LTRP Note: If you know someone who is considering entering a Christian college or seminary or someone who is already enrolled in one, we encourage you to get that person a copy of Castles in the Sand. It is Lighthouse Trails novel on the contemplative prayer/spiritual formation movement in the Christians schools. The story alternates back and forth between the life of mystic Teresa of Avila and a young woman, Tessa, in present day who has enrolled in a Christian college. Below is a chapter by chapter synopsis. We have been told by many parents and students that this book has been a huge eye opener.
March 2009: College freshman, Tessa Dawson, is in trouble. The book begins at the end of the story, where Tessa is running to escape the darkness that has finally caught up with her. The thin dark haired girl got more than she bargained for, and now she is fleeing the scene.
She leaned against the back of the door for a moment, heart pounding. “Okay Tessa Dawson,” she whispered to herself, “you either just did the right thing or a very stupid thing. Now run!” While her panicked eyes quickly determined the nearest exit out of the building, she scooped up the paper, crumpled it into a ball, and tossed it into a nearby garbage can before racing down the hall. Her long brunette braids bounced madly behind her as she ran toward the stairwell. Suddenly, she heard muffled shouting in the distance, then footsteps coming down the flight of stairs above her.
2/ Another Teresa
Spain, circa 1533: Teresa of Avila was born in 1915. When she was eighteen, she laid ill in a convent/boarding house. Her father comes to take her home. Delirious, her mind drifts back to a troubled youth and scene where she tried to escape with her younger brother.
Holding her little brother’s hand, she ran with him as fast as their little legs could carry them, and they made it past the city gate. Suddenly, she felt a large, strong hand grabbing her by the shoulder, abruptly ending their flight. Her uncle had caught up with them.
3/ Bus Ride
Early September 2008: The story backtracks now to Tessa Dawson’s bus ride to the college she has promised her foster grandparents to attend, much to her chagrin. Tessa has been living in a daydream world, hoping to find relief from the pain she bears deep inside. She resents the old couple for talking her into going, but now that she has waved good-bye to them, she misses them and feels guilty for her attitude. She daydreams of her horse back on the farm and recalls some of her troubled past and her future at Flat Plains Bible College.
Tears welled in Tessa’s eyes. She hadn’t meant to be so hard on them. Deep down she loved the white-haired couple who had taken her in after the accident. Jacob and Margaret Brown were Gran and Gramps to everyone, seasoned by thirty years of taking in troubled teens. They had shown her incredible kindness and patience, even though she hadn’t always shown kindness in return.
4/A Book from Uncle
Teresa of Avila, still ill and in her late teens, has been given a book by her uncle. Sick, with little else to do, the once vivacious, beautiful Teresa turns to this book of contemplative prayer practices.
Teresa woke up in a sweat again, but this time fully aware of her surroundings. It was a warm spring morning, and the birds were singing their happy songs outside the window at her sister Maria’s house in the country. She had gotten sick again and they had to bring her here. She stood on wobbly legs and walked across the cold, stone floor to open the shutters. Oh how her head was pounding! Out of breath from the exertion, she hobbled back to bed and carefully picked up the book she had been reading. Uncle Don Pedro had given her his copy of The Third Spiritual Alphabet.
5/First Day of College
It is only the first day of college, and Tessa Dawson is ready to call it quits. She learns that her roommate is a highly talkative, bubbly homeschool girl, who also happens to have lost her birth parents. All Tessa wants is some peace and quiet, and she realizes that isn’t going to happen while rooming with Katy Buckler. I’d rather be back home mucking out Sassy’s stall, she thought, as she followed the campus map and finally found her next class, Spiritual Formation101.
The students in the class seemed friendly, which put Tessa at ease, and her shyness soon dissipated. As selected students passed out a course requirement sheet, a quiet but cheery chatter permeated the classroom. The girl sitting in front of Tessa, with strawberry blonde curls hanging past her shoulders, turned around and introduced herself as Sonya.
After exchanging introductions with Sonya, Tessa began to browse over the various book titles from the syllabus textbook list. One in particular caught her interest—Selections from the Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila. Hey, great name, she thought. I think Avila is in Spain.
Tessa sketched a horse in her notebook while the spiritual formation professor outlined a detailed road map of the semester that lay ahead. Something about desert fathers and some dead guys called Ignatius and St. John of the Cross.
6/Teresa Meets Teresa
As young Teresa of Avila enters the convent, the reader finds that Tessa Dawson has taken quite an interest to the writings of this 16th century young woman. Tessa’s new spiritual director at Flat Plains, a woman who goes by the name of Ms. Jasmine, sees Tessa’s interest in the ancient nun, and she takes an interest in Tessa. It turns out that Teresa and Tessa have something in common—when Tessa and Katy have a disagreement, Tessa is drawn into finding “the silence.”
Katy shone her reading light on Tessa’s nightstand and squinted at the stack of books from her spiritual formation class. “I remember Mr. Daniels talking to us about some of the Catholic mystics from centuries ago. He said the desert fathers had learned mystical practices from those in Eastern religions. He even mentioned some Spanish mystics a few times. “You know, Tessa, you need to stop reading all these books by Saint What’s Her Name and start reading the Bible. I don’t want to sound preachy, but I never see you read it.”
Tessa glared at her roommate and closed her library book. She almost called Katy “a homeschool nerd,” but instead she bit her tongue, turned off the light, and rolled over.
7/The Fall Retreat at Quiet Waters Lodge
Tessa and her spiritual formation class are at a retreat at the contemplative Quiet Waters Lodge. While there, on a walk in a nearby woods alone, she meets a mysterious stranger on a bridge near the lodge. Later at the retreat, she manages to do a listening/imagination exercise in which she has a conversation with “Jesus” on the beach. She is excited to tell Ms. Jasmine about her success with the exercise, but her excitement is somewhat dampered as she remembers the woodsman’s words to her.
Looking out from her vantage point in the loft, Tessa could see smoke rising from log cabins between the trees. Winter had set in early this year for this northern region, and the lake already had a layer of ice. It looked like a giant cookie sprinkled with icing sugar and the cabins like gingerbread houses around its edge. The only thing missing were mountains. Tessa thought she could make out the inlet past Rocky Point where the largest of several streams fed the lake. Somewhere behind the trees was the bridge she and the retreat group had crossed during their nature/prayer walk yesterday—the same bridge on which she had bumped into the strange and mysterious woodsman.
He came from out of nowhere, or so it seemed. Tessa had been waiting until the others had gone on ahead and then stopped along the path, sat and leaned against the old wooden bridge railing to warm herself in a patch of sunshine . . . Just as she was thinking how pleased Ms. Jasmine would be with her new revelation, there he was . . .
8/ Gift of Tears
Spain, mid-16th Century: Teresa of Avila is in agony. She recalls, with tears, when she was on trial for six years and was judged severely by people because of her visions.
Oh! My soul is plunged into darkness! How I long to be alone . . . oh, when will this life ever become more than a never-ending dark night for my soul! I hear them coming even now demanding answers to unanswerable questions. How can I bear it? I want only to be alone. I just want to be . . . oh, please let me be . . .
Winter Term 2008: During a lecture in Ms. Jasmine’s class, just before Christmas break, the students at Flat Plains learn some unusual things about the ancient mystics. Ms. Jasmine also warns the class that now that they are coming into an understanding of the “deeper” spiritual matters and have experienced God in a new way, their parents and family members back at home may look at them negatively and oddly. She assured them that it was those with traditional views who had the problem, not them.
“Class, can I be honest with you?” Ms. Jasmine asked, a very serious look on her face as the room grew quiet. “When you go home, your families and friends may view you in a different light now that you’ve learned new things in this class. For example, if they notice you practicing your daily lectio divina readings, they may try to persuade you that the old-fashioned religious ideas they learned are the only right ones. This may even spark controversy within some of your relationships. But remember, the ancient disciplines you have learned were around long before they were. Fundamental Christians who have grown up with a certain narrow brand of religion can’t help it—they just don’t know any better. If they don’t understand, teach them to listen, as you have learned. Remind them that even Jesus retreated to places of solitude and silence to find union with the Father. Tell them that this is why Christmas has come, that the light may be found in each one of us!”
Back home, Tessa’s grandfather begins to worry about her after he receives some peculiar text messages from his foster granddaughter. Tessa kept mentioning a name that Gramps had heard before. In an old wooden chest, he stumbles upon a biography by Teresa of Avila. The book had been left at the farm many years ago by a troubled foster girl. Gramps (Jacob) and Gran (Margaret) pray for Tessa.
Jacob slid his reading glasses into his shirt pocket and closed the yellowed book. Could the spirituality described in this book have something to do with their Tessa? He tried to shake the foreboding he felt. He had heard that some Bible schools were not teaching the truth anymore, but they had sent her to good old Flat Plains Bible College. Surely, he was overreacting.
“Jacob, tell me, why are you reading this?”
“My dear Margaret, I’m not sure what to make of this quite yet, but I think there is some kind of connection between our Teresa and the spirituality of the ancient mystic St. Teresa. It’s just the oddest thing . . .”
Spain, circa 1555: A glimpse into the life (mortifications and self-abuse) of an older St. Teresa of Avila through the eyes of her sisters at the convent.
She had personally witnessed Teresa’s private confusion over the priests’ accusations that her visions were from Satan. Those accusations were the reason Teresa had taken to inflicting tortures and mortifications upon herself. Teresa was just one of many nuns who drew blood in self-flagellation. (The monks did it too, so they were told.) Perhaps she thought that wearing a prickly shirt over her wounds would make her ecstasies disappear. The purpose of such self-inflicted trials was to attain self-detachment, something of which Teresa often talked. Surely, she reaped the benefits of such disciplines, having much more tranquility and self-mastery than the rest of them. “Mortify the flesh and share in Christ’s sufferings” was the directive. Teresa’s favorite motto was “Lord, either let me suffer or let me die.”
12/Spiritual Direction Session
The relationship between Tessa and Ms. Jasmine is deepening, but Tessa is feeling some apprehension regarding some of the experiences she is having during her contemplative sessions. Yes she trusts her professor and continues going down this path. Afterall, it is a unique opportunity to have someone of Ms. Jasmine’s caliber seeing the potential Tessa has.
Ms. Jasmine took a long breath and leaned forward. “Tessa,” she began slowly, “you have learned a great deal since you came here. Now here is what I think. I believe these experiences you have been having are definitely divine. I know it is from the Master Jesus, because hearing about your experience fills me with peace and tranquility. It also reminds me of something else.” She took another sip of tea and set the cup on the floor, deep in thought. “Some who have been enlightened like this . . .” She paused, then spoke more slowly with each word, “have called this . . . the middle eye of the labyrinth. God has His eye on you, my child. You are the apple of His eye.”
Tessa felt her eyes well up with tears.
13/Angels and Voices
Spain, 1565: Teresa of Avila has been ordered to write down her experiences and visions. Her inquisitioners are charging that she is a heretic. But there were some things she could never tell them. They would never understand.
Deep in thought, she gazed at the candle’s flame. How could she possibly describe rapture and detachment with pen and paper? Mere words were not enough to explain the spiritual marriage she had experienced. How could she even speak of the intense pain that accompanied the sweetness of her visions and revelations, the great shocks she would feel when her Lord threw her into a trance, or the indescribable desire, which pierced her soul until it rose above itself. The days that followed such ecstasy never failed to make her feel as if all her bones had been pulled out of joint.
14/Jacob Searches for Answers
February 2009–One Evening: Back at the farmhouse, Jacob has a heated phone confrontation with the president of the Bible college (Frank Johnson) regarding the spiritual formation practices being taught at the school. Later that evening, Jacob researches into the late hours of the night. The more he reads, the more he realizes Tessa is in trouble. And while he can’t pinpoint it, he feels certain that Frank Johnson is hiding something.
Jacob poured himself another coffee and rapidly stirred in the cream, sloshing some of it onto the counter before continuing to argue and wave his right hand. He carried his cup back to the study, sat down on his leather swivel chair by the computer desk, and listened impatiently to the man on the phone.
“I don’t care if she was very popular with the students in the other college,” he finally responded, a little too loudly. “And I don’t care if enrollment is up this year. Moreover, may I ask why there is an outdoor labyrinth smack dab in the middle of the soccer field? . . . How do I know you have a labyrinth? Well, I’m looking at it on Google Maps right now, that’s how. Frank, some folks may regard me as just an old Bible thumper, but I happen to be one who knows how to navigate the Internet . . . No Frank, that is not true. The labyrinth is not just another way to pray. It is another way to teach that all paths supposedly lead to God. It’s paganism! We are not to worship like the pagans.”
March 12: In a conversation with the knowledgeable Katy, Tessa is shocked to discover that the strange symptoms she has been having sound exactly like the rising of kundalini serpent power. Katy tells Tessa about a former college student named Nathan, who had gotten involved with New Age mysticism. After having a frightening experience, Nathan repented and turned to the Lord. But Tessa grows angry at Katy and storms out of the room. Later that night, she has a terrible nightmare about a serpent that is strangling her
Katy walked into the dorm room after her missions meeting and threw her keys on the nightstand. Tessa was asleep in bed but had left every light in the room turned on. It wasn’t unusual for her to fall asleep with her bedside lamp on. Katy was always the last one to turn the lights off each evening, but lately Tessa’s lamp was on again in the morning when she woke up. Perhaps Tessa was accidentally hitting the remote control in her sleep, reasoned Katy. Surely, her roommate wasn’t afraid of the dark! Careful not to wake her, Katy tiptoed around the room flicking off all the lights, except the one by her own bed. Tessa mumbled something unintelligible. Is she awake? Katy wondered. I hope so. After all, it would be nicer to say good-bye to her friend now than tomorrow at five a.m. Quietly she leaned over and shone her book light on Tessa’s face and was alarmed to see she was soaked in sweat and moaning incoherently.
“Tessa,” Katy whispered, “are you sick?”
Suddenly, Tessa bolted upright, eyes wide open, and shouted, “Somebody help me!”
16/Teresa Writes The Interior Castle
Spain, 1577: Through much difficulty due to physical symptoms and head noise (demonic?), St. Teresa has written The Interior Castle as ordered by her spiritual directors.
“As you wished, I have written everything I know.” Teresa nervously set her papers on the table before her confessors. The religious directors had ordered her to write about her method of mental prayer—her interior castle—as a book of instruction for her nuns. She had been careful to refer to herself in the third person throughout the book, as she was always under the watchful stare of her superiors. It had been a difficult task.
“But it has only been two months! You have completed it already?” the priest said, staring in amazement at the pile of papers stacked neatly before him.
“I have not only described how the soul is a castle, but also how a journey into the soul is a series of seven interior rooms, or inner courts, within the castle that one must pass through by way of prayer. Each chamber is a different stage of the journey. Read it and you shall see.”
17/A Growing Concern
March 14: The Browns grow more concerned as they learn more about Tessa’s spiritual formation teacher.
“Don’t forget your woolen mitts! Oh dear.” Margaret knew he always threw himself into physical work when he had a lot of thinking to do. She hadn’t seen her husband look this upset since that unforgettable Thanksgiving Day twelve years ago when someone had stolen ten head of his prized cattle. Even then, he had quickly calmed down when she reminded him that God owned the cattle on a thousand hills. Jacob was not the kind of man who stayed angry for long.
But something told Margaret this was going to be different.
March 23: On her way back from her missions trip, Katy e-mails her parents from New York due to a flight mix up.
Snow was lightly falling outside the window of an Internet café in New York City as an olive-skinned girl in her early twenties wearing shorts, sandals, and an Argentinian T-shirt quickly typed at a computer.
March 23: Without telling Ms. Jasmine, Tessa makes an appointment with one of the school’s counselors. But she is shocked to learn that he is part of the effort to change the school into a contemplative college. In fact, his advice to her leaves her shaken. She leaves his office even more confused.
“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.
LTRP Note: That’s a synopsis of the first 19 chapters of the book. We’ll leave the last 14 chapters as a surprise. Please by all means, make sure anyone you know who is considering Christian college, of any age, to read this book. Castles in the Sand by Carolyn A. Greene.