LTRP Note: The following is a chapter from Castles in the Sand, the only novel exposing the dangers of contemplative spirituality and spiritual formation. The story is about a young Christian college girl who is introduced to mysticism through her spiritual formation professor. In the following chapter, Tessa, troubled by some of the strange symptoms she is experiencing when practicing meditation, seeks help from her school counselor. But alas, the counselor is involved in the very spirituality that is affecting her. His advice? He encourages Tessa to turn to an ancient mystic, Teresa of Avila, for wisdom and understanding.
Castles in the Sand
by Carolyn A. Greene
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.–Jesus, Matthew 6:7
“And so, I’m really not sure what to think anymore about this spiritual formation training,” Tessa said softly. She felt very small and insignificant sitting in front of the huge desk in the head counselor’s office. The walls were covered with hardwood panels, and on the one with the credenza pushed against it hung a framed portrait of a man staring down at her with knowing eyes. The counselor wrote on a notepad with an expensive-looking gold pen. He had been at Flat Plains [Bible College] for nearly five years and most of the students respected him. Tessa had often heard him play the cello in the string quartet during chapel for Monday meditations. He was a bachelor, but not the kind the girls would flirt with. She wondered if he ironed his own shirts every day, as he always wore a crisp white one under his sports jacket. He had a few odd quirks but was generally kindhearted and caring. Tessa didn’t know why she felt so uncomfortable as she sat in his office. The counselor analyzed the comments he’d been jotting down. His notes said this girl had dark circles under her eyes and seemed very nervous. She had no previous record of drug use and had never gotten into trouble at school.
“Miss Dawson, we realize it’s an emotionally and spiritually demanding course. You have probably been working very hard. I see you stayed at school over the Christmas holidays as well as spring break last week to catch up on some course assignments. With the semester nearly over, the pressure will soon be off. Have you talked to your spiritual formation professor?”
“Well, she was the one who recommended that I be mentored by Ms. Jasmine. Naturally, I was excited about that, at first. Now, I’m not sure anymore. So I talked to the other counselor this morning, and she told me that you and Ms. Jasmine are the only people I need to talk to about my concerns.”
“Did she now? Instead of speaking to me, have you talked to Dr. Winters first about your concerns?” He secretly wished Dr. Jasmine Winters hadn’t been so casual with the students, allowing them to address her by her first name. It was simply disrespectful.
“Well, that’s the problem. I’m not comfortable with that.”
The counselor leaned forward on his oak desktop and looked at her over his black-rimmed glasses. “Well, apparently Dr. Winters is comfortable enough to have you all call her Ms. Jasmine. Now, could you tell me exactly why you are ‘uncomfortable’?”
“It’s like this. I . . . when I am in a session . . . I mean, when I did the sessions with Ms. Jazz, I mean Dr. Winters, strange things happen, I mean, happened.” Tessa started to cry. “I’m sorry, I haven’t been sleeping well.”
Tessa felt her throat tightening. This wasn’t easy for her. At first, in the beginning of the school year, everything was good. Really good, actually, and Tessa had soon become a keen and open-minded student. But later, she’d begun having reservations, even before Katy read her “the list.” She couldn’t say why, exactly, only that she’d started to feel vaguely suspicious and oddly unsettled about the whole thing. That was probably why she could never muster the courage to take it to the next level. And lately, her resistance seemed increasingly ineffective. She used to have control, but she didn’t seem to have it anymore. Had the words of warning, the words she had so carelessly rejected, been right after all?
“What sort of strange things?” the counselor asked, interrupting her thoughts.
“Yes. Well, this may sound very, very weird, but I get a tingling, prickling sensation in my head and my hands, and sometimes all the way down to my feet.”
“Has Dr. Winters been letting you drink her Yerba Mate? It sometimes has an . . . effect on certain people.”
Tessa shuddered at the thought of the South American tea Ms. Jasmine sometimes drank through a metal straw. She thought the Yerba leaves looked and smelled like a wet horse stall.
“No. You don’t believe me, do you?” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded, wrinkled paper. It was the list Katy had tried reading to her the other night. Later, when Katy wasn’t there, Tessa picked it up, folded it neatly, and put it in one of her books. “I would like to read this to you. These are some symptoms that–”
“That you have?”
“Well, I might have some, but so does my friend Elise and at least half the class. But Dr. Winters has most of these. Can I just read this?”
“Have you been to see the school nurse?” he asked.
“I don’t need a nurse!” she said too loudly, and remorsefully looked down at the floor. “Please . . .” she said quietly.
“Go ahead.” The counselor leaned back in his chair.
“These are some of the symptoms I am talking about. It’s only some of them.”
Before coming there that day, she had highlighted certain symptoms on the list with a yellow marker, ones she had either experienced herself or saw or heard about in others, including Ms. Jasmine–especially Ms. Jasmine. She held the wrinkled paper in her clammy hands and began reading the symptoms she had marked:
Hearing sounds like a flute, waterfall, bees buzzing, ringing in the ears, inner voices, mental confusion, difficulty concentrating, emotional outbursts, uncontrollable laughing and crying, rapid mood shifts, fear, rage, heightened awareness, trances, sensations of heat or prickling in the hands and head, feelings of peace and tranquility, ecstasy, dreams or visions of spirit guides, out-of-body experiences, awareness of auras, chakras, healing powers, sensitivity–
“All right, all right. That’s enough, I’ve got the point,” the counselor interrupted. He pulled off his glasses, puffed a few breaths of hot air onto the lenses, and unfolded a clean white handkerchief to polish them.
“But I’m not finished. I–”
“Miss Dawson, look, I believe you. A few other students have reported minor things. But everything has an explanation. This is a very old school. Before we rule out the insulation or the lead paint, here’s what I think. First of all, you have completed the required reading, am I correct?”
“Then you must know that the ancient Christians who tapped into methods of prayer that the modern church has forgotten also describe many of the same experiences. What if these things, which you say make you fearful, are simply God’s graces and favors being bestowed upon you? Rather than having a fear-based faith, we must open ourselves to God’s voice. We must not shut the door to new forms of God’s communication with us, Tessa. The Bible says, ‘Shout to the Lord a new song!’ We cannot put God in a box.”
He reached behind him and pulled a book from his shelf. The title on the cover said The Interior Castle, but Tessa thought this one looked older and thicker than her copy, which was called Selections from the Interior Castle. He pushed up his thick-framed glasses and opened it to a page with a folded corner.
“As St. Teresa of Avila wrote, ‘Our Lord is just as pleased today as He has ever been to reveal favors to his people, and I’m convinced that anyone who will not believe this closes the door to receiving them herself.’ So you see, only those who believe and open the door will be the recipients of His revelations and favors!”
Tessa knew about that. She had written a paper on the Teresian prayer model. “Yes, I understand that concept. But something is not right, I’m telling you. One evening not long ago I arrived early at our mentoring session, and Ms. Jazz was . . . she was . . .”
“Tessa, Dr. Winters is a very spiritually disciplined person, and a fine role model. She does the fixed hours of prayer several times a day, and some people, when they find out, just don’t understand. It’s a classic case of fearing the unknown. I trust she has been training you to do your prayer exercises as well. May I ask how far you have gone in your quiet prayer time in regard to the inner rooms of the Teresian prayer model?”
“Well, I . . . I could never get past the fourth room,” she said, sniffing. “The castle. It haunts me in my dreams. What I thought was beautiful is turning into a bad dream. It’s just not lining up with . . .” She stopped in mid-sentence and thought about Katy and Gramps, and how they would often say that something was not “lining up with Scripture.” “I guess I just don’t know anymore if the voices I am hearing are from God or . . . I’m just . . . I’m very scared.”
“Dear Tessa, I think I have just answered your own question.” The counselor looked pleased with himself and assured her with a compassionate smile. “Now take a deep breath and listen to me carefully. Close your eyes . . . There, that’s right. Now, do you remember how St. Teresa compared the doubts we have to reptiles? Let me read a little more from the fifth chapter.” The way the counselor read reminded Tessa of the way Ms. Jasmine read–slowly, methodically, pronounced:
In the prayer of quiet in the previous mansion, the soul needs to be very experienced before it can be sure what really happened to it. Did it imagine the whole thing? Was it asleep and dreaming? Did the experience come from God, or from the devil disguised as an angel of light? The mind feels a thousand doubts. And so it ought, for as I said, we can be deceived in these mansions, even by our own nature. It is true that there is little chance of those poisonous creatures entering the Fourth Mansion, but slippery little lizards are small enough to slip in unnoticed. They do no harm, especially if we ignore them, but these little thoughts and fancies thrown out by the imagination can be annoying.
However active those lizards may be, they cannot enter into the Fifth Mansion. Here, neither the imagination, the understanding, or the memory has any power to prevent God’s grace flowing into the soul.
The counselor closed the book and placed it on a stack of Travel Mongolia magazines. His chair creaked as he leaned back and took off his glasses again. “Tessa,” he said, “perhaps you need to enter into the fifth room of the castle and allow God’s grace to flow into your soul. You seem too focused on poisonous, negative thoughts, which you simply must choose to ignore. I suggest you contemplate Scripture more often through your lectio divina exercises.”
Tessa nodded her head, folded the paper, and stood up. Her ears began to ring again. The book he had read from sounded different from the one she had. Why were they always quoting to her out of books? Gramps usually quoted the Bible, and he seemed to know a lot of it by heart. She wasn’t sure if Ms. Jasmine even owned a Bible. If she did, Tessa had never seen it.
She was more confused than ever. Everyone here kept telling her to shut out the noises and go within herself. “There you will find your true self,” they’d say. However, her true self was the part of her that was so confused. Gramps always said that God is not the author of confusion. For some reason, Tessa remembered that cold fall day at the retreat when they were instructed to go and find their true selves, and she found the [mysterious] woodsman instead. What was that verse he read? “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.”
She had no idea why she remembered that verse today, but how desperately she longed to know truth and have wisdom right now.
“May I go now?” she asked, rubbing her temples. “I . . . I have a really bad headache.”
The counselor nodded and watched her walk to the door….
“Oh and Miss Dawson, one more thing,” he said as she paused with her hand on the knob. “St. Teresa, your namesake, also said that a venomous reptile cannot live in the presence of divine light. If we are to be Christ followers, we must choose not to join the ranks of the spiritually uncivilized who refuse to be enlightened. Please keep this in mind.”
Tessa gave a weak, “OK,” then opened the door and stepped into the hall. The door swung shut behind her with a precise click. She watched as students walked past her to their classes, chatting and laughing happily as though everything was normal and there wasn’t a care in the world. As for herself, she wondered if she was going mad. Nothing made sense anymore.
Back in the office, the counselor glanced at his watch. Thank goodness she’s gone, he thought. It was nearly noon. Time for the Daily Office, the fixed hours of prayer Ms. Jasmine had taught them at their second staff retreat. He found that even five minutes spent centering down helped him get through a stressful day. Lately, more students like Tessa had begun to ask him too many difficult questions. Not to mention that paranoid old Mr. Brown who had been phoning and giving him a hard time.
He was beginning to feel more than a little annoyed.
He locked his office door, put a Taize worship CD into his Sony player and sat down in his chair again. Glancing up at the chart on his wall, he took a deep breath. He nearly had it memorized but wanted to be sure of the steps, so he read them again:
-Be attentive and open
-Breathe slowly, deeply
-Close your eyes or lower them to the ground
Then he closed his eyes and slowly repeated the verse of the day from the Sacred Meditation website–
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know . . .
that I am God . . .
that I am God . . .
that I am God.
That I am God,
I am God,
I am God,
I am God,
I am . . .
The noise in the hallway soon disappeared as Dr. Frank Johnson … shut out the sounds around him and slipped into a peaceful inner silence.
(This is an excerpt from chapter 19 of Castles in the Sand, the 1st novel ever written that exposes the dangers of contemplative spirituality.