I’ve been reading Saint Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle as part of some training I’m receiving from Mission Alive in Spiritual Direction. It is one of the most formative books I’ve read in a long time.
Teresa, a Carmelite nun who lived in the 16th century, describes one’s soul as a castle. Within the castle are seven rooms or mansions (or sets of mansions). At the heart of the castle, in the seventh mansions, is God.
The spiritual journey toward union with God, according to Teresa, is a journey through these seven mansions. Prayer is the way one enters the castle.
My biggest takeaway from the book is what Teresa says is the key to moving through the mansions.
The key to reaching the seventh mansions.
The key to intimate relationship with God and knowledge of oneself.
Again and again she mentions it.
Humility must always be doing its work like a bee making its honey in the hive. Without humility all will be lost. (Interior Castle, 22)
By meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble. (23)
Let us practice humility, which is the ointment for our wounds; if we are truly humble, God, the Physician, will come in due course, even though He tarry, to heal us. (42)
Have humility and again humility! It is by humility that the Lord allows Himself to be conquered so that He will do all we ask of Him, and the first way in which you will see if you have humility is that if you have it you will not think you merit these favours and consolations of the Lord or are likely to get them for as long as you live….There is some lack of humility in our thinking that in return for our miserable services we can obtain anything so great. (55)
In one of her prayer journals, Teresa recorded a word she received from the Lord about the essence of humility:
This is true humility: to see what you can do, and to see what I can do. (Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, 397)
In other words, humility is simply a realistic assessment of reality – including God’s power and our limitation.
Andrew Murray, in his book Humility, shares the perspective of Saint Teresa:
Humility is the one indispensable condition of true fellowship with Jesus. (5)
The Lord has spoken to me through Saint Teresa’s writings. I currently have (at least) a couple or areas of my life in which I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, grasping for life change but not seeing any traction. My sense from the Lord was this: “The reason you’re spinning your wheels and not seeing traction in life change is because you lack humility.” (Please note that this admonishment was gentle and sweet, even liberating, not guilt or shame inducing – which is part of the reason I believe it was from the Lord.)
So why is humility the key to union with God? Why is it the one indispensable condition of fellowship with Jesus?
Perhaps because it is the way we open ourselves to God. Our pride keeps us closed from God; our humility opens us.
Just like a closed hand, clenched as a fist of pride and self-will, cannot receive anything from anyone else, so pride closes us to God.
And just as an open hand, opened wide and vulnerable, is available to receive whatever is offered, so humility opens us to more of God.
Interestingly, as I have begun to live into this word about humility in the last month, I have started to see major traction toward life change in one of those previous wheel-spinning areas of my life!
How do we practice humility? It’s easier to think of circumstances beyond our control that have humbled us. It’s more difficult to think of how we might actually pursue humility in a proactive way.
Consider three spiritual practices of humility that are opening me to God:
- Confessing my brokenness to others.
- Asking for help, even when I don’t think I need it.
- Worshipping God and getting a glimpse of his vastness.
What impacts you about Teresa’s comments regarding humility?
In what ways are you learning to seek humility intentionally?
This is a liberating word, Charles. Thank you. Can I be delighted when others are right? When a child justly corrects me? When my enemy speaks the truth? Can I rejoice when the gospel appears in the world more beautifully than I could ever say or embody it? Delight and laughter regularly accompany humility. Can l laugh at myself? Can I be disarmed? Can I let down? My pride keeps my defenses up. Humility comes as the gift that lets me relax and rest. I needed this word today, Charles. Thanks again!
Great thoughts on practicing humility! Thanks for sharing!
I like the definition of humility as seeing ourselves and God as we truly are. We are earth people made of dust, vulnerable and weak; we are also walking images of God, blessed and bound for glory. I’ve lived through times of self-absorbed pridefulness and self-hating shame, Neither one helped me learn humility. The practices of confession, worship, and speaking the truth in love in community do help.
Context: Most of Teresa’s life was spent in a convent, where she lived in poor health, flagellating herself and striving for piety through asceticism, which may partly explain why she had erotic raptures of the Lord. She was a devoted Catholic reformer who was considered a heretic by some church authorities and who considered Protestantism a heresy.
Gary – you are absolutely right about self-hating shame being no more humble than self-absorbed pride…great turn of phrase, I might add! We are made in God’s image so acknowledging our potential, value and strength is a part of humility as well.
As I read your thoughts about humility this morning I was reminded of how Jesus frames his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. He begins with the Beatitudes which starts off with the blessings of being poor in spirit, mourning and meekness. These attitudes seem to be describing a general posture of humility (realizing our own insufficiency and recognizing our need for him) as the starting point of a relationship with God. He ends the Sermon by talking about the wise builder who puts his teachings into practice.
It seems he is saying that humility is necessary to start us on the journey toward God and faithfulness/obedience helps keep us moving forward. I think Teresa’s thoughts fit well here. It would be interesting to think about Teresa’s mansion analogy some more and how these things might inform each other.
Charles, thanks for your openness to share and to be vulnerable and to ask for help. Not one of us is without weakness and we miss the point of community in Christ when we try to work through our weaknesses on our own.
Great connection to SOM, Tommy. Insightful.
Have you read Soul Work by Randy Harris?
I have not. Similarities?
Randy works through Jeremy Taylor’s (who lived 1613-1667) book Holy Living where he has 19 rules for humility. He then gives a whole chapter on the humility of Jesus. It is good material.
Good to know! I will check that out.