“The Height, Depth, and Breadth of Humility in St. Teresa’s Interior Castle

Br. Ignatius Schweitzer, O.P.

            St. Teresa of Avila observes that the God of Truth is so fond of humility because in it we recognize the “very deep truth that of ourselves we have nothing good but only misery and nothingness” (VI:10.7).[1]  Apart from God our lives would truly be bleak; but even more fundamentally, without our Creator we would literally be naught.  For St. Teresa, humility is simply the lived acknowledgement of the truth.  Yet the depth of the creature’s nothingness is only part of the story.  If humility’s ‘truth’ lingers at the level of the creature, only small-minded timidity remains and the soul will be left stuck in the mire.  For the soul called to commune with the Most High God, however, high-minded boldness or magnanimity must inform humility.  Who better to expound such a high-soaring humility than St. Teresa, that towering eagle of Mount Carmel?  Yet she says more.  In addition to the height and depth, St. Teresa’s writings imply something of a breadth to humility. 

            In this essay I will explore St. Teresa’s ‘three-dimensional’ humility as found in her work The Interior Castle.  First, I will elaborate on humility as three-dimensional.  Second, I will examine the depth and height of humility.  Third, by considering the extraordinary favors which God sometimes bestows upon ‘special’ souls, I will expose an irresolvable tension that exists in such a two-dimensional humility.  Fourth, I will propose how St. Teresa’s implicit doctrine of what I call an ‘impartial anonymity,’ by giving humility breadth, eases the tension caused by special graces.  This augmented humility, then, awakens a disinterested praise of God and an expansive love of one’s neighbors.  Fifth, I will consider the roles of desire and resignation in humility’s response to favors, especially to those not granted.  Sixth, I will raise the concern that St. Teresa’s work may in fact impede the reader’s growth in humility by provoking disordered self-musings.  I conclude with what I take to be St. Teresa’s rejoinder to such a reservation, a response which emphasizes the appropriate reverence of God and neighbor.

Humility as Three-Dimensional

            What I describe as the three dimensions of humility would more precisely be explicated in terms of three distinct virtues.  The depth of humility would be the only dimension designated as ‘humility’ strictly speaking.  The height would more properly be described as a faith-enlightened-magnanimity, while the breadth, as love of one’s neighbor.  Magnanimity belongs to the cardinal virtue of fortitude while humility belongs to temperance; whereas infused love can be seen as an extension of justice since it goes over and beyond the demands of natural justice.  Magnanimity is the impetus toward attaining great things—in this case, the high calling of union with God which is known through faith.  Humility restrains this striving for greatness in accordance with the truth (or right reason).  Without humility, one falls into presumption or pride; yet without magnanimity, one does not strive for greatness at all and falls into small-mindedness or pusillanimity.  Finally the breadth, as charity, thrusts one from an inordinate self-concern to an attentiveness to others.  It is mindful of the transcendent end to which God also summons others and endeavors to help them attain it since they are just as significant in God’s eyes as oneself.  Without this charity, one falls into a jealous self-centeredness.

            In order to better illustrate how these distinct virtues work together, I consider them synthetically.  Magnanimity and charity are considered insofar as they relate to and augment humility.  Treating humility as united to magnanimity and charity forestalls the tendency to conceive of humility as either a tamed mediocrity or an excessive concern with the state of one’s own soul.  For the sake of emphasizing their underlying unity, it seems justifiable to use ‘humility’ in a non-technical sense and speak of its three dimensions.  Moreover, this approach fits well with St. Teresa’s own understanding of humility as a lived awareness of the truth.  The height, depth, and breadth of humility corresponds to the three-fold truth of God, one’s own soul, and others.  The height is where a faith-enlightened-magnanimity and humility meet: it accepts God’s word concerning oneself as true, on the authority of God himself, regardless of how things may seem to one’s own limited perspective.  The depth, through accurate self-knowledge, acknowledges one’s own infirmities, weaknesses, and unworthiness.  And the breadth is where love of neighbor and humility meet: it esteems others just as important as oneself and recognizes the aspects in which others are in fact better than oneself.

The Depth and Height

            Since St. Teresa’s teaching on humility concerns the truth of the Christian in relation to God, I take as her central dictum on humility a lesson pertaining to prayer: “a prayer in which a person is not aware of whom he is speaking to, what he is asking, who it is who is asking and of whom, I do not call prayer however much the lips move” (I:1.7).  In order to genuinely pray with the one true God, the Christian must be grounded in the truth.  Humility is hence a keen awareness of the truth of God and the soul.  Humility recognizes the truth about who the lowly creature is and who the Most High God is.  This true knowledge of self and God gradually develops as one progresses through St. Teresa’s seven dwellings (or stages) to more consummate union.

            In the first dwelling, St. Teresa stresses the important foundation of humble self-knowledge.  She describes humility’s self-knowledge using the imagery of a bee constantly making honey in the hive.  Like the bee which often leaves the hive to gather nectar, the soul, too, should often turn from self-reflection and consider the glory of God (I:2.8).  Subjugating the truth discovered in self-knowledge to the ultimate truth of God has two advantages according to St. Teresa.  First, imperfections stand out most when contrasted with God’s perfections.  The darkness of black is more apparent when contrasted with white (I:2.10).  Second, the lucid knowledge of imperfections could be so overwhelming that the soul would be left in its own wretchedness if it did not consider God’s grace. 

            The depth of humility, in isolation, takes itself as the final word and neglects God’s word concerning the ultimate truth of his sons and daughters: it neither sees itself according to God’s standard nor strives for anything beyond its too limited capacity.  A pusillanimous perversion fails to aspire to the exalted vocation of sharing in the Godhead.  St. Teresa notes a host of fears which accompany such a false humility that strives to advance in concrete ways: is it not prideful to dare to undertake such a spiritual work? am I not really unworthy of such a lofty calling? will not others consider me holier-than-thou? is it not a bit extreme? are not such endeavors inspired by romanticism and really of little consequence or even disastrous? should I not be gratefully content with the special graces God has already bestowed on me? (I:2.10)  These may all be valid questions to discern with prudence, yet none of them can be the final word.  God’s word has the final say.  God’s transcendent purpose for the Christian demands that magnanimity work with humility’s self-knowledge.  St. Teresa insists that these fears do not come from understanding ourselves all too well, but quite the opposite:

The fears come from our not understanding ourselves completely.  They distort self-knowledge; and I’m not surprised if we never get free from ourselves…So I say, daughters, that we should set our eyes on Christ, our Good, and on His saints.  There we shall learn true humility, the intellect will be enhanced…and self-knowledge will not make one base and cowardly. (I:2.11)

We can only completely understand ourselves in the Light of Truth, God himself.  Humility in its height and depth includes the recognition of who God is and what he is willing and able to accomplish in those he has created in his own image, even though they be so undeserving.

An Irresolvable Tension

            This heightened notion of a faith-filled humility has implications on how one is to approach all of God’s graces.  Yet, since the contours of the topic are sharpened with respect to special favors, I will consider these.  Much of what follows can likewise be applied to the many other not-so-mystical graces we rightly pray for and desire.  The extraordinary favors are especially interesting with respect to humility since they are bestowed only on those whom God chooses in an exceptional way.  They can more likely lead to a false sense of superiority than would more ordinary graces.  Furthermore, apart from such favors as visions, they normally depend on a certain amount of cooperation and desire on the part of the Christian. This could involve hubris if one were to inappropriately desire a lofty favor. 

            St. Teresa’s treatment of the prayer of quiet is especially illuminating, as it exposes a tension inherent to humility in its height and depth.  In keeping with a magnanimous humility, St. Teresa tells her daughters that it is good and right to desire and understand how to obtain the prayer of quiet (IV:2.8).  Yet, in keeping with the poverty of humility, she insists that one should not strive for it since it cannot be attained by one’s effort, but only by God’s free choice (IV:2.9).  Humility is simultaneously high-minded and poor: it is aware of both whom it is who bestows the gift and whom it is who receives the gift.  In the preceding dwellings the soul is to do all it actively can through grace, but when it comes to this special grace, St. Teresa implores her readers only for humility:

Humility! Humility!  By this means the Lord allows Himself to be conquered with regard to anything we want from Him.  The first sign for seeing whether or not you have humility is that you do not think you deserve these favors and spiritual delights from the Lord or that you will receive them in your lifetime. (IV:2.9, emphasis my own)

There is a paradox here.  On the one hand, we are to desire the favor.  Humility, in ‘conquering’ the Lord, is able to convince the Lord (in some sense) to grant it.  In fact, one must whole-heartedly believe that God does grant such favors in order to be open to them (V:1.8, in reference to prayer of union).  Yet on the other hand, we should really think that we will never receive the favor in our unworthiness.  It would be so unfitting that we who have squandered so many graces should be given even greater ones.  Since God is not fooled by play-acting, we must conclude in all sincerity that we will never receive the favor, yet at the same time, we are to desire to receive it.  There seems to be a contradiction here.  Am I to desire the favor and earnestly believe that God will grant it to me, or not?  The two aspects of humility are in tension: poverty says “no,” since I have so often held back in responding to grace, I should not dream of receiving such a special favor; yet high-mindedness says “yes,” since, in his overwhelming goodness, God freely bestows these favors on such an undeserving son or daughter such as me.  In such an experience of conflicting dispositions one may bemoan in frustration: should not humility be characterized by simplicity? 

The Breadth

            Humility in its height and depth is insufficient to resolve this strained tension.  Being aware of the truth of God and oneself is precisely where the tension lies: God’s merciful goodness versus my own obstinacy.  Although a foundation may reach as deep as the center of the earth, it cannot support the heights of a castle if it has the breadth of a penny.  Humility demands breadth.  St. Teresa provides such a breadth in a disposition that could be called an ‘impartial anonymity.’  For St. Teresa there is a certain amount of indifference whether it is she herself who receives a favor or another.  It is almost as if she views herself from a detached third-person perspective: she is just another anonymous creature utterly dependent on her Creator.  In her humble self-knowledge, the truth that God is the source of her good is so glaring that when she sees good—regardless of whether in herself or in another—she turns only to praise the Source (I:2.5).  Even when she is praised by others, she remains lowly and praises God just as if he in his goodness had granted the favor to another (VI:1.4).  In writing of her own mystical experiences and special favors, she usually remains anonymous, saying, “I know a person who…” (cf. I:2.2, V:3.2, VI:4.16 etc).  In opposition to the natural tendency toward a self-interested particularity, she senses that the Lord wants her to rejoice when another is praised and to sorrow when she herself is (V:3.11).  St. Teresa feels justified in writing even about the favor of visions, which is not to be desired and is rarely bestowed anyway, because she hopes that by learning such things, “we might praise Him very much even though He may not grant them to us” (VI:8.1).  Praising God for his goodness does not depend on whether or not we ourselves happen to receive a particular grace from God.  In fact, thanking God for the gift of another is purer since it is disinterested.  By investigating more closely what is at the heart of this disposition of impartial anonymity we can hopefully arrive at a resolution to the tension caused by special graces.

            The basis for St. Teresa’s impartial anonymity seems to be her profound appreciation of others.  She is just as keenly aware of the truth of others as she is of herself.  In light of the breadth of humility, what we have taken as St. Teresa’s central principle can now be recast: humility is the attentive awareness of the truth of God and souls (my own and others’).  The fact that others exist besides me seems obvious enough, and that I should be attentive to others has become something of a moral platitude.  Hence it may be necessary to plumb the depths of this truth anew in order to appreciate how it resolves the tension of special favors.  The profundity of charity within humility’s breadth should not be passed over too quickly.  Far from banal, the truth of others’ souls is striking.  For it is indeed a stunning truth that what one might consider the weight of one’s own unique subjective existence—the particular richness of one’s own interior life, the singular taste of one’s own perception of reality, the crucial importance of one’s own aspirations, the peculiar depth of one’s own desires, the familiar intimacy of one’s own personal relationship with God—is multiplied a billion times over.  The weight of my own ‘I am’ is cast on the scales of existence with the totality of each and every individual human person scattered throughout the ages who has ever stood (and continues to stand) in relation to God.  I approach God in this context with countless others as numerous as the stars of heaven (cf. Gen 15:5).  As God receives my prayer and attends to my soul, his gaze simultaneously pierces into the innermost core of each and every individual of the billion-plus souls he holds in existence.  Awareness of such breadth is truly more awe-striking than even the expanse of the material universe spread throughout outer space.  Lest I get lost in the stars by such an abstract multitude of souls, I ought to be acutely aware that the existential weight of such a singular subject lies in the one individual that—like the brightness of the sun—confronts me most forcefully: the unique soul of the given neighbor whose face I now happen to encounter.  I must be especially aware of the constellation of individuals I find myself among in this vast cosmos of pulsating lights.  I must humbly be grounded in such a deep, high, and broad truth of God and souls for my prayer to be more than just moving lips.

            To be caught up in the wonder of others’ souls is at the heart of St. Teresa’s impartial anonymity.  She is so conscious of the goodness of God as revealed in others that the particular graces she herself may or may not receive are a secondary concern.  Humility supported by this breadth is now able to resolve the tension of special graces.  The tension was caused by St. Teresa’s two-fold advice: on the one hand, I should desire the special favor, cooperate in receiving it, and wholeheartedly believe that God does grant such favors to such an unworthy individual as myself; while, on the other hand, I should truly believe that I myself will never receive the favor, and not seek to attain such favors since it is God’s free choice and it would be so unbefitting for me to receive them in my imperfection.  The breadth of humility provides a resolution by releasing the vertical tension, as it were, horizontally through love of neighbor.  I can confidently approach God as the Prodigal Father who squanders special gifts on the undeserving whether or not it is me to whom he grants these favors.  I can desire the favor and cooperate in receiving it as long as I desire it just as much for others and endeavor for them to receive it.  With this added breadth, I can still desire and pursue the favor while believing that it will not be granted to me, but to others.  I reverence God’s infinite wisdom in his inscrutable free choice of bestowing graces by keeping within my contemplative gaze the larger realm of possible recipients of God’s favors. 

            The tendency toward a self-interested particularity is mitigated by focusing on others.  The charity of humility’s breadth may have me put others before myself in beseeching God to bestow his gifts.  Scripture has alluded to this breadth: “in humility count others better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phi 2:3-4).  Since one can love only what he knows, this concern for others is founded on the acute awareness of the profound truth of others’ souls.  A greater appreciation of this truth leads to a disinterested praise of God and a love of neighbor which persist regardless of one’s own lot.  One can rejoice in the gifts of others because a deep knowledge of another engenders empathy.  It is in this sense that a lover possesses the gifts of his beloved.  Hence one can praise God for the blessings received by another almost as if they were one’s own possession.  What belongs to one part of the Body belongs to the whole Body, so that “if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26).  Impartial anonymity, then, while serving as an antidote for both an over exalted self-importance and an envy of the God-given-gifts of others, provides the impetus for a disinterested praise of God.  In it, Christians are able to maintain a simple humility which considers themselves to be the unlikely recipient of a special grace, while acknowledging God’s prodigal goodness as revealed in the favors bestowed upon others.

Desire and Resignation

            There is one aspect of St. Teresa’s understanding of humility that has been implicit to our treatment thus far but requires explicit consideration.  Humility’s response to God’s free bestowal of graces demands abandoning oneself to God’s will.  Ultimately one must be resigned to God’s choice of who receives what graces and when.  However, this resignation must not occur prematurely, otherwise it would abort the fruition of desire.  Abandoning oneself to God’s will after ardently desiring something is quite different than not having the desire in the first place.  The latter is an example of the smallness of soul which characterizes pusillanimity.  Magnanimity must ignite one’s fervor toward attaining great things before humility can play its role of restraining this ardor in accord with the truth.  Like a young racehorse that needs to be allowed to gallop with all its might through the open plains before it is restrained with the reigns, the desire for God’s free gifts needs to burn ardently before it resigns itself to God’s will.

            St. Teresa stresses the importance of striving for the most intimate union with God.  She claims that “such a desire is an excellent way to prepare oneself so that every favor may be granted” (III:1.5).  She insists that “what we must do is beg like the needy poor before a rich and great emperor and then lower our eyes and wait with humility” (IV:3.5).  Only after begging are we entreated to “leave the soul in God’s hands, [and] let Him do whatever He wants with it, with the greatest disinterest about your own benefit as is possible and the greatest resignation to the will of God” (IV:3.6).  St. Teresa’s description of abandonment has a breadth and height like the humility in which it is grounded.  The ‘greatest disinterest about your own benefit’ parallels the impartial anonymity of humility’s breadth, while the ‘greatest resignation to the will of God’ parallels the trusting faith of humility’s height.  On the one hand, the breadth of humility orients oneself to the good of others.  From this perspective one is more likely to be content in finding joy in the blessings of others even when one’s own self-interested desires are not met.  On the other hand, the height of humility acknowledges the truth that the Most High God knows what is good for us better than we do (cf. II:1.8).  From this perspective one is more likely to abandon himself to God even in the midst of turmoil and confusion.  The perspective of humility’s breadth and height prepares the way for the difficult ideal of abandonment.  So, instead of a more ardent desire making resignation more difficult, it can actually have the opposite effect if it is ordered by humility.  The poor beggar who ardently desires from the Lord a grace for others just as much as for himself is more likely to be able to abandon himself to God’s will if he does not receive it; he will be satisfied in delighting in the riches of others.  He recognizes that such a favor might have even done him harm if he had been granted it.  God’s wisdom surpasses his own in providing for him and others.  The dispositions needed for abandonment are already implanted in humility’s breadth and height: finding happiness in the goodness of others and having faith in God’s word being true and good.

            The ideal of abandonment reaches its perfection in participating in the life and death of Jesus Christ.  Jesus himself is the aim of the spiritual life and not any favor which he might grant.  St. Teresa puts her discussion of mystical favors in perspective by insisting that “His Majesty couldn’t grant us a greater favor than to give us a life that would be an imitation of the life His beloved Son lived…that we may be able to imitate Him in His great sufferings” (VII:4.4).  The grace to imitate Jesus in the love with which he endured the Cross for the salvation of the world is the pinnacle of all favors.  St. Teresa insists that it is not so much the greatness of one’s works that matters to God as much as the love with which they are done (VII:4.15).  Following Jesus in his obedience to the Father sometimes means treading with him the way of the Cross.  Being left in a state of spiritual aridity and darkness without any consoling favor could be such an instance of partaking, however minutely, in Jesus’ life-giving Cross.  The soul with the breadth of humility sees this as an opportunity to share in the grace of the Cross’ fruitfulness for the benefit of other souls.  Not only does God know what is best for one’s own soul, he also knows—better than we do—how one can best benefit others.  If one’s desire for a favor in the first place includes the benefit it could bring to others, he can more genially resign himself to not receiving it since the sacrifice offered in love may be the better means of obtaining graces for others. 

            Since both the mystery of how one shares subordinately in Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and the inner workings of congruous merit are hidden from our eyes, abandonment to God’s ways remains the bottom line.  All calculative self-initiation is precluded so that making an offering to God does not become making a ‘deal’ with God.  Nevertheless, one factor we can count on is the fecundity of a self-giving love which, though it springs from grace, does not require special mystical favors.  In fact, in some cases, not receiving any extraordinary favor may be the very means of rendering one’s gift of self more complete.  Yet in other cases, a special favor itself may be the source of a more total self-offering for the sake of others.  Only God knows what is needed in each individual case; the soul’s response remains its humble abandonment to the will of God.  In the depth of humility, the soul knows that because of its sins it is utterly unfit to receive any special grace and so it seeks compunction.  In the height, it knows God’s lavish goodness and so seeks his glory.  And in the breadth, it knows the value of other souls and so seeks their salvation.  Amidst abundant blessings or empty hands, the Christian grounded in humility’s three dimensions echoes St. Teresa’s generous prayer for the praise of her Lord to abound ever more: “praise is what she desires, and she would give a thousand lives—if she had that many—if one soul were to praise You a little more through her” (VI:6.4).          

A Revelation of God’s Glory

            The question could be raised whether or not St. Teresa’s work actually leads readers to such a humble disposition.  Could not her alluring descriptions of mystical favors encourage her readers to covet such favors in a self-interested particularity?  Could not her use of various spiritual levels lead her readers to deceptive self-reflection concerning how advanced one supposes himself to be?  In short, does The Interior Castle betray humility’s self-forgetfulness by focusing too much on the soul and not enough on God?

            In a letter which St. Teresa wrote a week after having finished the work, she insisted that The Interior Castle “treats only of what He is” (p 278).  The Interior Castle is about God!  It is not merely about godly things, but God himself.  How this is the case may not be so apparent.  An answer lies in St. Teresa’s introduction to the final dwelling.  She imagines that her readers are a little surprised that she has said so much about the spiritual life and presumes to say even more in the seventh dwelling.  We might agree: perhaps she has said too much about the soul.  She rebukes such a foolish thought by accentuating the glory of God as made manifest in souls:

Since the greatness of God is without limits, His works are too.  Who will finish telling of His mercies and grandeurs?…the more we know about His communication to creatures the more we will praise His grandeur and make the effort to have esteem for souls in which the Lord delights so much.  Each one of us has a soul, but since we do not prize souls as is deserved by creatures made in the image of God we do not understand the deep secrets that lie in them. (VII:1.1)

Learning about the wonders which God works in souls should elicit a profound reverence for others and a humble praise of God.  By prizing souls as we ought, we begin to move from a self-interested particularity to an impartial anonymity.  The sublimity of others’ souls will reveal secrets of God never before imagined and our own lot will become a secondary concern to the glory of God and the salvation of souls.  By growing in the piercing awareness of the truth of God and souls, we will be humble according to the breadth, depth, and height of Christ’s love—a love which is made known in his saints yet surpasses all knowledge (cf. Eph 3:18-19).  As a testament to the gracious favor of God displayed in the nobility of his creatures, St. Teresa’s Interior Castle is meant to evoke the praise of God.  May the good God grant us unworthy ones the favor to be the sort of people who so receive it.

[1] All references taken from volume 2 of The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila (trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, Washington DC: ICS Publications, 1980).

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