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Navigating Our Interior Castles

St. Teresa of Ávila died 500 years ago, but she still helps authors overcome writer's block today.

In a time where speaking out could mean persecution, Teresa of Ávila, or St. Teresa, challenged the limits of what a lowly nun could say. She lived 500 years ago during a time of religious strife and persecution in Spain. Despite her limited role as a woman in the Catholic Church where she didn’t have the same access to education or power that men had, she worked to inspire and assist nuns and religious figures both in her time and for centuries beyond. In the February 16, 2024, Faith & Imagination lecture titled “Writing to the Center: Following Teresa of Ávila,” Stephanie Paulsell of Harvard Divinity School shared her thoughts about St. Teresa’s writings and the impact of her example on writers for centuries after.

Painting of St. Teresa looking off into the distance holding a quill and a book.
Photo by Peter Paul Rubens via Kunsthistorisches Musem

St. Teresa wrote her last book, Interior Castles, five years before her death. It served as a treatise on prayer and faith journey for the nuns of the Carmelite reforms. In it, St. Teresa introduced the idea of an interior castle, which she used as a metaphor to describe the spiritual journey that everyone must go through. In this metaphor, each room in the castle represents a spiritual dwelling. As we grow spiritually, our souls move further into this figurative castle, effectively bringing us closer to dwelling with God. St. Teresa argued that “everyone has an interior castle with them . . . even if we’re not aware of it, even if it’s obscured by our sins and our mistakes.”

St. Teresa’s experience writing Interior Castles was almost more significant than the book itself. At the time of writing, the Spanish Inquisition had banned many of the religious texts St. Teresa had used to learn about prayer, making knowledge on true, reverent prayer limited for newer nuns. She had previously written her teachings on prayer in a book about her life, but the Inquisition took the book to inspect it for heresy. In this society ruled by censorship, St. Teresa fought writer’s block as she wrote something that, as Paulsell said, “pushed at the boundaries of what the church considered acceptable.”

As she wrote Interior Castle, St. Teresa described her head being “so full of noise, that [she] can hardly compose a letter about the most ordinary business.” Paulsell explained that St. Teresa overcame her writer’s block through her obedience to God. Putting her focus singularly on God allowed her to write with more clarity.

St. Teresa’s writing journey and metaphorical interior castles helped Paulsell overcome the writer’s block she experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said, “The great adventure of life, Teresa believed, was to explore that [interior castle], discovering one hidden room after another. During the COVID shut down when my thoughts felt so scattered and it was difficult to write, I tried to follow Teresa through these rooms, using them as a path to follow with my writing as if it were in the margins of [St. Teresa’s] book.”

St. Teresa’s legacy not only helped Paulsell, it inspired countless other writers to express themselves as well. Famous authors such as Virginia Woolf, Kate O’Brien, Julia Kristeva, and Vita Sackville-West found inspiration in St. Teresa’s life and works. Additionally, Bernini based his famous sculpture St. Teresa in Ecstasy on a spiritual experience St. Teresa had. Her perseverance in writing despite difficult circumstances continues to inspire artists to push past their challenges and keep creating.

See who is presenting at the Humanities Center for the rest of the semester.