The Interior of the Soul
Second Day of the Novena in Honour of St. Anne (St. Anne‘s Church, Hamilton, Ontario)

“Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.”

Many of my ambitious students labour for hours each night on their homework. So I often ask them: “What’s it all for? What are you working so hard to achieve? What do you want? And when you get it, do you think that you will be any happier than you are now?” Well, I get a lot of blank stares.

One of my favourite subjects to talk to students about is death. Outside our school chapel we have two walls of pictures of former students who died while they were attending our school. The wall is located right in front of the main stairwell on the second floor, between the first and third floors. I think that wall is a wonderful idea. I like telling the students: “The next time you see those faces smiling at you through their pictures, just think, they’re telling you, ‘Get ready, because you’re next’”. They are very disturbed to hear that. And the next day I see them, I will often remind them: “Since the last time we were together in this classroom, we are now 24 hours closer to the grave.”

Very few want to think about the shortness of our lives. But the irony is that there’s nothing that makes life lighter. I remember when I used to take my car to Nick’s garage in Toronto. He’s a good mechanic who was always 1/3 of the cost of any other dealer, but you have to leave your car with him and wait a few hours, because he’s so popular. I was a young teacher at the time working in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto at a school with a lot of needy students. So I was very stressed out at the time. After leaving my car with Nick, I went for a walk. I found an old cemetery nearby, so I walked through it, reading some of the tombstones. I was struck by how short even a relatively long life turned out to be. And then I got to wondering: “This man probably had the same worries and anxieties that I have now, and look where he is. What good did all that worry and anxiety do for him? And I too am going to be there in a relatively short time.”

What I noticed by the end of that walk was a revelation indeed. I felt as if a great weight had been lifted off my back. I felt light and exhilarated. So I continued to walk through cemeteries, praying a rosary, and staying close to the thought that I’m going to die eventually and be entirely forgotten. Life became so much lighter from that point onwards, and the classroom became so much easier. Dealing with the worst students became so much easier. It had the effect of highlighting all that was truly important, and relegating everything else to the periphery. And what was important was going into the classroom every day in a spirit of joy and being a channel of the divine mercy to the students. The curriculum had only a secondary importance. They’re going to forget everything eventually, as I forgot most of what I was taught in high school. But I never forgot the way teachers related to me, especially the joyful ones.

It’s a strange irony. The more we keep death in the forefront of the mind, the more joyful and light hearted we become; while the more the thought of death recedes from our mind, the more desperate we become, that is, the more caught up we become in the trivialities of this world.

Everything is passing away. Consider how people change. The things we like as children, toy trucks, dolls, cartoons, hot dogs and kool aide, etc.,. We eventually outgrow these things, our tastes change. We enter adolescence, and we become more focused on our looks; the adolescent experiences a sexual awakening. They’re interested in the opposite sex. They pay more attention to their hair, they start taking showers, they have become profoundly self-conscious. But if they continue to mature, they slowly become more ‘other’ centered. We become parents, and then our life is no longer centered around the self, but around the child. After years of parenting, our tastes are very different. We no longer like the things we liked as teenagers. We no longer like the things we enjoyed as young adults. Our tastes have become a bit loftier. We’re no longer interested in our looks—unless one is some sort of narcissist stuck in an earlier stage of personality development.

If we consider the pattern of these changes, we see that they go from the very egocentric life of a child, to the still rather self-centered life of the adolescent, to the more other centered life of adulthood. The changes in our tastes go from the most material or physical, to the more immaterial or spiritual. The joys of adulthood are greater joys, because they are less self-centred. By the time we’re out of our 20s, we should have learned that the greatest joys of this life have something to do with loving the other not for what the other does for me, but for the other’s own sake. Our greatest happiness is found in an exit of self. The very word ‘ecstasy’ comes from the Greek word ‘ekstasis’, to stand outside oneself. A truly joyful or ecstatic life is only found in a forgetting of self.

That’s what life in Christ is all about. It is a gradual dying to self, so that the life of Christ may dwell fully within us. It is a life that radiates outward, but it is a life that is within. When we discover Christ, we discover the interior universe within. So many people are frantically searching, while everything they really need, everything they are really searching for, is within them, hidden in their deepest interior, within the interior castle of the soul.

St. Theresa of Avila speaks of seven interiors, that is, seven mansions or rooms that make up the Interior Castle, which is the soul. The purpose of the spiritual life is to make it to that seventh mansion, because within that room, one meets one’s “eternal spouse”. To discover merely the first room, the first mansion, is to discover that there is Someone within one’s deepest interior, and so one is moved to find Him, that is, one is moved to pray in silence and alone. Already, after entering this first mansion, one begins to discover oneself, and one discovers oneself to the degree that he or she descends more deeply into this interior, because soon we realize that our own self-discovery is inseparably connected to the discovery of this Someone who dwells within that most interior room, the one who “created me for Himself”, and for whom our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.

Silence is necessary because noise draws me out into the exterior world, which indeed is good and created by God. But this exterior world is not God. He dwells in the “heaven of the soul”. I have to spend my life searching for this interior sun that burns within me, a sun that is covered by clouds, a mirror clouded by dirt and grime, but which when clean reflects my true image, that is, my true identity. To enter this seventh mansion is to find the deepest rest (peace) that one can possibly possess - and we are always seeking for rest. The problem with human beings is that they seek this rest in the finite goods of this world (beaches, hot spots, wealth, romantic relationships, etc). These finite goods are genuine goods, but they do not and cannot quench a thirst that is infinite, and the human heart has an infinite thirst. Father Jean Pierre de Caussade writes: “The entire universe cannot fill and satisfy our hearts, for they are greater than all apart from God. Mountains which overawe us are but tiny grains to our hearts.”

Through lived experience one should discover - unless one lacks self-awareness, which many do indeed lack - that these finite goods do not satisfy, for the heart continues to thirst, to desire, to want. What is it looking for? It is looking for something that will impart rest. But only that which is proportioned to its thirst will give it rest, and if its thirst is infinite, then it is searching for the infinite, an object that it cannot circumscribe or contain, but an object that contains it, because this object is larger than the soul, for it is larger than life, and it inspires and strikes an overwhelming sense of awe into it, because He is Beauty without limits, the source of all that is beautiful, good and true. Anything in this world that is true, good and beautiful pleases and fascinates the soul, but everything other than God possesses only a limited goodness, thus a limited splendor (beauty). Finite goods are only meant to draw one onward towards the source of all that is beautiful. But human beings, in the blindness caused by sin, impatience, lack of temperance, and inordinate love of self, seek their rest in the things of this world, and as a result they never find the rest that they have been looking for all their lives. And when people become more restless, they become more desperate, and thus the search becomes more desperate, and the noise and clamor of the world increases.

But when you begin to see yourself through the eyes of Him who dwells within your deepest interior, through the eyes of Him who alone matters, you begin to see that although you really don’t matter to the world, you do ultimately matter, because you matter to Him, and so it is His gaze that lifts you and fills you with a joy that the world cannot impart; for the world does not know you well, and the world will forget you, and above all, the world does not love you in any lasting and significant way. But He who alone matters has brought you into being for Himself, and the intimacy of marriage is only - and nothing more than - a step towards and preparation for an eternal “marriage” with God who resides deep within you, and who loves you as if there is only one of you. Amen.

Next Page: Channels of the Divine Mercy
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