“Insofar as I can understand the gate of entry to this castle is prayer and reflection.” Saint Teresa of Avila addresses these words to her fellow Carmelite nuns in her treatise on prayer, The Interior Castle. By castle she means the soul, which she depicts as a beautiful crystal palace with God at its center. These words, however, extend far beyond the realm of monastic life and apply directly to our own ordinary lives as people in the world.
This Easter I actually entered a “palace”—Rome, the Eternal City. I was blessed enough to spend Holy Week there with a few of my friends from Notre Dame. We attended a conference called UNIV for college students around the world; each year the conference has a theme (this year: A World in Movement) and students present papers and projects based on that theme. Yet it was also a pilgrimage in which we tried to deepen our faith and grow closer to God.
I started reading St. Teresa’s Interior Castle after returning from Rome for my Program of Liberal Studies seminar. Her emphasis on interiority and spiritual growth have helped me reflect on my trip to Rome and the University of Notre Dame in new ways.
The week was a whirlwind of sights, new faces, amazing food, and exhaustion. Through it all I wanted prayer and reflection to remain the center, to remember I wasn’t here as a tourist but a pilgrim. When people ask me, “how was Rome?” I almost don’t know what to say. How can I possibly convey all this trip meant to me with a few words? It would take an hour long presentation of the photos, an explanation of the conference, an attempt to explain the jokes and funny moments and so, so much more. But I still hope I can share the insights I gleaned from my first time in Rome.
Every church or basilica we entered astounded us with its majesty. To name a few: St. Paul outside the walls, St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the Pantheon, and of course, St. Peter’s. Gilded gold ceilings, huge marble columns, stained glass windows that sparkled in the light, and magnificent renditions of the saints filled each one. Each one was truly a palace, with God as its king resting in the tabernacle.
It can be almost easy to be caught up in the beautiful art and architecture of the churches and forget that God dwells in the tabernacle. The church isn’t an empty, beautiful place—Christians are meant to pray there and celebrate the Mass. Someone during the trip reminded us that all this art, all this beauty is supposed to lift our minds and hearts to God. It was a good reminder.
In the Interior Castle, St. Teresa explores the meaning of prayer, which can be difficult to understand. She writes that prayer and reflection allow us to enter into the castle that is our soul. There are many dwellings in the castle, and as we spiritually progress we get closer to the center. But above all we should strive to advance to the center, and not remain indifferent in one dwelling place.
On Holy Saturday the four of us from Notre Dame managed to get tickets for the Vigil mass in St. Peter’s. Everyone warned us that even if you have tickets, you don’t necessarily get in (the Europeans will fight and push to get past you, especially the Italian nuns). Well, we snuck into the “line”—it was really a crowd of people—about four hours before the Mass started. There we were, cramped together and clutching our blue tickets. To pass the time we talked with some people from Trinidad next to us and the Spaniards behind us. A group in front of us starting strumming a guitar and singing pop songs.
Then the guards opened the gate, and we all rushed forward as one massive body. In the rush one person in our group dropped her ticket and it seemed like all was lost. Yet another person in our group, determined she would get in, ripped her ticket in half, and gave one half to the one who had dropped her ticket. We proceeded towards the church, waved our tickets at the guards, and smiled, praying that we would make it in.To our astonishment, the guards let us through and we found ourselves seated inside St. Peter’s basilica for Easter Vigil mass.
If you have never been inside St. Peter’s, all I can say is that every inch of the basilica is covered with detailed masterpieces. The altar is surrounded by four twisted columns and a stain glass window of the Holy Spirit shines in the center. But it is far better to experience it yourself, in person.
The four of us truly felt like we had snuck into a grand palace by the back door. We couldn’t believe we were there. During the whole Mass I was thanking God for the opportunity and looking around wide-eyed at the walls, the ceiling, even the floor.
I wonder why we don’t always seek to enter the “doorway” to our souls just as eagerly as the four of us entered St. Peter’s that day. We did everything we could to get into that basilica. In the same way shouldn’t we do all we can to know ourselves, and therefore know God?
Coming back to campus, we were greeted by blossoming trees, chirping robins, and sunshine. It was not such a huge shock going from sunny 70-degree weather in Rome to spring at Notre Dame. I always think about how much our campus is like a garden, with the golden dome and the basilica at the center. Here, we can experience this beauty on a physical level all the time. I would hope that a nice spring day on campus at least makes everyone pause with gratitude.
So yes, the doorway to the palace of our souls is prayer and reflection as Saint Teresa says. But in order to advance once inside the palace you need perseverance, an unwillingness to settle with indifference. This extends to all aspects of our lives, especially as students at Notre Dame. We shouldn’t settle for mediocrity but push ourselves to seek out new challenges and touch the lives of others in new ways. I hope as Editor-in-Chief of the Rover next year I can personally challenge myself to uphold the mission of this newspaper and, above all, the truth.
As the school year draws to a close and the weather gets progressively better, I hope the students of Notre Dame will look with wonder and appreciation at the beauty of our campus. Maybe this will help us look a little more inward. After all, to give of yourself, you need to know yourself.
Sarah Ortiz is a sophomore studying PLS and classics and living in Lewis Hall. While in Rome, she enjoyed ordering gelato in Italian. She is, of course, really excited to be Editor-in-Chief of the Rover. You can contact her at email@example.com.