Several tattered and dog-eared books rest on my shelves that have been pored over time and again for their guidance, inspiration, and comfort. Two in particular have been indispensable on my spiritual journey, The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila and Amazing Grace (A Vocabulary of Faith) by Kathleen Norris. These authors, with their voices ancient and modern respectively, resonate with wisdom and perennially provide new insights into concepts which are meant to evolve as I am.
A sixteenth century Spanish mystic and prolific writer, St. Theresa of Avila continues to be one of my greatest spiritual mentors. Hers is a soul I can relate to. Teresa was not the archetype of the mild-mannered, retiring convent sister. A complex personality, she was fiery, passionate, wild, and worldly. She had dry times in prayers, doubts, and earthly irritations. Divinity is brought to earth in Teresa; her honest words lend authenticity to the fact that this is truly a human endeavor we are about.
She once wrote, “God deliver me from people so spiritual they want to turn everything into perfect contemplation no matter what.” She did, out of necessity spend much time in contemplation herself, but toiled each day to know and live spiritually in the world.
Courageous, she championed the reformation of the Carmelite monasteries with the Spanish Inquisitors growling at her door. One biographer dubbed her the “warrior bride.” For Teresa “was born with a warrior’s heart locked inside a woman’s body.” In her burning desire to know her own soul and God’s relationship with it, she widened the notions of the sacred and added paths to holiness.
Together with her curiosity of the natural world, Teresa provides concrete and practical advice for spiritual growth in any age. Her poetic images of the soul, “the soul is a castle made entirely out of a diamond or a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms,” continue to inspire my own writing.
Kathleen Norris, in the vernacular of the twentieth century, re-presents the Trinity, Christianity, and a myriad of ecclesiastical (church) practices in terms accessible to the laity. For instance, she likens the Trinity to quarks. These are subatomic particles that exist in threes. There is no such thing as one quark, but only three interdependent beings, “part of the atomic glue that holds this world together.” These kinds of analogies run through her writing, providing unusual and earthy examples to help us interpret difficult theological ideas. For those that find much in religion too much myth, Norris reminds me to look beyond to the cycling power of metaphors.
Unique and unyielding, her questions act as steam for loosening “sacred” ambiguities, while allowing space to be enveloped in those same mysteries. She prods the endless definitions and redefinitions of prayer as “stumbling over modern self-consciousness…with our addiction to ‘self-help’ and ‘how-to’ no wonder we have difficulty with prayer, for which the best how-to is Psalm 46: ‘be still and know that I am God.'” She states, “This can happen in an instant; it can also constitute a life’s work.” Norris’ musings share the heart of true spiritual classics by revealing ways to unburden the intellect, disengage the ego, and surrender the whole self to the wonder of God.
The progressives among us, myself included, do well to reclaim and embrace these two women’s philosophies.