The Fifth Dwelling Places
Lesson Forty-Three: Impossible to Depict
As a soul enters the fifth dwelling places, it begins to discover that God’s mystical language and communications to the soul are impossible to depict.
OH, my sisters, how shall I describe the riches, treasures, and joys contained in the fifth mansions! Would it not be better to say nothing about them? They are impossible to depict, nor can the mind conceive, nor any comparisons portray them, all earthly things being too vile to serve the purpose (V.I #1).
We use human language and earthly concepts to communicate our ideas with one another. We use images, analogies, metaphors, and anecdotes to explain ourselves. But since the communications from God that begin in these dwelling places are otherworldly, all attempts to translate those otherworldly communications become impossible. Nonetheless, Saint Teresa does her best to relate them to her sisters and to us.
Because the knowledge of the “riches, treasures, and joys” that are encountered in these dwelling places is impossible to depict using human language and concepts, this chapter must be read with that humble realization. The words used will greatly fail in their attempt to communicate what awaits your soul when God invites you to enter here.
As you read this chapter, keep this humble realization in mind. Do not be surprised that the descriptions of these dwelling places will not suffice for you to accurately comprehend what takes place there. Instead of allowing that to lead to discouragement, allow it to fill you with a desire to enter these dwelling places yourself so that God Himself can teach you and reveal these hidden treasures in the language that only God can speak.
Reflection: Have you ever had an experience that left you speechless? Perhaps you encountered an act of selfless love that overwhelmed you and you didn’t know what to say or how to react. This is what happens in these dwelling places. As God begins to communicate with you in a new way, you will be unable to describe what just happened.
Think about a time in your life when this has happened to you. Has something like this ever happened during a moment of prayer? Have you ever sensed God speaking to you in prayer in such a way that you knew the experience didn’t come from yourself but was God speaking? If so, then rejoice that, at least for that moment, God brought you into this dwelling place.
If this language seems a bit foreign to you as you go through this chapter, don’t get discouraged. If God has not spoken to you yet in this more profound and mystical way, then use the lessons of this chapter to encourage you to go deeper. Return to the lessons of the earlier dwelling places, and work to perfect them even more, so that when God calls you here you will be ready to respond and consent to His invitation.
Most awe-inspiring Lord, I know that the riches, treasures, and joys that await me are beyond what I could ever hope for and describe. I thank You for all that You have done in my soul so far and offer myself to You willingly so that You can do all that You desire to do in me. May I wait upon You and respond to You when You call to me, holding nothing back but surrendering all at the moment You call.
Lesson Forty-Four: The Prayer of Union
To better understand what takes place within the fifth dwelling places, we need to understand “The Prayer of Union.” Though you will not remain in this graced form of prayer continuously, God will invite you at the proper time to encounter this prayer and enjoy the ongoing effects of that experience.
In the prayer of union the soul is asleep, fast asleep, as regards the world and itself: in fact, during the short time this state lasts it is deprived of all feeling whatever, being unable to think on any subject, even if it wished. No effort is needed here to suspend the thoughts: if the soul can love it knows not how, nor whom it loves, nor what it desires. In fact, it has died entirely to this world, to live more truly than ever in God (V.I #3).
Saint Teresa goes on to explain that this state of prayer usually lasts less than a half-hour. During this time of mystical union, a couple of things happen. First, human concepts, memories, rational thinking, and the imagination are all useless during this prayer. Therefore, God “deprives the soul of all its senses that He might better imprint on it true wisdom: it neither sees, hears, nor understands anything while this state lasts.” In a sense, the spirit is no longer aware of its bodily senses and all that it has learned through its senses. Instead, God communicates directly to the spirit using His silent and spiritual language. This communication endows the person with new wisdom that is beyond anything it could ever achieve by its own effort.
A second thing that happens is that when the person awakes from this time of mystical union, the person cannot doubt what took place but knows that God was encountered on a very deep level, on a level that could never be fully explained. And even if the person only experienced this depth of prayer once in their life, many years ago, the person would always retain the knowledge that God communicated to them in this mystical way. The experience of union will never be doubted.
Reflection: Have you ever experienced the prayer of union? Has there ever been a time when you were praying and you “awoke” from that prayer, knowing something transforming had taken place but you couldn’t explain it? If not, then look forward to such a prayer. Hope for this precious gift and anticipate it. If you have, what good fruit was borne in your life as a result?
When one lives firmly within the fifth dwelling places, the goal should not primarily be to have an ongoing mystical experience of prayer. If God grants it, rejoice. But this mystical prayer should not be the primary experience that is sought. Instead, the goal must be the ongoing conformity to the mind and will of God afterwards. When God sees that an experience of the prayer of union will assist with this conformity, He will grant it. When your earthly memories and reasoning abilities no longer suffice for the depth of union God wants, He will suspend those faculties temporarily and speak directly to your spirit to deepen your union with Him, bring forgiveness to your sins, and bestow healing to your wounded human nature.
As you ponder this holy gift of the prayer of union, allow it to humble you. Understanding this gift brings humility insofar as it enables you to realize that you cannot grow deeper in holiness without the transforming touch of God in your life. Only God can grant this prayer when He wills and because He wills.
My transforming Lord, in Your great mercy You desire to draw me into Your divine presence in such a way that only You can. I open myself to You, dear Lord, and pray for this deep union You wish to bestow. Please speak to my spirit, cleanse my mind, free my imagination and memory, and strengthen my will so that I will be fully disposed to enter union with You.
Lesson Forty-Five: At Least at the Portal
Saint Teresa says two things that are quite fascinating as she begins to do her best to describe these dwelling places.
I said ‘some,’ but in reality there are very few who never enter this mansion: some more and some less, but most of them may be said at least to gain admittance into these rooms (V.I #2).
First, Saint Teresa says that there are “very few” people who never enter at least the door of these dwelling places. That’s good news and should be encouraging to everyone who desires to enter them. Of course, she was writing to cloistered nuns and, therefore, we should understand her to mean that among her sisters there are very few who never enter this state of prayer at some point in their lives. She was not saying that most people, in general, will gain admittance here. Rather, she was referring to those who take their spiritual lives very seriously, live a rule of life, pray every day, avoid sin, engage in the Sacraments, and associate with those who help them on their journey of faith. In other words, if you have practiced the lessons of the first four dwelling places well, then you should have much hope of God inviting you into the fifth dwelling places.
A second fascinating thing that Saint Teresa says about these dwelling places is that some enter them “more” and others “less.” Therefore, it appears that entering the prayer of union practiced in these dwelling places is not as black and white as one might think. Rather, it appears that one enters by deepening degrees. One might have only stepped foot here and then retreated and might have only done so once or twice in their life. Others might enter here frequently and remain for a longer time, journeying more deeply into these rooms, and even beyond.
Reflection: Are you among the many whom God has granted entrance to these dwelling places? Perhaps that is a difficult question to answer. If you are uncertain, do not be concerned. Have hope and confidence that this depth of prayer is God’s desire for you. Remain steadfast in your pursuit of God, and anticipate His loving invitation when He chooses to offer it.
Note that entrance into these dwelling places is offered to many. Some enter more often and some less often. Look into your heart, and try to foster a desire to at least enter the portal of these dwelling places. Foster within your heart a desire to meet our Lord here. Pray for the grace to be invited, and anticipate our Lord opening the door for you, for only He can open the door, and He deeply desires to do so. When He opens, ponder your response. If you choose to enter, it will cost you. It will cost the ongoing surrender of your own will so that you can become conformed to His. Are you willing to accept this cost? Are you willing to let go of the past and plunge into all that God has in store for you? Do not fear and do not hesitate. Pray for the grace to courageously enter here, and say “Yes” to God’s invitation when He offers it to you.
My patient Lord, You desire to open the door and welcome me into these most glorious dwelling places. You desire to take control of my life and my prayer and to transform me more deeply into Your divine presence, dwelling within the center of my soul. Please give me courage and trust so that I will fully consent to the invitation You continuously give to me, holding nothing back from You, but following Your gentle and clear voice when You speak.
Lesson Forty-Six: A Delicious Death
Have you ever wondered what it will be like to die? If so, then it appears that encountering this state of the prayer of union will shed light on the answer.
This is a delicious death, for the soul is deprived of the faculties it exercised while in the body: delicious because, (although not really the case), it seems to have left its mortal covering to abide more entirely in God. So completely does this take place, that I know not whether the body retains sufficient life to continue breathing; on consideration, I believe it does not; at any rate, if it still breathes, it does so unconsciously (V.I #3).
Upon death, your body will cease to breathe, and your spirit will separate from it. It also appears that this is what happens in this prayer. Saint Teresa admits that she doesn’t know if the body literally stops breathing during this prayer, but she seems to think it does. Though it might not be death in the way we normally define it, there are similarities.
The body might be spoken of as the “mortal covering” of the spirit. But as long as our body remains in its fallen state, it is incapable of being entirely united to God. At the end of time, when God raises the bodies of all the faithful in a resurrected state, those bodies will be transformed and will be capable of sharing in divine union. But as long as our bodies remain in their fallen state, they are incapable of sharing fully in divine union. Therefore, for the human spirit to fully abide in God, God temporarily separates it mystically from the body, silencing its senses, passions, emotions, human reason, imagination, and memory, drawing only the spirit into divine union with the Spirit of God.
The earthly “death” one experiences, therefore, is a “delicious death.” It is the greatest joy to encounter God without the use of its earthly body and the faculties of the soul. One of the best Scriptural explanations of this mystical prayer is given to us by Saint Paul:
“I know someone in Christ who, fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows), was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this person (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter” (2 Corinthians 12:2–4).
Reflection: Do you fear death? Death brings with it many unknowns. But for those who live in Christ, death is our passage to eternal joy. Though God might grant you many more years here on earth, dwelling in your fallen human nature, know that He also wants to free you from this world through the “delicious death” of the prayer of union.
Reflect upon whether you fear death. If so, work to eliminate that fear. Certainly, there is a real human sorrow associated with our departure from our loved ones on earth. But when we live in Christ and He lives in us, we should never fear death itself.
The prayer of union is one of God’s many ways by which He prepares you for union with Him forever in Heaven. Ponder this form of earthly death, and pray for this gift so that you will more fully understand the glorious calling you have been given to become one with the Most Holy Trinity forever.
My inviting Lord, You have called me to a complete death to myself. You invite me to surrender all to You and to hold on to nothing other than You and Your perfect will. Please grant me this delicious form of death in this world so that I will more fully know You, be transformed by You, and live for You alone, serving You and Your holy will until the day I die and meet You face to face.
Lesson Forty-Seven: The Work of Angels and demons
When a soul enters the fifth dwelling places, it is so united to God that the devil cannot affect it at all.
However active these small lizards may be, they cannot enter the fifth mansion, for neither the imagination, the understanding, nor the memory has power to hinder the graces bestowed on it.
Again, Saint Teresa refers to the imagination, understanding (human reason or intellect), and the memory. Since the devil and his legion of demons are fallen angels, they retain their natural abilities to communicate to us through the spiritual power of suggestive thought. This is one of the primary purposes of their creation. They were to be instruments of God’s truths and His grace. In their fallen state, they still retain the ability to communicate with us. But now they work with all their natural powers to communicate lies to us in the form of temptations, recalling to us certain unhealthy memories, and trying to lead us into fallacious reasoning.
In these dwelling places, since the imagination, understanding, and memory are all caught up in God, the demons have no way to sow their lies and confuse our thinking. The good angels, however, acting as instruments of God, can communicate what God commands them to communicate to us.
To better understand this, it is helpful to know that angelic beings, be they good or bad, do not have the natural ability to read our thoughts. Therefore, when the demons see we are in a state of the prayer of union, they are blinded by God’s powerful presence and do not know what we are thinking or doing and cannot approach us with their lies. They are left powerless. The good angels, however, since they act as instruments of God, can communicate exactly what we need since God does read our thoughts perfectly. Though the good angels cannot read our thoughts by their natural powers, they rely upon God to direct them on how to direct us. Thus, God invites them to share in His most secret communications of love and grace.
Among the many things these good angels communicate to us are spiritual consolations that “are above all earthly joys, pleasure, and satisfaction.” These spiritual consolations might even be present as we experience suffering or sorrows, just as when Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. The peace and joy given to us are the spiritual effects of the union the soul enjoys with God, even if amid some suffering, such as Jesus’ death on the Cross.
Reflection: Do you ever struggle with obsessive thoughts, an out-of-control imagination, worries, or anxieties that lead you to spiritual desolation? Such an experience is different from depression. Desolation is a spiritual effect of us allowing the evil one to speak His lies to lead us into spiritual despair. If you struggle with this at times, pray for the gift of the prayer of union so that the faculties of your soul will be kept safe from the attacks of the evil one.
Do you desire true freedom? Do you want your thoughts to be set free from temptation and confusion? Certainly, you do. Therefore, ponder the great importance of entering these fifth dwelling places. In these rooms, a new form of freedom is found that you never knew existed. Imagine a place where all you know, ponder, and believe is that which God communicates to you. Imagine having your mind fully transformed by God. Imagine being given the gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel to the greatest degree possible. This is what awaits you in these glorious dwelling places.
My freeing Lord, You see my weaknesses, struggles, confusion, worries, and anxieties. You are aware of the many ways that the evil one tempts me, tricks me, and confuses me. Please blind him, dear Lord, and free me from his evil words so that I will be free from him and his many lies. Fill me, instead, with Your pure light and truth so that I can experience the freedom You wish to bestow.
Lesson Forty-Eight: Transported to the Wine Cellar
Saint Teresa uses the image of a wine cellar and says that this cellar, in the center of our soul, is where God places us during the prayer of union, manifesting Himself to us by His power, not by any effort on our part.
Concerning my words: ‘We can do nothing on our own part,’ I was struck by the words of the Bride in the Canticles, which you will remember to have heard: ‘The King brought me into the cellar of wine,’ (or ‘placed me’ I think she says): she does not say she went of her own accord, although telling us how she wandered up and down seeking her Beloved (V.I #10).
It might be useful here to refer to a teaching by Saint John of the Cross (See Spiritual Canticle, stanza 11.3). Saint John teaches that God is present in the soul in three ways. The first way is by essence. This means that God is present in all His creation as the source of their very existence. If God were to leave the essence of any created thing, then that thing would cease to exist. Therefore, God is present in “essence” even in souls that are in a state of mortal sin.
Second, God is present in a soul through sanctifying grace. This grace is ordinarily given through baptism and remains in a person as long as that person avoids mortal sin. It is this grace that will bring a person to eternal salvation. Supernatural manifestations of God’s presence do not always accompany sanctifying grace, but this state of grace is what brings us to Heaven.
These first two ways in which God is present in a soul come from scholastics such as Saint Thomas Aquinas. However, Saint John of the Cross introduces a third way in which God is present in a soul, a way also used by Saint Teresa. In this third way, God is present by His Self-manifestation to a soul through spiritual consolations. Thus, in the passage above, Saint Teresa speaks of the King bringing her into the cellar. In this prayer of union, God manifests Himself to the soul by bringing it into that inner dwelling place and manifesting His divine presence to it. It’s not that God was not already there; it’s that the person had not previously been there with God.
Saint Teresa also points to the way that our resurrected Lord appeared to the disciples behind closed doors, without entering the door. Also recall that when Jesus rose from the dead, He passed through the stone covering the tomb. Similarly, we encounter God not by going through the door of meditation or by our own effort; rather, in this prayer of union we are mystically transported to His presence in the center of our soul. God does this work; we do nothing but consent to His action.
Reflection: Reflect upon the Gospel scene after the Resurrection when Jesus suddenly appeared to the disciples in the upper room behind closed doors. How did He get there? Somehow, Jesus was mystically made present to them.
As you ponder this mystical appearance of our Lord to the disciples, know that this is similar to what God wants to do with you interiorly. Since He already dwells within you by essence and by sanctifying grace, He wants to take hold of your spirit and mystically transport you to the inner chamber of your soul where He resides. This “wine cellar” within you is where He waits for you. There is nothing you can do to enter, other than to allow Him to take you there when He decides.
Have you ever had an experience in which it seems as if God did this to you? Were you ever praying when suddenly you became more fully aware of God’s indwelling presence within you? Has God ever “placed you” in His presence in a new and profound way? Be open to this gift. Wait on the Lord, and if He grants you this form of prayer, consent to it and rest close to Him within the center of your soul.
My ever-present Lord, You dwell within me, keeping me in existence and sanctifying my soul with Your saving grace. Please also draw me into this inner chamber of my soul by manifesting Your presence to me so that I may love You more, adore You, and rest close to Your divine presence.
Lesson Forty-Nine: The Silkworm
Saint Teresa desperately wants her sisters to understand two things. First, the prayer of union is beyond our ability to obtain by our effort. It is purely a gift from God that must be received if given. Second, she acknowledges that even though we cannot obtain this grace by our effort, there is much we can do to prepare ourselves to receive this grace. To explain, she offers a comparison between this state of prayer and a silkworm. The silkworm begins as a lifeless egg on the leaves of a mulberry bush. It comes to life once the leaves of the mulberry bush come to life in the warm weather. Once hatched, this tiny caterpillar must go to work.
The caterpillar nourishes itself upon the mulberry leaves until, when it has grown large, people place near it small twigs upon which, of its own accord, it spins silk from its tiny mouth until it has made a narrow little cocoon in which it buries itself. Then this large and ugly worm leaves the cocoon as a lovely little white butterfly (V.II #1).
The first action of the caterpillar is to feed on the leaves. By comparison, Saint Teresa says that the Christian must also feed its soul once the soul comes to life through sanctifying grace. It does this by engaging the ordinary means of spiritual food in the Church, including “regular confession, religious books, and sermons.” These are the actions especially found in the first three dwelling places by which the person intentionally grows in holiness. Daily prayer and meditation would also be part of this initial feeding of the soul.
Once a soul grows strong through the means of these ordinary helps, it must start to build a cocoon in which it will die. The “Cocoon” is Christ. She recalls the Scripture passage, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The soul builds this cocoon in which it dies by conforming itself to Christ by renouncing self-love and self-will, by caring for nothing earthly, doing penance, praying, mortifying itself, being obedient to God’s will, and performing works of charity. Once the person works diligently in these ways, Saint Teresa gives the following advice:
Die! die as the silkworm does when it has fulfilled the office of its creation, and you will see God and be immersed in His greatness, as the little silkworm is enveloped in its cocoon (V.II #5).
Once a soul dies in Christ, something miraculous happens. By an act that is beyond its power, the soul is transformed into a new creation, just as an ugly caterpillar is transformed into a beautiful butterfly. The beautiful white butterfly knows not how it was transformed, but it knows it was transformed and would never want to return to its previous state.
Once transformed, however, the soul might also experience a certain confusion. “Truly, the spirit does not recognize itself, being as different from what it was as is the white butterfly from the repulsive caterpillar.” Therefore, even though the soul experiences the overwhelming presence of God, its intellect cannot yet figure out what is happening. It knows God has touched its soul, but the newness of this encounter remains somewhat mysterious. A good spiritual director is very helpful at this point to help the soul understand what has happened and what will come next as it continues to advance.
Reflection: Do you understand that the only way to a total transformation in Christ is to die in Christ? Ponder what sort of death this might be for you. What is it that you must do to prepare the “tomb” in which you are to die in Christ? You prepare this tomb, this cocoon, by working hard at daily prayer, holy living, growth in virtue, acts of charity, mortification, and renunciation of all selfishness. When this is done, and when our Lord chooses, He will bring about within you a powerful transformation. Has God begun this transformation in your life?
When God transforms you into His new creation, you will notice that you are different. Have you sensed this transformation in your life? If not, work hard, using all the ordinary means that God has given to you as outlined above, and do so diligently. Look for ways that you can die to yourself more completely. Do not waver from this goal.
If you have seen God act in your life in a truly transformative way, rejoice in it! At first, such a transformation will appear new to you. You may notice a new strength you never had before. You will see virtue grow. You will more deeply desire God in your life and will have His holy will as your only concern. Know that this new and transformed life God gives you is but the beginning. Learn to live as this new creation, and God will teach you to fly.
My transformative Lord, You have given me all that I need to grow in holiness. I commit myself to a life of daily prayer, fasting, growth in virtue, and the study of the lives of the saints. As I go about using these ordinary means of salvation to grow closer to You, I pray that You will also help me to fully die to myself within this holy “cocoon” You help me to build. As I die, I trust that You will transform me and make me into a new and beautiful creation in You.
Lesson Fifty: Time to Fly
Upon receiving the prayer of union and emerging from that state of prayer, transformed by God as a caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly, the soul would never want to return to the former dwelling places where all it could do was crawl.
It despises the work it did while yet a caterpillar—the slow weaving of its cocoon thread by thread—its wings have grown and it can fly; could it be content to crawl? (V.II #7)
The transforming experience with God through the prayer of union is not something that the person can see happening as it happens, since its intellect is put to rest. But once this transformation first takes place through the prayer of union, the person can see and understand the effects that this transforming prayer has had upon it. These effects are especially depicted in the Beatitudes. The soul begins to “fly,” so to speak, soaring to great heights in its pursuit of God and in its desire to cooperate with God’s grace in every way for the good of others.
First, the soul is filled with a holy sorrow for its past sins. This holy sorrow drives it to make amends for its past sins and helps it to work toward reconciling with others whom it has hurt. Second, in imitation of our Lord, the soul desires great trials so that it can suffer in and with our Lord out of love, turning its trials into sacrificial offerings. Third, there is an ongoing desire to praise God always in all things. Fourth, solitude is regularly sought out as a means of further and deepening communication with God. Fifth, the soul becomes zealous for other souls and desires to cooperate with God’s grace so as to win many others over to the Kingdom. Lastly, the soul is distressed by everything that offends God and shares in the agony of Christ in the Garden as He suffered greatly by knowing how many would refuse His gift of salvation.
Reflection: As God transforms you more fully into a new and glorious creation, you will see the effects in your life. Do you see them? Ponder these holy effects that are akin to this new butterfly flying for the first time.
Do you see within yourself a new awareness of your sin, now absorbed in God’s mercy? Do you have a holy desire to make amends for every sin you have ever committed?
Do you see the trials in your life as something to avoid and be discouraged about? Or do you see them as an opportunity to imitate the suffering of our Lord? Do you find you now desire to embrace every trial and suffering out of love for God?
God is worthy of all of our praise. Do you find within yourself a holy desire to praise God always and for everything? Do you praise Him for your difficulties? Do you see the wonderful things He does for you, and do you desire to praise Him for those countless graces?
Do you find that you are more drawn to times of solitude, times when you can be alone with God in loving adoration of Him? Do you desire to peacefully rest in His divine presence?
Do you desire to build up the Kingdom of God by being an instrument of God’s saving grace in the lives of others? Are you zealous for souls and feel compelled to cooperate with God’s grace to help them come to know Him?
As you see the many sins in this world, does it fill you with a holy sorrow and interior agony? Do you more fully understand the agony that Jesus went through in the garden as He was keenly aware of all who would reject His gift of salvation?
As you reflect upon these holy gifts that are given to those who are transformed and begin to “fly” by the grace of God, seek to foster them within you. Rejoice when you see these new qualities emerge in your life, and work to embrace these holy gifts with all your heart.
Most high God, You call me to the heights of holiness and invite me to share in the glories of Heaven. Please give me the spiritual wings I need to participate in Your life while on earth. Fill me with an abundance of holy virtues, a holy sorrow for my sin, strength to embrace all suffering, a heart devoted to Your praise and glory, a longing to be in Your presence, zeal for the salvation of souls, and a sharing in the spiritual agony within Your Sacred Heart.
Lesson Fifty-One: An Agony of Love
Some might think that once transformed by God’s supernatural action in the prayer of union, the soul would only experience peace and joy. While it is true that God’s undeniable peace and joy are present in a new and profound way, the soul also begins to encounter many new and even deeper trials than ever before.
Alas, what fresh trials begin to afflict the mind! Who would expect this after such a sublime grace? In fact, in one way or another we must carry the cross all our lives (V.I #8)
Do not be distressed on hearing this. Saint Teresa goes on to say, “their sorrows, though extremely severe, are so beneficial and proceed from so good a source as to procure both peace and happiness.” What are these severe sorrows and fresh trials that a soul experiences as an effect of the prayer of union? Essentially, it is a twofold agony of love.
First, after having tasted the pure love of God through this secret encounter in the hiddenness of the center of the soul, the person longs for Heaven and remains in great agony knowing that they are not yet there. Their only consolation is that they know God wants them to remain on earth to continue His good work. The person yearns to be with God and to enter further into the inner dwelling places of its soul. But since God has not yet given the higher graces of the sixth and seventh dwelling places, the person agonizes greatly, longing for that deeper grace. But this painful yearning is also accompanied by profound virtue, strength, peace, submission, and joy.
Second, the interior suffering that a person begins to experience after receiving the prayer of union can be likened to the interior suffering our Lord felt during the Agony in the Garden and while He hung upon the Cross. Some might wrongly conclude that Jesus suffered interiorly at those times because He was distressed by the physical suffering He was facing and enduring. That is not the case. His gaze was not upon His own sufferings. It was upon the rejection of the grace He was winning for souls. His agony was caused by His awareness of those who would reject His gift of salvation and suffer the eternal loss of Heaven. So also, when you encounter the prayer of union, you begin to feel the interior pain of Christ who loves all people with an all-consuming love even as that love is rejected.
One thing this teaches us is that if you love much, then you will suffer much until the giving and receiving of that love is complete. But the suffering that flows from love is infinitely different from the complete death of a soul that does not have any love at all. The suffering from love in our Lord’s human soul is what we begin to experience. He longed to be once again with His Father in Heaven, and He longed to bring every person on earth with Him.
Reflection: Do you ever find yourself longing to be with God in Heaven? If so, this is good and is a sign that God has manifested Himself to you in the center of your soul through the prayer of union. If you have this longing for God, then savor it and allow it to produce peace and joy.
Is death frightening to you? On the one hand, we should deeply desire to be with God, since that is our true home. On the other hand, if you long to be with God but are also aware that God still has more for you to do for Him on Earth, then that is good. Allow yourself to experience the agony that Jesus felt as He went through His human life, longing to return to His Father while also desiring to fulfill the Father’s will on Earth.
Ponder, also, whether you suffer Christ’s interior agony over souls. When you see people going astray and turning from the infinite mercy of God, does this pain your heart? Hopefully, it does. In fact, the closer you are drawn to our Lord, the more intensely will you feel His agony over straying souls. Allow that holy agony to become a motivation to love others and to increase your prayers for them.
My agonizing Lord, while You walked the Earth, You experienced great interior agony as You longed to return to the full presence of Your Father in Heaven and desired to bring every human soul with You. Your love for Your Father and for everyone He created filled You with an agony of love. Please enkindle within me this same agony of love by inflaming me with a sharing in the desires of Your Heart.
Indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity, I love You, I trust You, I surrender my life to You.
Lesson Fifty-Two: The Divine Signet Ring
When a person is given the prayer of union, it is similar to God stamping His seal on the soul and the soul being nothing other than malleable wax.
I believe that He only bestows this grace on those He takes entirely for His own. He desires that, without knowing how, the spirit should come forth stamped with His seal for indeed it does no more than does the wax when impressed with the signet (V.II #11).
Saint Teresa uses this new image to further describe both the action of God during the prayer of union, as well as our action. A signet ring was a common way by which someone imprinted their signature on something, marking it as their own. When a letter was written, it was sealed shut with wax. Before the wax completely dried, the person writing the letter impressed a ring upon the wax, leaving its unique impression. This is what God does to our soul. He imprints His will upon the will of the person and makes the person’s will His own. The person receiving the imprint has only to be like pliable wax that receives and manifests the will of God.
This comparison further teaches us that conformity to the will of God takes place through this prayer. We no longer fulfill our own will. Instead, God’s will becomes our will, and we choose only to fulfill that divine will in all things.
When a soul’s will is conformed to God’s will, there is nothing that they would not do for God. Nothing! They joyfully embrace the most severe penances if God wills them as a sacrifice for the good of others. They do everything necessary, including laying down their lives without hesitation, for the salvation of souls. Their only desires in life become the glory of God and the salvation of souls. They work to achieve these ends with superhuman strength, knowing that it is God Who is doing the work in and through them. They are no longer their own; they are God’s, hidden in Christ.
Reflection: When you look at your own will, what do you see? Do you see any selfish desires, filled with your own preferences? Or do you see the will of God?
As one journeys through these the fifth dwelling places, they must allow God to stamp their will with His, allowing Him to take ownership of their will. Has this taken place in your life? Has God’s divine will overshadowed and transformed your will into His?
We cannot fully conform our will to God’s. Only God can fully accomplish this. Our part is to receive the impression of God’s will on our will, giving ownership of our will to God. Are you willing to allow God to do this to you? Are you willing to let everything within you that is selfish and self-interested in any way die, so that only God’s will remains? This conformity is the beginning of union with God.
My demanding Lord, You desire everything from me. You desire to take full ownership of my will so that it is no longer I who live but You Who lives within me. Please impress upon my will Your perfect Will, and take possession of my entire life. I give all to You, dear Lord. Take me to Yourself, and transform my will into Yours.
Lesson Fifty-Three: A Return to Sin
Once a soul receives the prayer of union, one of two things will likely happen. Either it will continue the journey or return to a life of sin.
LET us now return to our little dove and see what graces God gives it in this state. This implies that the soul endeavours to advance in the service of our Lord and in self-knowledge. If it receives the grace of union and then does no more, thinking itself safe, and so leads a careless life, wandering off the road to heaven (that is, the keeping of the commandments) it will share the fate of the butterfly that comes from the silkworm, which lays some eggs that produce more of its kind and then dies for ever (V.I #1).
Saint Teresa teaches something truly fascinating here. She explains that some souls receive the prayer of union and then fall back into a life of sin, gravely violating the Commandments. However, the fascinating part of this teaching is that even if this were to happen, God often uses that person, nonetheless, to “lay some eggs” before it is lost forever to eternal damnation.
The first thing this tells us is that the battle is never over until we die. Until then, no matter how much God grants a person, a fall is always possible. She explains that those who receive the prayer of union and then fall from grace often do so because once they receive this gift, they do no more, thinking themselves safe because of the transforming encounter with God. They become complacent, begin to lead a carefree life, and wander off the road, falling into serious sin.
However, because this previously experienced prayer of union was such a gift, even if the person goes astray, they will often be used by God in some ways, to “lay some eggs,” meaning, they act as instruments of God’s mercy to others who receive the gift of salvation and prayer through their efforts, even though they have turned from God.
If one receives the prayer of union, this lesson teaches that they must continue to advance so that they don’t lose all they received. Not advancing at this stage often means the person begins to slowly fall from God and His will. As this happens, they continue to fall until all is lost.
Reflection: If you have encountered powerful graces from God in your life, then rejoice in that fact. But do not become complacent. Do not savor those previous graces, presuming that you will never fall again. Saint Teresa highlighted perseverance in the former dwelling places and emphasizes it once again here.
Do you struggle with complacency after receiving much grace from God? Has your daily prayer life started to fade away? Has your zeal for other souls begun to fade? Have you started to turn your gaze from the glories of Heaven to the enticements of the world? If so, use this lesson as a sober reminder that a fall from grace is always possible as long as you walk this earth.
Ponder these questions honestly and humbly, and know that if you are not advancing on your journey of faith, then you are falling backward. Plunge forward. Seek to go deeper. Pray more fervently. Offer daily sacrifices. Do not be content with remaining in the fifth dwelling places. Seek, instead, to move further into the castle of your soul so that you will continue to enjoy the divine presence of Him Who dwells deep within.
My calling Lord, You never stop inviting me deeper, closer to the central mansion of my soul where You reside in Your fullness. Please give me the gift of supernatural perseverance so that I will never tire of serving You and will never become complacent on my journey. Continue to keep me safe from all sin, and inflame my desire for more of You and the fulfillment of Your perfect will.
Lesson Fifty-Four: The “Short Cut” is Not Necessary
Up to this point, Saint Teresa spoke clearly about the great consolations a soul experiences as it enters the fifth dwelling places and experiences the prayer of union. However, she now sheds further light on the fifth dwelling places by explaining that the “short cut” of experiencing spiritual consolations is not necessary to receive in order to attain the divine union of the fifth dwelling places.
Is it necessary, in order to attain to this kind of divine union, for the powers of the soul to be suspended? No; God has many ways of enriching the soul and bringing it to these mansions besides what might be called a ‘short cut’ (V.III #5).
Recall that part of the experience of the prayer of union was that the imagination, memory, and reason were all temporarily suspended as the spirit alone entered the central dwelling place with God. The result was such an overwhelming sense of peace and joy that the soul could not doubt for a moment that it had encountered God. But here, in what could appear to be a reversal, Saint Teresa explains that there is another way to enter into the fifth dwelling places without receiving this complete suspension of the imagination, memory, and reason.
The other way to enter these dwelling places is to rely upon divine grace to completely renounce our own will and follow the will of God in all things. She says that to do this, we still must die to ourselves like the caterpillar has to die to become a butterfly. But in the formerly described ways, through the spiritual graces of the prayer of union, this death was accomplished by the soul being introduced to the new and glorious life of divine union in a manifest way. In this second way, the soul does not receive this consoling gift. Instead, it must inflict upon itself a “death-blow” by dying to self completely and choosing only the will of God. She goes on, “I own that the work will be much harder, but then it will be of higher value so that your reward will be greater if you come forth victorious…” This approach is the approach that Saint Teresa desired. “This is the union I have longed for all my life and that I beg our Lord to grant me; it is the most certain and the safest. But alas, how few of us ever obtain it!”
This teaching should be consoling to those who long to fulfill the will of God in their lives but have never mystically experienced the prayer of union. If you have devoted all the powers of your soul to the service of God and the fulfillment of His will but have not had the previously described mystical experiences in prayer, then consider that fact to be an invitation from God to inflict this “most certain and safest” death-blow upon yourself. Choose, with all the powers of your soul, never to offend God, to conform your will to His, and then trust that His grace will enable you to do so without the necessity of supernatural and mystical experiences in prayer. But beware! Few people ever obtain this, so there can be no hesitancy in completely dying to yourself in all things, every day, until the end of your life on earth. The greatest obstacles one experiences when on this path are “self-love, self-esteem, rash judgment of others even in small matters, and a want of charity in not loving our neighbor quite as much as ourselves.” If you can conquer these spiritual imperfections, then the death-blow will have been dealt as your will becomes conformed to the will of God.
Reflection: What is most important? To experience the consoling presence of God or to be conformed fully to the will of God? Certainly, it is the latter. Perfection consists of complete conformity of our will to the will of God. This is a complete death to self.
If you have not experienced mystical consolations in prayer, then consider that to be an invitation to achieve divine union through another method. In what ways can you voluntarily embrace the complete death of your will, your preferences, and your self-interests? What more does God want of you? Know that this renunciation is essential for divine union. Seek out this union always, even if you do not sense God’s mystical action in your life of prayer.
My consoling Lord, I choose You and Your perfect will in my life, regardless of whether or not I feel Your presence and receive the consoling and transforming gift of the prayer of union. Please free me from a desire for every mystical grace in prayer, and give me instead the strength I need to die to myself completely so that my will becomes fully conformed to Yours.
Lesson Fifty-Five: Spiritual Navel-Gazing
If you find yourself overly anxious about whether or not you have experienced the prayer of union, this lesson is for you.
When I see people very anxious to know what sort of prayer they practise, covering their faces and afraid to move or think lest they should lose any slight tenderness and devotion they feel, I know how little they understand how to attain union with God since they think it consists in such things as these (V.III #11).
Even though Saint Teresa spent much of the first two chapters in this section on the fifth dwelling places describing the transforming power of the prayer of union, she now identifies a tendency that some have who practice prayer regularly. Upon learning about the various levels of prayer and the mystical experiences that sometimes accompany them, some people become more concerned, and even obsessed, with their own experience than they are with the fruit of this authentic union, which must be the only focus.
When the prayer of union is given and when authentic spiritual consolations accompany it, the soul must rejoice. It is left with the certainty that God took it into the inner cellar of the soul and manifested Himself there. What a joy! But if you find that you try to pray and try to contemplate and are more concerned with whether or not you are experiencing a mystical experience or not, then you are not truly praying at all. In that case, it might be time to return to the lessons of the first three dwelling places and remain there until God acts on your soul—if He chooses to do so.
Another very important thing to do if you find that you are becoming overly anxious about what level of prayer you might or might not be experiencing is to change your focus. Instead of being concerned about your level of prayer, focus on the charity that comes from your wholehearted surrender to the will of God. Since God can choose to call us to perfect conformity without bestowing special mystical graces, then we should strive to always choose this surer road. This is the road to authentic virtue that is made manifest in charity. Pray so that you can love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. If you can do this, then you are on the right road.
Reflection: Have the lessons you have learned so far led you to a sort of “spiritual navel-gazing?” Have you found yourself overly concerned about what you do or do not experience in prayer? If so, then stop thinking about your prayer and just pray. We do not pray to experience the consolations of God, we pray to love God by becoming conformed to His will.
Spend some time intentionally renouncing any obsessive thoughts you have regarding your experiences in prayer. Instead, keep your eyes on the love of God and others. Do you love God? Do you love others? These two questions will help clarify whether you are truly praying as God desires.
It is also important to humbly admit whether or not you sometimes manufacture your own “mystical” experience in prayer. Do you do this? Do you desire these experiences so much that you sometimes generate a feeling of closeness to God? If so, it may be good to change the way you pray. Return to meditation on the Gospels. Pray the rosary. Ponder some beautiful prayers. Make acts of faith in the teachings of the Creed. Surrender your will to God. Do not worry about what you feel in prayer: just pray and love God with all your heart. He will take care of the rest. Pray even when dryness sets in, and work to love Him even more.
Sweet Lord, You desire one thing from me. You desire the complete conformity of my will to Yours. I pray that I may also make this my deepest desire. Lord, when my prayer seems dry and unfruitful, I thank You. When it is rich and consoling, I thank You. When I see Your presence manifested to me, I thank You. When You appear hidden, I thank You. I thank You in all things and pray that I will only seek You. Please free me from all deceptive and self-generated experiences in prayer so that my prayer will accomplish the complete conformity of my will to Yours.
Lesson Fifty-Six: The Surest Sign
The following lesson from Saint Teresa is repeated more than once. Therefore, she sees it as an essential lesson to learn and practise.
We cannot know whether we love God although there may be strong reasons for thinking so, but there can be no doubt about whether we love our neighbour or not (V.III #8).
Do you truly love God? According to Saint Teresa, we cannot know the answer to that question alone. We can only know it by measuring our love of our neighbor. If we love our neighbor, then we can be certain that we love God also because love of neighbor flows from our love of God. Furthermore, if we want to love God more, then we should work to love our neighbor more.
How do you love your neighbor? One way we do this to a pure and holy degree is by conforming our will to the will of our neighbor. Of course, if our neighbor’s will tends toward something sinful, we must never follow. But there are countless other ways we can do this in matters that have no sin involved.
For example, say your spouse wants to do one thing for the weekend and you want to do something else. It is a profound act of love to immediately choose to do what your spouse prefers. This is a death to yourself and an act of selflessness. Doing this, of course, will cause your fallen human nature to rebel. If you sense that inner rebellion, then rejoice because you have discovered something within you that must die. Self-will must die. You must inflict the “death-blow” upon it in a concrete and practical way.
Holiness is not discovered by feeling spiritual sweetness. Though that sweetness might often accompany prayer in the earlier mansions, it is never a sign of one’s holiness. Selflessness, sacrifice, and conformity of your will to the will of others, however, are very powerful signs of virtue because one has made a willful choice to love God by loving our neighbor. Again, your fallen human nature is bound to rebel against this. Resist that rebellion and die to yourself.
Reflection: Do you love God? The best way to answer that question is to consider whether or not you love those around you—not an emotional and self-satisfying love but a selfless and sacrificial love.
Are you willing to conform your will to those around you? Are you willing to choose their will over your own? If so, then this is a clear indication that you not only love them but that you also love God.
Spend time examining your interactions with others, especially family and close friends. If you regularly think about what you want them to do, rather than how you can love them more, then pay attention to this realization. Love is never about getting our way. It’s not about forcing someone to conform to what we want. The highest and purest forms of love are always other-focused. We must completely die to ourselves and live for God by living for others. This is holy love.
Do you find your fallen human nature revolts at this kind of selfless love? Unless it is fully purified and conformed to the will of God, it will revolt. If you do revolt and find yourself thinking, “What about me?” then you have discovered within you something that must die. Work to inflict this “death-blow” upon this self-interest so that you will more firmly plant your feet within these fifth dwelling places.
My loving Lord, pure love requires the greatest level of selfishness and sacrifice. It requires a complete death to myself in all things. Please increase my love, and free me from all forms of selfish love. May my love be pure and holy, an imitation of and participation in Your love. You gave Your life freely, dear Lord. You embraced every injustice. You did not demand love from others before You gave love. Help me to conform my love to Yours.
Lesson Fifty-Seven: Courtship Begins
In the final chapter of the fifth dwelling places, Saint Teresa returns to offer further light on the prayer of union. Here, she uses the image of what many understand as a final courtship as preparation for betrothal. In this final and profound meeting, it’s as if God proposes to the soul, inviting it to enter into spiritual marriage.
We might compare the prayer of union to a visit, for it lasts but a very little while. There is no longer any question of deliberation, but the soul in a secret manner sees to what a Bridegroom it is betrothed (V.IV #2).
At this point in one’s relationship with God, the soul has committed itself to divine marriage. The betrothal has just taken place. The prayer of union is like an exceptionally intense meeting with the bridegroom to get to know Him. She says that this meeting of the future spiritual spouse lasts only a brief moment, but at that moment there is more communicated to the soul than could take place through years of effort on its own. The Beloved reveals Himself to the soul “in a secret manner,” and this spiritual meeting sets its heart on fire with love, filling it with anticipation of the marriage to come.
Saint Teresa further explains that since this is a purely spiritual meeting, it is far beyond any human experience of two lovers preparing for earthly marriage. The knowledge of God gained in this secret meeting convinces the soul that its decision to dedicate itself to the Beloved is, without question, the right decision. Because the soul has received such great favors, being given such secret knowledge of the Beloved, if it were to turn away from God at this point, its loss would be devastating beyond description. Its loss would be equal to the spiritual favors and communications of love it had just received.
Reflection: Try to ponder the idea that God communicates to a soul “in a secret manner.” What does that mean? Since it is “secret,” there is no way of knowing without experiencing it. This reveals the intimacy and uniqueness of the relationship that every person is individually invited to share with our Lord. Ponder this secret meeting and communication the Most Holy Trinity wishes to share with you.
Though divine union is far beyond any experience of human marriage, Saint Teresa uses the images of betrothal and marriage to help us understand what happens in these dwelling places. Human marriage is a very big decision—perhaps the biggest decision one will make in life. Similarly, the choice to become betrothed to God is so much greater, so much more important than any other decision we will ever make in life. Are you willing to make that commitment?
By entering into a betrothed relationship with the Trinity, you are committing yourself to spending much time with God. You promise to get to know God more, to become exceptionally familiar with each Person of the Trinity, to learn to live with them, and to grow in your love for them. Are you willing to do this? Is there any hesitancy in such a profound commitment on your part?
On God’s part, there is no hesitancy. God longs to become one with you and longs to invite you to enter into the fullness of divine union. Knowing that the God of the Universe is so committed to you should help ease any concern over your choice to give all to this Triune God.
Most Holy Trinity, You have invited me to enter into a union with You that is so deep, profound, and overwhelming that it will change my life forever. You promise Yourself as my gift and offer Yourself to me without reserve. Who am I that the God of the Universe would lower Himself to give so much to me? I say “Yes” to You my God and accept Your invitation to enter into full communion with You.
Lesson Fifty-Eight: The devil’s Final Attack
Now that the soul is intimately aware of Who it is betrothed to, the devil wages one final and fierce attack in order to stop the spiritual union of divine marriage, for the devil knows that this is his last attempt.
…the evil one, however, comes with his keen subtlety and, under the pretext of good, leads it astray in some trivial matter and causes it to commit small defects which he makes it believe are harmless. Thus, little by little, the reason is obscured and the will is weakened while the devil fosters his victim’s self-love, until, by degrees, he succeeds in withdrawing it from union with the will of God and makes it follow its own will (V.IV #6).
The devil knows that at this point it has no chance of convincing the soul of engaging in mortal sin. Therefore, it wages a fierce war against the soul through subtlety under the pretext of good. The devil knows that if this soul advances further, it will do untold good for God, and the devil will be powerless to stop it. This frightens the devil to the core, and he does all he can to stop the spiritual marriage from taking place and being consummated.
The only last chance the devil has is to trick the soul into believing that one small act of evil is good and that the soul will benefit from choosing that masked sin. If the devil succeeds, then he will continue to lead the soul to make more such decisions, leading it one small step at a time down the path toward a fall. Once he succeeds in weakening the will and obscuring the intellect, he attacks to end the betrothal and cause a fall from God’s grace.
Reflection: Do you love God so deeply that you would never do anything intentionally that is contrary to His will? Those in the fifth dwelling place do. They do not avoid sin because they fear punishment. Rather, they avoid sin because their love for God is so deep that it grieves them to even think of offending God. As you look into your own soul, is this what you experience?
If your love for God has reached this profound level, then do not put down your guard. Know that the devil greatly fears such love and will exponentially elevate His attempts to trip you up. Ponder that reality of the devil’s hatred. Do not do so out of an unhealthy fear, since the devil is powerless against the will of God. But do so as a way of reminding yourself that, since you are not yet perfect, you can still be deceived. Can you understand this humble truth?
Spend time thinking about any ways that the evil one has tricked you into doing evil under the guise of doing good. Seeing these tactics requires profound openness and humility. Are you willing to examine your actions and admit to any small ways that you have believed his subtle lies? Be open to this, and trust that the God Who loves you with such a burning and all-consuming love will help you to see these subtle lies—if you let Him.
Lord of perfect love, Your love for me will never waver, but my love for You might, at times, go astray. I do love You, dear Lord; I love You with a profound love. I pray I will never offend You until the day I die. Please help me to see any way that the evil one deceives me with subtleties, leading me to offend You under the pretext of doing good. Help me to see all my actions as You see them, dear Lord, so that I will always turn back to You when I stray.
Indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity, I love You, I trust You, I surrender my life to You.