory and goodness, sometimes by profound touches of grace in everyday life. As an example, I remember vividly the night twenty-five years ago when our then six-year-old daughter fell head first off the top bunk of a national park tent cabin. Her early symptoms required immediate medical help, necessitating a 50-mile drive on a moonless night to the nearest hospital. You can imagine our parental anxiety, but when we arrived at the ER, we were greeted by a nurse who was the spittin’ image of a pastor friend back home. It was as if God were saying, “It’s okay; a lot of my friends are surrounding you in my love right now.” God simply provided a rock-solid floor for us to stand on and never let us sink into fear or despair after that moment.
Meanwhile, as we behold God’s glory and holiness, we get more in touch with our own failings and wounds. Characteristic of this stage is a desire to confess sin, deal with old emotional wounds, and otherwise resolve unfinished business. Often the help of a spiritual director or Christian therapist can be enlisted, and journaling through the process aids in the precision of God’s spiritual surgery. While taking Dallas Willard’s D.Min. course at Fuller in 2007, I had an experience in which a wound going back to five years old was brought back to my conscious grappling. Along with that very emotional memory, I had almost a vision of Jesus swinging on a tree swing in that scene, saying to me, “Oh, Mary, it’s all right. Don’t worry about [that . . .]; come and play with me! I love you and want to be your friend!” I go back to this playful, safe, and compassionate Jesus whenever I am tempted to replay the hurt of [that . . .], and he has brought healing and completeness to me in that area. This is fourth mansion work.
The devil is active as always, trying to distract our quiet times with the Lord or enticing us back into that crazy business that crowds out our appointments with God. In response to the wounds we have discovered, the evil one would love to turn the tide into indulgent self-love or narcissism, so again, some guidance from a mentor or spiritual director is quite helpful to keep matters in perspective. I’m getting a taste of this now, as my health improves and I need much less help from my friends now. And yet, I have loved the gracious attention I have been receiving and the concern of those who have cooked meals or kept me company. Nevertheless, I am getting the Holy Spirit’s prod to wean myself off this attention, throw my full weight on Christ alone, and find ways to give God’s loving attention to others.
The best way to cooperate with God’s movement in my life to move deeper into the fourth mansion is to plan quiet time. The idea is to immerse myself in a detachment from the world’s concerns in order to behold God. Some time each day, of course, but perhaps a day away per month and longer at least once a year for an extended period of silence and solitude. Some people I know have confessed to how long it takes them to settle down and release the distractions of everyday life, so one day might not be long enough! But with practice, one gains skills in relinquishment and quieting of the spirit, aided of course by our gracious Lord who woos us into his presence for the conversation he looks forward to as well.
Next: The Fifth Mansion, Longing for Oneness with God
We continue our study of the stages of spiritual growth, as first pondered by sixteenth century Christian mystic Teresa of Avila (The Interior Castle) and more recently unpacked by Thomas Ashbrook (Mansions of the Heart). So far, we have appreciated the fresh new life that comes with conversion and the inner struggle this life introduces as we feel the tension of forsaking the old life.
In the Christian life, moving successfully through the tug-of-war stage of the Second Mansion means the question of whether I will fully commit myself to this life with this Savior is settled. Or mostly. The prayer, “Lord, make me wanna wanna” is largely answered, so that when temptations rise or trials unfold, there isn’t a serious danger of me running out of the house and back into the world. Not that Satan doesn’t try to derail the Christian in the Third Mansion, but rather its tactic becomes subtle, encouraging the development of pride and presumption as a person masters the disciplined life.
The Third Mansion is characterized by balance in the spiritual life between Bible study, prayer, church involvement, and ministry engagement. It is a period known for its doing, and for many believers it is the most “productive” and even prolonged phase of their walk with Christ. Ashbrook observes that “ministry is often focused on the requests of others, as well as attempts to meet our own needs.” This can come across as drivenness, as the Christian easily confuses working for God as relationship with God (Mansions, 98f). Jesus, meanwhile, is wooing us into deeper personal intimacy with him which can be experienced if the believer allows time in a busy schedule for reflection.
Prayer becomes more reflective in this phase as we take time to remember and appreciate God’s presence and power. Whereas earlier prayer majored in personal requests and intercession, now we are more apt to use something like the ACTS pattern for prayer, starting with Adoration and Confession, and moving into Thanksgiving and then Supplication. There are moments of thrilling spiritual “consolation,” enough to build faith and expand vision, but these moments are infrequent, even rare. Nevertheless, learning how to listen to Jesus becomes more important, and wise pastors recognize the necessity of teaching their people how to be attentive to God’s presence and activity within.
I would say that the vast majority of my life has been lived in this mansion. I became a fully participatory church member shortly after graduation from college and marriage. Within six months of membership, a staff leader snagged me for an administrative assistant job in the church’s music department. This first exposure to the inner workings of a congregation opened up new opportunities to serve, and gradually I discovered and developed a primary spiritual gift of teaching and preaching. Seminary studies not only fed my mind but also facilitated deep reflection in my soul, as I experienced inner healing that resulted in my overall spiritual transformation. After several years as a lay specialist in adult discipleship and equipping, I was ordained in 1987 to the Presbyterian pastorate. Meanwhile, I was gaining both broad and deep exposure to Scripture, learning how to trust God, acquiring ministry skills, and otherwise aligning my life to God’s will and way.
Many church ministries are thrilled when their parishioners arrive at this stage. Because of their enthusiasm, commitment, and productivity, they are hot commodities in the congregation. Pastors love to recruit them and unleash their talents for the benefit of the church body. As the designer of many a church program in my day, with the overachiever tendencies of my youth still nipping at my heals, not to mention my prowess at engaging just the right saint for a particular ministry, I know the temptation to keep people busy with church activity. You see, if it were up to churches and their pastors, nobody would grow past this stage, because these are the folks that get the jobs done that make worship happen, children taught, and buildings maintained. This thwarting of course is not intentional, but we were taught to believe that a productive Christian is a growing one; an active participant is maturing in faith. What Teresa tells us is this: if people are flourishing in this active phase, it is only a matter of time before a certain holy dissatisfaction takes hold and makes them search for Something More. A wise counselor will be able to usher them into the next Mansion.
Tomorrow: The Fourth Mansion, Discovering the Love of Jesus
Our exploration of the seven stages of spiritual growth, according to Teresa of Avila and unpacked by Thomas Ashbrook in Mansions of the Heart, continues. Especially during Lent, it is appropriate to take stock of how we are doing spiritually, to see if we are any closer to the love of God. It’s always been a rather vexing enterprise to find ways to measure spiritual development, because assessments are so often performance-based. But Teresa ushers us through the seven “mansions” of her “interior castle” to illustrate the movement from the active (performance-based) to the infused (relationship-based) phases of life with Christ. Development at the later stages may not be visible to observers, but the sojourner is aware and the fruit is greater love toward others. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The second mansion, which I have called “torn between two loyalties,” is the phase in which a true struggle ensues. If the first mansion is the castle’s foyer, the second mansion is the living room with a good view of the front yard. Spiritual life in this place of welcome is becoming more active, but the view of the world outside remains enticing and memories of the “pots of meat in Egypt” tempt the pilgrim to forsake the path toward full communion with God. As Ashbrook observes, “We feel like a schizophrenic in the second mansion.” On the one hand, we are discovering the joys of life in Jesus and growing in knowledge and grace; on the other hand, we still enjoy the pleasures of a worldly life. We still get affirmation consistent with earthly values and are only beginning to get a sense of God’s true, unconditional love for us according to Kingdom values. The voice of Jesus is becoming a bit more familiar, and quite often he is alerting us to the choices that are before us.
Meanwhile, Satan is pushing back more, too. This is a genuine spiritual battle, fraught with temptation, second-guessing, and dabbles in the old life to see what will happen. A real clash of values has us feeling hypocritical one moment and abjectly dependent on God the next. This tug-of-war for our souls happens at this early stage, because, perhaps for the first time, the Holy Spirit has enlivened our hearts to God’s Word and way, and he challenges the way we have always done things. And then we have a choice that can be agonizing, especially when it entails forsaking a worldly friend who is Big Trouble or withstanding the ridicule of unbelievers.
Prayer at this stage is responsive to hearing Jesus’ voice, though it is still primarily talkative and directive (“Here’s what I need and how you can meet it”). I get an owie thinking about this, because I am very good at telling God precisely what the problem is and what exactly he can do to solve it! I mean, didn’t Jesus say, “Ask, and you shall receive”? On a more positive note, prayers at this stage also begin to focus outward, in intercession for others.
I remember going through this mansion my senior year in high school, after committing my life to Christ the previous summer. My spiritual issues did not revolve around drug use, belligerence, trouble-making, or other observable maladies. I was a straight-A student, active in my church, cleanliving, your typical first-born overachiever. What was worldly in my soul was a huge dose of pride and conceit, a need to be center-stage and applauded, and a driven personality to be the best at everything to boost my own reputation. When Jesus got a grip on my life, I was wrested from center-stage and introduced to an entirely different reason for living: to glorify and to serve my heavenly Father. The change in my attitude, from the inside out, was observed and commented upon by my acquaintances (“What’s happened to you? You’re not conceited anymore.”)
Nevertheless, senior year is senior year. One is taking SATs, accumulating “points” for graduation, in my case starring in Hello, Dolly! (talk about “center-stage”), and otherwise fighting back senioritis. In retrospect, I realized that this year was both glorious and stalled, spiritually speaking. God protected me through it and set in motion a series of circumstantial developments that would change my life forever. I drifted between the Castle and the World, sometimes feeling the tug-of-war between them, sometimes falling for the old lures.
But for the first time, really, there was a battle within, and this is progress! Before, there had been no answer to Satan’s enticements; now Jesus was right there urging a better way and giving me a taste of it. It meant choosing some new friends. It meant becoming more and more familiar with biblical language and the realities it unveiled. It meant a major shift in focus from myself at the center to Almighty God at the heart of my life. The process of conversion was underway, but there were still more rooms in the castle to investigate.
Tomorrow: The Third Mansion, Following Jesus
In this seven-part Lenten series, my intent is to reflect upon the insights of Thomas Ashbrook in Mansions of the Heart, his own exploration of Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. Ashbrook sees Teresa’s “seven phases of spiritual transformation as an ancient yet timeless roadmap to help us understand our journey” (13). The governing image is of a castle comprising seven “mansions.” The first mansion starts at the front door, and each successive area gets closer and closer to the very center of the castle. Passage from one mansion to the next illustrates growth into a new level of spiritual awareness, practice, and relationship with God. Each area is characterized by particular spiritual disciplines, prayer patterns, and even attacks by the Evil One, who is hell-bent on us not getting to the place of intimate communion with God at the center.
Because the Church tends to accompany people along the journey only through the third mansion, it is important for those involved in ministry to be aware that spiritual maturity involves another degree or phase of development. If we truly desire to see our folks become steadfast, passionate, humble disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are going to have to understand the markers of progress. Worship attendance, tithing, and participation in church activities represent hallmarks of an active phase, but only through the third mansion. As the soul moves closer and closer to the center where it meets and communes with the joyful Trinity immersed in God’s love, the Church’s role with its emphasis on busyness can actually thwart progress. So, in the interest of cooperating with what God is doing in the life of his children, let us begin the journey at the front doorstep.
The first mansion is found right inside the front door of the castle. Perhaps you recall when you were first introduced to Jesus, or when you first became aware that Jesus was not only Lord and Savior but also shepherd of your soul. It involved stepping out of “the world without Christ” and into a new relationship made possible by Christ’s salvation that brought you alive spiritually (Ephesians 2:7-10). Your first steps might have been tentative, you might have been tempted to second-guess what was actually happening to you, but you recognized and received new life in Jesus Christ.
The dynamic involved at this stage is one of repentance (turning away from a life characterized by worldliness, selfishness, and pride) and asking Jesus to help you forsake old unhelpful habits and establish new life-giving ones. Prayer is centered on making requests for help and relief amidst life’s issues. In the midst of this major reorientation of your life, Jesus is reassuring you that his grace is real and his love for you is great. He can be trusted!
I personally stepped into the foyer of the interior castle when I was seventeen years old. God providentially placed me in the context of the Catholic charismatic movement sweeping through Seattle in 1970. It was at a “charismatic inquiry night” that I heard the gospel proclaimed, but it took several months for me to get up the courage and give up the fight to actually step into a new life in Christ. The immediate evidence that something serious and life-changing was happening to me was an irrepressible joy and a voracious appetite to read God’s Word. I felt lifted above life’s mundane circumstances and into a “room” where new music was playing, the voice of Jesus could be heard, power to change was available, and prayers were answered. I knew very little at this stage but was intent upon learning, and God met me there.
As life goes on, and new challenges confront us (like my lung cancer did last fall), it is helpful to recall those early days of conversion, re-orientation, and life change and be encouraged by them. I continue to give thanks to God for lifting me out of one world—a highly anxious family system that was nurturing narcissism in me—into his realm of tough love and reassuring care. Over forty-three years later, I realize that I would have become an entirely different person if Christ had not gotten a hold on me then. But he did, and I rejoice that this was the beginning of a journey in discipleship that continues to this day.
Tomorrow: The Second Mansion, Torn between Two Loyalties
Two weeks after lung surgery, I am detecting some slight improvement in my stamina, stair climbing, and breathing. It’s a good sign when I actually assemble a “things to do” list and accomplish it! Still, twinges of pain and that pesky fatigue linger, making my days feel long and, yes, boring. You can tell, I am getting antsy for progress, especially now.
My husband emailed me earlier today with confirmation of our Yosemite Wilderness Permit. The plan is to hike to the top of Half Dome over Labor Day weekend. Whether a step of faith or folly, this permit acquisition certainly puts a goal out there for me. I have made one unsuccessful attempt of the Rock (written about here) and—knowing how hard it is—truly wonder if I can be in peak physical condition six months after surgery and maybe four months after Round 4 of chemo yet to come.
The only guidance I have so far from the surgeon about physical activity is “no flying, no scuba diving, and no high altitude hiking for one month.” Otherwise, the word has been “listen to your body and do what you feel like doing.” Okay, my body is saying, “stay in the recliner,” and I don’t feel like doing much. Inertia is pretty powerful, so another way to progress in physical fitness and strengthening must be found before I fritter away a perfectly good six-month goal.
In ministry settings, I occasionally encounter individuals who desire to be spiritually fit and impervious to tribulation, close to God, and perfect in every way. (They might not put it exactly that way, but that’s probably what they are thinking.) They admire the Mother Teresas in our midst and wish they could be like them, but have no idea of what it would take to grow spiritually. Without a clear vision and only wishful thinking to make them feel guilty, they fail to identify a means for getting from Point A, today’s disappointing spiritual life, to Point B, maturity in Christ. What makes this all the more challenging is that (I don’t think) there is a one-size-fits-all formula or rigid timetable for spiritual growth.
What we do know, from Scripture and the witness of many saints throughout Christian history, is that spiritual maturity is the result of a life-long intentional process. One might not see progress within a week’s time, but it is possible to see development year by year. The increments of improvement are small on a day-to-day basis, but they eventually add up to visible Christ-likeness that pours itself out for the sake of others.
During my convalescence, I have been reading a marvelous book by Thomas Ashbrook called Mansions of the Heart. The author unpacks the seminal work of Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) called The Interior Castle. She describes sanctification as a progressive journey through seven “mansions” toward the center of the castle, where communion with Christ is complete. Like pilgrims wandering through the unknown corridors of a large estate, we sometimes go in circles spiritually. But if we cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit, who is leading us toward the center where the joyful Trinity resides, we can know the love of God and experience the true freedom of his righteousness I wrote about yesterday.
Since it is Lent, and many people take the opportunity to grow in their faith through either engagement or denial, I am going to engage with the ideas Saint Teresa expounded and Dr. Ashbrook explained. By doing so, I hope we (my readers and I) can become acute observers of incremental progress, find encouragement in that growth, and reap the benefits of spiritual fitness and strength for the sake of those around us. Tally ho!