Our spiritual excursion into the Sixth Tower will be marked by graduating from the Illuminative stage into a most extraordinary plunge into the ecstasies of the increasingly Unitive cycle. You see, the soul’s yearning for Absolute Union with the Unborn Lord will now strike a fevering-pitch—passing through great waves of inner mental-torment as well as mind-numbing and heart bursting encounters of a soul enraptured to the point of never desiring anything from any created samsaric realms ever again. All these must be endured before entrance into the Seventh Tower is permitted. This astounding Sixth Tower boasts eleven chapters and is the largest section of Teresa’s Interior Castle, actually covering a third of the work; in essence, it’s mostly autobiographical material indicating Teresa’s own experience of incredible ecstasies lasting between ages forty-three and fifty-seven. Oftentimes those yearning for something similar in their own life will jump to the Sixth Tower to the detriment of the others—so caught-up is one’s own imagination with the fervent hope of finding something of parallel to their own extraordinary spiritual experiences. Hence, this will be the longest blog of the series offering a catalog of all the assorted Transcendent Exposures that one encounters with the mystical flames of divine enrapturement.
Yearning for Union with the Absolute comes at a cost:
Now the soul is fully determined to take no other spouse. But the Spouse does not look at the soul’s great desires that the betrothal take place, for he still wants it to desire this more, and he wants the betrothal to take place at a cost; it is the greatest of blessings.
Oh, God help me, what interior and exterior trials the soul suffers before entering the seventh dwelling place!
Some of the trials come from the Divine Spirit, yet others are the result of poor human intervention.
Let us begin with the torment one meets with from a confessor who is so discreet and has so little experience that there is nothing he is sure of: he fears everything and finds in everything something to doubt because he sees these unusual experiences. He becomes especially doubtful if he notices some imperfection in a soul that has them, for it seems to such confessors that the ones to whom God grants these favors must be angels–but that is impossible as long as they are in this body. Everything is immediately condemned as from the devil or melancholy.
The Inexperience of misguided spiritual mentors, oftentimes accompanied with their own agendas can seriously derail the adept’s progress towards Union. Miguel de Molinos in his The Spiritual Guide bespeaks of such unfortunate encounters:
If you do not have a spiritual father who is experienced on the mystical path when this happens, you will grow in pain and he will grow in confusion. He will judge that your soul is not well prepared. He will think that for the security of your conscience science you need a general confession. And yet no greater fruit will be obtained from your diligence than confusion between the two of you. Oh, how many souls are called to the interior path! And instead of guiding and leading them forward, the spiritual fathers, by not understanding them, detain them on the road and ruin them!
Robert P. Baird. Miguel de Molinos: The Spiritual Guide (Classics of Western Spirituality) (Kindle Locations 784-788). Kindle Edition.
Teresa herself emphatically insisted that souls in such a situation are never helped by these derisory confessor-fools. The only other recourse is to just gently wait upon the mercy of the Lord to intervene and once again aright the soul’s proper course. Let us now turn to cataloging the various types of Transcendent Exposures one can encounter whilst in the Sixth Tower, some of them inducing what Teresa describes as exquisite spiritual agonies.
Locutions are assorted forms of what are known as “private interior-revelations.” They do not bear any semblance to apparitions or any other degree of “visions”. By and large they are supernatural communications that are discerned through the ear or ones imagination or else issued directly to ones intellect. The spiritual forces attending to Joan of Arc’s sense of internal-hearing are one such example. Teresa issues great caution regarding them:
My desire, Sisters, is that you realize you are doing the right thing if you refuse to give credence to them, even when they are destined just for you (such as some consolation, or advice about your faults), no matter who tells you about them, or if they are an illusion, for it doesn’t matter where they come from. One thing I advise you: do not think, even if the locutions are from God, that you are better because of them, for he spoke frequently with the Pharisees. All the good comes from how one benefits by these words; and pay no more attention to those that are not in close conformity with Scripture than you would to those heard from the devil himself. Even if they come from your weak imagination, it’s necessary to treat them as if they were temptations in matters of faith, and thus resist them always. They will then go away because they will have little effect on you.
The surest signs they are from God that can be had, in my opinion, are these: the first and truest is the power and authority they bear, for locutions from God effect what they say. Let me explain myself better. A soul finds itself in the midst of all the tribulation and disturbance that was mentioned, in darkness of the intellect and in dryness; with one word alone of these locutions from the Lord (“don’t be distressed”), it is left calm and free from all distress, with great light, and without all that suffering…
Teresa’s augmented warning concerning locutions stems from the sad reality that for many people with depressed states of mind these exposures are primarily delusional and ultimately detrimental. Hence, the best course of action is to pay little or no attention to them unless otherwise discerned in the proper spiritual company of a good Director.
Supernatural perception initiated by a divine agency, such as angels or in Buddhism, Dakinis and even in some instances, Dharma-protectors. A Prime Christian example of this would be what St. Paul encountered on the road to Damascus.
When the soul is in this suspension, the Lord likes to show it some secrets, things about heaven, and imaginative visions. It is able to tell of them afterward, for these remain so impressed on the memory that they are never forgotten.
Here, one doesn’t actually perceive something with the senses. Rather, it has more to do with the [hidden] presence and [soundless sound] of the Unborn Spirit, in Buddhism referred to as Parato ghosa.
Teresa says, “But when the visions are intellectual, the soul doesn’t know how to speak of them. For there must be some visions during these moments that are so sublime that it’s not fitting for those who live on this earth to have the further understanding necessary to explain them. However, when the soul is again in possession of its senses, it can say many things about these intellectual visions.” Teresa says Intellectual Visions, “even though they are unexplainable, they are well inscribed in the very interior part of the soul and are never forgotten.”
It’s interesting to note and reinforce here that if, let us say an Unborn Mind Adept were to have forms of transcendent exposures, this would be the predominant type—because it is impressed in an indelible imageless manner upon the soul and it is never forgotten.
This is a principal term for the types of Transcendent Exposures Teresa herself was most familiar with over the course of her life and which she is best known as having. She is most elaborate in her accounts, indicating that her soul was never “before so awake” of the things of the Lord—most intimate in that the Lord himself reveals that he is the sole bridegroom of the soul.
What I know in this case is that the soul was never so awake to the things of God nor did it have such deep enlightenment and knowledge of His Majesty. This will seem impossible, for if the faculties are so absorbed that we can say they are dead, and likewise the senses, how can a soul know that it understands this secret? I don’t know, nor perhaps does any creature but only the Creator.
Closely allied with rapturehood is the state of experiencing profound ecstasies.
…it will happen that even though the extreme ecstasy ends, the will remains so absorbed and the intellect so withdrawn, for a day and even days, that the latter seems incapable of understanding anything that doesn’t lead to awakening the will to love; and the will is wide awake to this love and asleep to becoming attached to any creature.
Today, the word “ecstasy” causes us to think of the world of drugs, something unforeseen in Teresa’s time, and often creates serious suspicions in the minds of theologians and psychologists. Do such experiences, as Teresa describes them, really take place?
We ought, then, to define the meaning of the word “ecstasy” as used by St. Teresa: “I should like to know how to explain, with God’s help, the difference there is between union and rapture, or as they call it, elevation of the spirit, or transport, which are all the same. I mean these latter terms, though different, refer to the same thing; it is also called ecstasy” (L 20.1). In her spiritual testimony she explains more: “the difference between rapture and union is this: the rapture lasts longer and is felt more exteriorly, for your breathing diminishes in such a way that you are unable to speak or open your eyes. Although this diminishing of these bodily powers occurs in union, it takes place in this prayer with greater force, because the natural heat leaves the body, going I don’t know where. When the rapture is intense (for in all these kinds of prayer there is a more and a less), when it is greater, as I say, the hands are frozen and sometimes stretched out like sticks, and the body remains as it is, either standing or kneeling. And the soul is so occupied with rejoicing in what the Lord represents to it that it seemingly forgets to animate the body and leaves the body abandoned;” (ST 59, no. 7). The Spanish dictionary gives one of its definitions of ecstasy thus: “A state of soul, characterized by a certain mystical union with God by means of contemplation and love, and exteriorly through the suspension greater or less of the use of the senses.” The Webster dictionary defines ecstasy in this manner: “an exalted state resembling a trance in which contemplation of what inspires the exaltation makes one oblivious of all else.” Or rapture, it explains, “is a mystical phenomena in which the soul is borne out of itself and exalted to a knowledge of divine things.” These are the religious meanings in which Teresa uses the word “ecstasy.”
(The Interior Castle, Study Edition, Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Carol Lisi, O.C.D.S. pg. 205-206)
Flights of the Spirit:
A most unusual Transcendent Exposure in that the soul is as it were, borne aloft and carried off to a heightened and different locale—very detailed in scope.
There is another kind of rapture – I call it flight of the spirit – which, though substantially the same as other raptures, is interiorly experienced very differently. For sometimes suddenly a movement of the soul is felt so swift that it seems the spirit is carried off, and at a fearful speed especially in the beginning. This is why I have told you that strong courage is necessary for the one to whom God grants these favors, and even faith and confidence and a full surrender to our Lord so that he may do what he wants with the soul.
An excellent resource to have in one’s possession concerning all of these Transcendent Exposures is Entitled, The Graces of Interior Prayer, A Treatise on Mystical Theology, by A. Poulain, S.J. –originally published in 1921. A most impressive example concerning a flight of the spirit is detailed in the life of Ven. Marina Escobar from her The Divine Darkness:
The Divine Ocean. “The holy angels surrounded me, and preceded by the Lord of all Majesty, they bore me to a very great height, traversing, so to speak, the whole vault of heaven. They placed me on the shore of a kind of immense ocean, which was the vastness of God Himself, His goodness, His wisdom, and His Essence. In the presence of Jesus Christ they cast me suddenly into this vast sea of the divine obscurity and of the essence of the unknown and incomprehensible God. I was submerged in it and lost. No language can describe the secret marvels that are there wrought between God and the soul, or the grandeur of God which is there manifested. No created intelligence can speak of it adequately. If anyone would attempt to do so, I pray that God may give him an experience of this favour; he will then think as I do. The divine assistance was needed to prevent my soul parting from the body, so overpowering was the might of God’s operation.
“For a space of time, which seemed to me shorter than it really was, I remained plunged in this ocean. Afterwards the angels carried me back to the shore. By this I mean that they drew me forth from this immensity, and not that there was really a sea, a shore, or any material image.
“I rested a short time on this shore so as to regain my strength. Then the angels cast me in again, with more force than the first time, so that I was submerged and lost in the divine essence more profoundly than before. Again they brought me back to the shore. I was in even greater danger, as it seemed to me, of losing my life, if God had not upheld me. When I had rested for a few minutes they cast me for the third time. By the word cast I would express a certain admirable way employed by God and the angels to bring the soul into the immensity of the divine perfections. There is no question here of anything corporeal.
“How long I remained in this sea I could not judge. But this last submersion was slighter than the two previous ones and so I experienced less fatigue. God then gave me His blessing and the angels bore me back to my cell. When I had come to myself again, I felt great weakness. I was seized with admiration, and while conforming to the will of God, I raised my eyes towards the angels with great grief at finding myself thus in this exile” (Vol. I, Book III, ch. i).
Teresa says that most of these aforementioned forms of Transcendent Exposures are like elaborate pearls bestowed by the Unborn Lord upon his beloved:
These are the jewels the Spouse begins to give the betrothed, and their value is such that the soul will not want to lose them. For these meetings remain so engraved in the memory that I believe it’s impossible to forget them until one enjoys them forever, unless they are forgotten through one’s own most serious fault. But the Spouse who gives them has the power to give the grace not to lose them.
As a result of these wonderful favors the soul is left so full of longings to enjoy completely the One who grants them that it lives in a great, though delightful, torment. With the strongest yearnings to die, and thus usually with tears, it begs God to take it from this exile. Everything it sees wearies it. When it is alone it finds some relief, but soon this torment returns; yet when the soul does not experience this pain, something is felt to be missing. In sum, this little butterfly is unable to find a lasting place of rest; rather, since the soul goes about with such tender love, any occasion that enkindles this fire more makes the soul fly aloft.
The torment-faction has to do with the realization that these Blessed Transcendent Exposures will not last for long as the soul is once again absorbed by the torment of returning to samsaric realms and all the awful agonies to once again be endured there. This lasting torment was also conveyed in that former series concerning John of the Cross and Infused Contemplation. Both John, and particularly Teresa of Avila in this instance remained strong in their convictions and never lost hope—yea, she was adverse to those who were reduced to weeping puddles.
Also note that a weak constitution is wont to cause these kinds of suffering, especially in the case of tender persons who will weep over every little thing. A thousand times they will be led to think they weep for God, but they will not be doing so. And it can even happen, when tears flow in abundance (I mean that for a time every little word the soul hears or thinks concerning God becomes the cause of tears), that some humor has reached the heart thereby contributing more to the tears than does love for God; for seemingly these persons will never finish weeping. Since they have already heard that tears are good, they will not restrain themselves, nor would they desire to do anything else, and they help the tears along as much as they can. The devil’s aim here is that these persons become so weak they will afterward be unable either to pray or to keep their rule.
But believe me, I do not speak without having seen that these false tears can be experienced by some persons; although not by me, for I am not at all tender. Rather, I have a heart so hard that sometimes I am distressed; although when the inner fire is intense, the heart, no matter how hard, distills like an alembic. You will indeed know when this fire is the source of the tears, for they are then more comforting and bring peace, not turbulence, and seldom cause harm. The good that lies in the false tears – when there is any good – is that the damage is done to the body (I mean when there is humility) and not to the soul. But even if there is no harm done to the body, it won’t be wrong to be suspicious about tears.
The great Spiritual Jubilation over all of this is knowing that they could never emanate from the Devil (Mara).
In the midst of the experiences that are both painful and delightful together, our Lord sometimes gives the soul feelings of jubilation and a strange prayer it doesn’t understand. I am writing about this favor here so that if he grants it to you, you may give him much praise and know what is taking place. It is, in my opinion, a deep union of the faculties; but our Lord nonetheless leaves them free that they might enjoy this joy – and the same goes for the senses – without understanding what it is they are enjoying or how they are enjoying it.
The devil cannot give this experience because there is so much interior joy in the very intimate part of the soul and so much peace; and all the happiness stirs the soul to the praises of God.
One is left with an ineradicable feeling in all this is that the Divine is so close and yet so far-away at the same time—that poor little moth can never rest from its flight. It’s like a soul’s plight in purgatory, or in Buddhism, with the Hungry Ghosts—that damned hunger is never satisfied, just when you think your cup will runneth over, it’s dashed from your hands! But yea, how much more the souls who are tormented in hellish regions:
Well, let us consider, Sisters, those who are in hell, who do not have this conformity or this consolation and spiritual delight which is placed by God in the soul; nor do they see that their suffering is beneficial, but they always suffer more and more. The torments of the soul are so much more severe than those of the body, and the torment souls in hell suffer is incomparably greater than the suffering we have here mentioned, and must, it is seen, last forever and ever. What, then, will the suffering of these unfortunate souls be? And what can we do or suffer in so short a life that would amount to anything if we were thereby to free ourselves of those terrible and eternal torments?
At least she leaves us with a positive exclamation in departing this Sixth Tower:
Oh, God help me! Lord, how you afflict your lovers! But everything is small in comparison with what you give them afterward.
What a wild roller-coaster ride! Tossed wildly upon waves of spiritual anguish yet also enticing moments of Divine Ecstasy that makes one crawl out of their skin. Hopefully, we have weathered the storm so as to voyage ever onward into the peaceful harbor of the Resplendent Seventh Tower!