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Psychology and Carmelite

Spirituality for Today

Unit 3:

God Enters Through Our Wounds:

St. Teresa and the ‘Shadow’

In this unit, we will be exploring the nature, and transformation, of human woundedness, or shadow, in relation to Carmelite spirituality. We will be discussing the nature of the ‘lizards and the snakes’; the wounded inner child; treading the brink; embracing the shadow; the gold in the dross; the mote in the other’s eye and our sacred wounds.

By the end of the unit, you will have an understanding of the transformation of the shadow in the light of Carmelite spirituality.

Recommended Reading

Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, Fount, 1995 (First Mansion)

John Welch, Spiritual Pilgrims; Carl Jung and St Teresa of Avila, Paulist, 1982, (Chapter 5)

John Monbourquette How to Befriend your Shadow – Welcoming Your Unloved Side, Novalis, 2001

Julienne McLean, Towards Mystical Union, St Pauls, 2003, (First Mansions)


On the eve of Trinity Sunday, 1577, Teresa of Avila received a vision of the beauty of the soul in grace. The next day, she began to write her masterpiece, The Interior Castle, describing the soul as a crystal globe containing seven mansions. In this work, the life of prayer is portrayed as an inner journey towards our deepest centre, the seventh mansion, the place where God dwells. Modern depth psychology can give us a better understanding of the inner transformation of unconscious psychological wounds that takes place when the heart and mind are open to God.

This unit will focus on what is called our ‘shadow’, described by Carl Jung as the ‘negative side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the content of the personal unconscious’. For it is the ‘shadow’ that is the source of psychological difficulties which can predominate in the early stages of our spiritual development. Teresa highlights these impediments to spiritual growth in the first mansions.

Introducing Lizards and Snakes

The early stages of our spiritual life are often fraught with distractions and obstacles that seem to pull us away constantly from the ever deepening contemplative journey towards God. At this point, ‘these wild animals or beasts…make [the beginner] close his eyes to everything but them’ (IC I: 2:14). Some of the main tests in this early phase concern our spiritual sincerity: whether we are really turning away from external material pursuits, passions and pleasures, and trying to develop the necessary one-pointed interior concentration in prayer. As soon as we begin to live the life of prayer in earnest, we encounter whole dimensions of ourselves that have, until now, been unconscious, hidden and unknown.

The shadow side of ourselves is usually encountered fairly quickly. Teresa symbolises these negative and broken parts of our selves as the ‘poisonous creatures’: the lizards and snakes in the moat outside the castle. For her, these symbols represent all the dynamic forces that attack, block and distract us from without, and hinder and disturb us from within. In modern psychological parlance, these venomous creatures are the shadow parts of the psyche, encompassing all those psychic contents that have been driven back into the unconscious: all the neglected and undeveloped parts of our personality which, however, need to be constantly recognised, accepted and transformed.

The Wounded Inner Child

A common description of our shadow side is the wounded inner child, where parts of ourselves have been relegated to the unconscious after childhood trauma. If psychological wounds from childhood are not tended and healed, and especially if they are sustained and reinforced into adulthood, then they feed the repressed, shadow side of our personality. The effect of repression is to cut off access to that part of ourselves. We may repress feelings, a character trait, a talent or way of thinking, for fear of disapproval or rejection by a parent, teacher or other authority figure. When any part of ourselves is cut off, much of our potential and creativity is also repressed.

Hidden within the ‘wounded inner child’ are often painful memories and experiences, even personal qualities, which we may have forgotten and denied – and concealed from both ourselves and others. These undeveloped contents of our psyche can be sometimes quite powerful, even overwhelmingly so, if strongly denied or repressed. Locked in the dark basement of the unconscious, out of sight from the world, our shadow parts often carry great pain and vulnerability, suffering, sadness, deep despair, anger, alienation and resentment. They can become ever bleeding wounds, and so for many people confrontation with our shadow is no easy task.

Treading the Brink

Spiritual directors affirm how difficult it is for us to become aware of our shadow side, with its pride, shame, guilt, manipulation, hunger for power, jealousy, envy, need for revenge, desire for possession, sexual temptations and the like. In the early stages of our spiritual journey, our shadow side is often just beginning to reveal itself. It can start to gather momentum in the second mansions where confronting, and battling with, the lizards and snakes becomes even more necessary. This process is an important part of interior ascesis or purification, essential in these early mansions if we are to journey further within the castle.

Likewise, Teresa is adamant how hard it is in these early stages to ‘enter within ourselves’, especially if we are accustomed to being preoccupied with the ‘insects and vermin’, external and worldly matters – or our broken and wounded parts, as it were. Her reason is that we have become over-identified with and over-attached to them: ‘nor does it seem [such souls] can enter within themselves. They are now so used to dealing always with the insects and vermin that are in the wall surrounding the castle that they have become almost like them’ (IC I:1:6). It is through prayer, our contact with the light and truth of God, that we will gradually begin to penetrate the ‘lizards and snakes’ dimension of our psyche. Only then will our shadow begin to be slowly reintegrated and transformed in love.

In the second dwelling places where we struggle to face the neglected, unconscious dimensions of our psyche in a deeper and more honest way, she tells us that this is an ongoing battle and that preventing failure is not always possible: ‘in the midst of such poisonous creatures one cannot help but be bitten at one time or another’ (IC I:2:14). As Teresa shows, these psychological and spiritual dangers are present throughout our spiritual journey, even to the seventh and innermost mansions: ‘sometimes our Lord leaves these individuals in their natural state, and then it seems all the poisonous creatures from the outskirts and other dwelling places of this castle band together to take revenge for the time they were unable to have these souls under their control’ (IC VII:4:1). Although it is rare, she says that sometimes the Lord allows such attacks – albeit in more subtle forms – so that we will appreciate the tremendous favours we are receiving, and develop great fortitude in trials and adversity.

As Teresa wisely advises, unless we are able to accept, and communicate with, our hidden underground depths at these early stages on our journey, these realms will almost certainly disrupt our spiritual progress. If they are not faced, owned and ultimately transformed, our ‘lizards and snakes’ will turn around and bite; they will poison us and generally wreak havoc on our interior life. It takes a tremendous amount of humility, integrity and self-honesty, together with charity and virtue, to acknowledge our shadow and to allow the long, arduous work of its transformation to begin. The parts of us that have been repressed and hidden now come to full consciousness for recognition, healing and transformation through acceptance and love.


Exercise 3.1

Take time to reflect on the nature of human woundedness and brokenness – are there any specific areas of life where this may have particular relevance or resonance for you?

What is the relationship between the awareness of our ‘lizards and snakes’ and the journey of prayer?


Embracing the Shadow

To handle the shadow areas of human experience requires particularly sensitive and patient care. It is possible, once the shadow parts have been accepted, for them to be changed and redirected, and so to become positive sources of creativity and talent. Effective strategies for recognising our vulnerable and shadow areas include analysing our dreams, becoming attentive to fantasies and daydreams, examining closely the nature and content of our humour and, most importantly, becoming conscious of what we project onto others and examining it.

In particular, I would like to highlight the importance of dreams in making us aware of our shadows, wounds, pain and traumas. Dreaming is usually one of the main ways in which the unconscious makes human interiority available to itself. It represents unknown and unconscious realms of our inner life through symbol, image and story, usually in its own unique language, meaning and structure. There are various images in dreams that often represent the shadow side of our personality. The most common ones are animals, particularly hostile ones, such as tigers, wolves, crocodiles, snakes and toads.

Often, too, shadow figures pursue us in dreams in the form of burglars or dangerous enemies; or they appear, symbolically, as derelict, disused areas in need of repair, restoration or redevelopment. Jung’s observations led him to conclude that images of animals, which the psyche produces, refer to instinctual forces at work in the human personality. In fact, eighty per cent of what surfaces in dreams carries much wisdom, representing valuable aspects of our selves.

The Gold in the Dross

Why is the shadow so important? There are many reasons. Working on our repressed and wounded areas is an integral part of knowing ourselves in any depth. Acknowledging and reintegrating these rejected parts enables us to recover them. Much of our individual creativity and capacity to surrender resides here. The shadow contains not only negative and destructive elements, but also tremendous potential for deeper spiritual growth and development. Jung found that the shadow, in metaphorical terms, consists of ninety percent gold, as it contains the seeds of our very new potential which has not yet come to consciousness. All this potential could be tapped were it not for pressures, anxieties, or the amount of work it would take to own and integrate these parts.

Another important reason for befriending and integrating our shadow parts is that doing so is fundamental to authentic self-esteem. How can we truly love ourselves or have confidence in ourselves if a part of us is ignored and works against our own best interests? Also, our shadow parts tend to be projected onto different types of relationships if we do not acknowledge and work with them, so this is essential for maintaining healthy social and personal relationships. Often, the root cause of interpersonal conflicts and professional burnout can be found in shadow projections. Vulnerabilities or shortcomings are projected onto other people and situations. Becoming aware of these projections onto others, and then being able to take them back, vastly improves interpersonal relations.


Exercise 3.2

Take time to reflect on some of the dynamics and processes – alongside the difficulties and obstacles – of truly loving and accepting our brokenness, and allowing, and surrendering to, God’s love and forgiveness to transform the woundedness?


The Mote in the Other’s Eye

Teresa has great insight into the nature of the shadow, and warns against projections onto others. She admits that others may have their faults and that corrections may have to be made, but says that the primary responsibility for us as individuals is to attend to our own inner journey that will reveal our neglected areas. She is particularly sensitive to what can be learned when these projections of the shadow are made:

Let us look at our own faults and leave aside those of others, for it is very characteristic of persons with such well-ordered lives to be shocked by everything. Perhaps we could truly learn from the one who shocks us what is most important… nor is there any reason to desire that everyone follow at once our own path, or to set about teaching the way of the spirit to someone who perhaps doesn’t know what such a thing is. (IC III:2:13)

In the early dwelling places, the very foundations of our interior castle are beginning to be firmly tested for their endurance, perseverance and self-knowledge. We can experience this as an inner war, requiring steadfast discernment and great moral courage. All our attachments, which keep our hearts spiritually chained, are revealed more and more to our consciousness, and are purified and surrendered in the fires of our longing for God.

Our Sacred Wounds

There are hidden interior places where we can only gradually accept ourselves in our most naked and vulnerable human state and offer ourselves up to be healed by God’s love. It is our wounds that take us home to God. During this journey, we have to accept and integrate what we find within us – all the pain, anger and hurt – and the many forms that our darkness has taken. We may well find the prostitute, the thief and the beggar within us. We will see the hurt we have caused others and the hurt we have caused ourselves.

It is a mysterious paradox that the place of our greatest pain, vulnerability and powerlessness is the door through which our heart can be so broken that it forces us to turn away from the outer world and trace the thread of our own darkness back to our source in God. We need to experience, acknowledge and fully surrender our inner darkness and pain to the light and endless love of God. Then we can journey, from exile, further and further in the interior castle – to that innermost dwelling place ‘where the very secret exchanges between God and the soul take place’ (IC I:1:3).



Explore the nature of the transformation of the shadow in the light of Carmelite Spirituality.


The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 7, London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1966, p.66.

This article has been reprinted here with permission from the author.

© Julienne McLean


Photo of Carmelite Mission in Spain by Jacinta Valero, Creative Commons

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