Dear Sister, In the Interior Castle, St. Teresa talks about “pesky reptiles” and other creatures. What exactly does she mean when she is saying these things?

Those “pesky reptiles”! When you come across a snake unexpectedly, what is your immediate reaction? Well, unless you are a herpetologist it is probably fear, dread or surprise. Let me share with you the reaction of a group of Sisters with one such encounter several years ago.

We had attended Mass at an abbey and were looking for a place to have our lunch on the grounds. We began walking down the path of the Stations of the Cross, looking for some benches. At that particular time of the year the grasses and wild flowers had grown to waist level on both sides of the path. Thus the path had become very narrow, so much so that we had to walk single file. I was in the lead and looking up at some birds flying overhead and not paying attention to the path I was on. The Sister behind me in a sweet gentle voice said, “Oh, look at that snake.” Thinking it was well ahead on the path, I replied, “Where?”

She in turn answered, “Right there.” I looked down and about a foot in front of me was the largest diamondback rattler I had ever seen. Its head was well out on the path but most of its body was concealed in the grasses. I froze! Everyone stopped and I said, “That is a rattlesnake; back up slowly!” Everyone began taking steps backwards. When we were out of danger, I turned and the last Sister in line was nowhere to be seen. She is normally a very slow mover but we found her later by the van, a good distance away. We were very happy that she did not have the van keys or she might have left us behind! We doubled over laughing, not only because of her but because of the gentle sweet message we had received about the danger in our path.

Knowing our human nature Teresa uses an image that is repulsive for most of us: snakes and poisonous creatures – not because they are bad in themselves – but because they can become a danger to us if we do not understand what we are dealing with and do not take the necessary precautions. Teresa tells us that these creatures live outside the castle in their normal habitats, but they can manage to squeeze into the castle when we enter, just as creatures which live in our yards manage to find their way into our homes.

The creatures to which St. Teresa refers here are “worldly things” – whatever can be an occasion of sin or a danger for us. In the first mansion we are less aware of the danger before us since we are just beginning a serious life of prayer and not as spiritually attuned to the voice of the Holy Spirit. This room is also cold and dim and our spiritual eyes do not recognize the perils around us. Progress is slow but if we stay with it, allowing God to do His work in us, we gradually enter the second Mansion. But a number of these “pesky reptiles” manage to come in with us.

Both the first and the second mansions are “rooms of humility”. If Adam and Eve could so easily be convinced by the reasoning of Satan then our wounded nature can undoubtedly be misled. Although the second mansion is not as dark and cold as the first, the hard work required here, the discouragement and impatience with ourselves, our self-condemnation can cause us to look back and try to return to the previous room. We are still too close to the “world” and its allurements and comfort levels can entice us back. If Satan can induce us to return to the First Mansion then it will not be too long before he convinces us to leave the castle altogether.

These two rooms of humility are also the rooms of self-knowledge. Unless we know ourselves well we are not in a position to recognize the menaces that can endanger us and draw us off the right path. The difficulty in recognizing what becomes for us an occasion of sin is the proficiency with which we rationalize our choices and behavior.

The second mansion requires great determination and determination is the resolve to move. But to move we must take a step in some direction. A holy card I have shows a newly hatched fluffy chick standing and looking forward. The verse beneath it states, “Trust is at the beginning of everything: it precedes every step and at every step lights up the way.”

Will we trust God sufficiently to keep our gaze looking ahead, to step forward courageously, and to tune out all voices which are not in conformity with His?