The soul is so beautiful, so splendid, that words cannot describe it, St. Teresa of Avila tells us in The Interior Castle. This guide for spiritual development was written in 1577 at the behest of her superiors. Thinking her audience was only her sisters in the Discalced Carmelite order, and hoping to solve their difficulties with prayer, St. Teresa composed what today is considered a classic on spiritual life.
Our intellects will never be able to comprehend the “great beauty and capabilities of a soul,” but still we benefit from reflecting upon the gifts our souls possess, St. Teresa writes.
She describes the soul as a castle created from a single diamond, comprised of many rooms, each more beautiful than the last. Yet, despite this magnificence, many people live only in the courtyard of their soul, either unwilling or incapable of venturing farther inside, she says.
To me these people are like the blind salamander referenced by Father Paul Gabor, S.J., the astrophysicist and vice director for the Vatican Observatory Research Group who gave the Aquinas Lecture last week. As part of his lecture, he showed a slide of an olm, an aquatic creature that lives in caves in Bosnia-Herzegovina and moves very little – one specimen that scientists had under observation didn’t move at all for seven years even though it was still alive. Olms can live up to 100 years underwater in complete darkness and may eat only once a decade.
With the best of care, my body may survive a century. On the other hand, I have treated my immortal soul very much as though it were an olm, leaving it shrouded in darkness and feeding it only incidental morsels that floated past in the course of my everyday life.
People tend to do little to preserve the beauty of the soul, St. Teresa observed, and so it was with me until recently, when I became emboldened to seek the wonders of the soul just as astronomers explore the wonders of the universe.
During his lecture, Fr. Gabor showed an animation from PBS of what it might look like to go past the heavenly bodies in the night sky, out into the Milky Way galaxy with its 200 billion stars, and beyond it to the Andromeda galaxy and farther still into the Virgo supercluster, seeing stellar nurseries, stellar remnants and other wonders.
Stare at a small patch of sky with the Hubble telescope for a month and “you’ll see an absolutely fabulous image of galaxies,” he said, but because of the limitations of the camera not all of the 10,000 galaxies will be visible.
Stare at your soul long enough and, even given the limitations of your spiritual perception, what will be revealed?
St. Teresa says to know God we must first know ourselves, and self-knowledge is acquired by examining the soul. Such self-inquiry might reveal, for example, that our soul is undergoing a crisis equivalent to that of Betelgeuse, the star in the constellation Orion that now shines at less than half of its usual intensity. Scientists speculate that it may supernova.
Averting such a catastrophe of the soul certainly would be beneficial, but there is more to prayer than self-scrutiny. “We shall advance more by contemplating the Divinity than by keeping our eyes fixed on ourselves,” St. Teresa says. With sufficient prayer and grace, we can venture farther into the castle, where the treasures and joys “are impossible to depict.”
We may not have the vocabulary to describe the wonders of the soul, but God himself wills that we come to understand him as well as our limited minds are able, just as over the centuries we have, through science, expanded our knowledge of the mysteries of the universe, as Fr. Gabor explained.
The truths expounded by the 16th-century saint and the modern astrophysicist are the same. Both speak of theology at its most basic: faith seeking understanding, as St. Anselm wrote. The wonders of the universe are no more or less marvelous than the wonders of the soul, but to understand either we must pursue knowledge of the Almighty, who teaches us of himself to us through science as well as revelation.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. She can be reached at email@example.com.