March 8

The Life of Santa Teresa of Avila

By Marsh Chapel

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John 3:1-17

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Hear the Gospel: The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.  So it is with every one who is born of the spirit.

Our Lenten Sermon Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with St. Teresa of Avila.  From 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  In this decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  In this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turns left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We began with Henri Nouwen in 2017, and continued with Thomas Merton in 2018, turning last year 2019 to St. John of the Cross.  Now, Lent 2020, we listen in prayer for grace in the life, voice, heart, poetry and spirit of Santa Teresa of Avila.

Thomas Merton sets the beat and the course of travel, year by year: “(Lent) is for people who know what it means for their soul to be logged with these icy waters: all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.  There is confidence everywhere in (Lent), yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security.  The confidence of the Christian is always a confidence despite darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster…  Once again, Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.  The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.  Nevertheless, the liturgy of (Lent) is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God.  The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy…


Scripture and tradition depend on reason and experience.  Spirit involves reason and experience.  A question for you, day by day as mortality approaches, is whether you can find the courage to trust your own experience and whether you can find the capacity to rely on your own reason.  Opportunities to subcontract both are amply available.  But in order to live a life that is yours not almost yours, Spirit is needed.

John had the courage to face the awful disappointment behind the New Testament:  Jesus did not return, not on schedule, not as expected, not soon and very soon, not maranatha, not yet.  But John looked at his own experience, and in biblical measure, with traditional tools, reasoned.   In place of apocalypse, he celebrated the artistry of the everyday, and in place of the speculation about the end, he celebrated the Spirit of truth, and in place of parousia, the coming of the Lord, he nominated Paraclete, the presence of the Lord.  He sang: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.   One way to solve problems is to face them, to name them, to admit them.  No parousia.  Paraclete. Spirit!

The stark strangeness, the utter difference of John from the rest of the Bible we have yet fully to admit.  My beloved advisor, perhaps the greatest John scholar of our era, Fr. Raymond Brown, got only as far as saying that John is best understood as ‘an embraceable variant’, emphasis on embraceable less emphasis on variant.  But when we get to John 3, we see chiseled there in ice and covered fully with wind and snow, an enigmatic, mysterious riddle:  Spirit, sweet Spirit, Paraclete.  The endless enemy of conformity.  The lasting foe of the nearly lived life.  The champion of the quixotic.  The standard bearer of liberty.  The one true spirit of spirited truth.  Yet we cannot even give the history of the term, nor fully define its meaning, nor aptly place it in context, nor finally determine its translation.  Paraclete eludes us.  Paraclete evades us.  Paraclete outpaces us.  Paraclete escapes us.

Notice that in John, starting with Nicodemus, the Spirit is given to all, not just to a few or to the twelve, definitely not.  Notice that it is Spirit not structure on which John relies.  Notice it is Spirit not memory which we shall trust (good news for those whose memory may slip a little).  Notice that Spirit stands over against what John calls ‘world’ –another dark mystery in meaning.  Notice that the community around John’s Jesus is amply conveyed a powerful trust in Spirit.

Other parts of the New Testament take another trail.  The Book of Acts offers confidence by way of hagiographical memories of Peter and Paul, and of false but loving assertions of the utter agreement of Peter and Paul.  Trust your memory and when you cannot create a new memory.  The Pastoral Epistles—and to some degree 1 John in opposition to his gospel namesake—rely not on memory or memories and not on Spirit, but on structure:  presbyters, faith once delivered to saints, deacons, codes of conduct, stylized memories of orderly transmission of tradition.   We need memory.  We need structure.  Neither can hold a candle though to Spirit.  That is, for John, what Moses, the Law, the historical Jesus, the Sacraments or anything else cannot ever fully offer, Paraclete SPIRIT provides.  By Spirit we hear the word God.  God reveals by Spirit.  God self-reveals by Spirit.  Here the stakes are very high.

Again, Raymond Brown:  This is the ultimate self-revelation of how the word of God gets translated as God.  To a community living in time and space, the Spirit of Jesus is proving the world wrong.  People who live by the spirit is the only way others will be convinced of the victory of Jesus (Hill, Courageous, 82).

The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder (Chesterton).  Your life does not lack for mystery but only for a sense of mystery.  Your week does not lack for worth but only for an hour of worship.  “I love the silent church, before there is any speaking” (Emerson).  Pause just a moment in prayer.

When you come to worship you place yourself in prayerful sight of beauty.  When you come to worship you stand and sit in the company of real courage, heroines and heroes of old.  When you come to worship you at last find a way—language, imagery, symbol, all—to express an ultimate concern for ultimate reality. When you come to worship you see the whole horizon, the whole ocean, from birth through love to death…and beyond.  When you come to worship you place all the rest of your life in the loving embrace of Love, capital L.  When you come to worship you are reminded that you are a child of God, no matter what else or other your boss, co-workers, neighbors, family, friends or roommates have said or intimated.  When you come to worship you enter the space of Grace.  People have such ragged reasons for skipping worship.  Make it your plan, as you walk along, to find a church family to love and church home to enjoy and a church service to attend at least one hour a week.  In prayer, at least now, at least here, at least here and now.

Yet sometimes worship goes wrong.  When it does, for you, say so, to whomever.  If it does so regularly or spectacularly, go elsewhere, pronto.  Life is short.  We need make no excuses for prizing our time.

St Teresa

Speaking of time, Saint Teresa of Avila was born March 28, 1515 and died at age 67 on October 4, 1582.   She was one of the greatest women in Christian history, and one of the greatest mystics and teachers in the Roman Catholic tradition.  It may be that her most lasting influence came with her call to Juan de Yepes, our Saint John of the Cross, to join her in the work of renewal within the Carmelite order.  She worked with the women; he with the men.  You will remember him from last year’s Lenten sermon series.  We hope!  That is, we listen today, especially and appropriately, to an international woman’s voice, and devote this month of March to her, her voice, even as we embedded our preaching and worship in the last month or so to hues, tones and voices like those of James Weldon Johnson, and of Elijah’s Sweet Chariot, and of Abraham Lincoln, and of remarkable organ postludes for the season, and most powerfully of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Teresa’s mother died in 1529.  Although her father opposed it, Teresa joined the Carmelite Convent in Avila, a lovely Castilian town in 1535.  She promptly fell ill, nearly dying, but recovered slowly.  On recovery she gave up daily prayer for the next 15 years.  Then she went through a religious awakening in 1555.  The nature of this awakening is not fully understood, but stands at the heart of her future life and work.  We shall want this Lent to think about awakening, or awakenings, about prayer as awakening, and particularly about that which impelled the mature ministry of Santa Teresa de Avila.

Her reform called on the Carmelites to return to their origins in austerity, simplicity, poverty and prayer.  Especially prayer…Their vocation, she repeated, was one of ‘reparation’ for the sins of the world.  They refused all regular support and refused endowment, depending only on daily and weekly alms, to emphasize the centrality of poverty in the life and work of the order.  Over the rest of her life she established 16 convents throughout Spain.

In 1575 a major dispute emerged in Seville, which again you may remember from last Lent, and the work of St.  John of the Cross.  We hope!  The argument pitted the Discalced (‘unhsod’) against the Calced (‘shod’), the no shoes versus the shoes.  As so often in life, she could foresee the emerging conflict; she could militate against it; she could work to avoid it; but she could not stop it. (repeat).  Don’t we know about that… In the aftermath of this religious conflict—and conflict is not foreign to any religion—she was ordered home to Castile in the north, and told to stop founding convents.  St.  John of the Cross too was disciplined, imprisoned, you may recall, in Toledo.

It took the king’s intervention to set St. Teresa back on the road.  King Philip II of Spain, who knew her, and held her in high esteem, solved the conflict by giving independence to the Unshod, the Discalced, the no shoe crew, with Teresa its head.  In 1580 she took up the work again, traveling hundreds of miles.  On the way from Avila to Burgos, she fell ill and died.

After her death, several of her works were published, the primary ones being two historical texts, The Life of  Mother Teresa of Jesus (1611), The Book of the Foundations (1610), and four spiritual ones, The Way of Perfection ((1583), The Interior Castle (1588), Spiritual Relations, Exclamations of the Soul to God (1588), and Conceptions on the Love of God (1588).  She left behind 31 poems and 458 letters.  The mystical, spiritual works are essays in contemplation, in prayer, in depiction of the contemplative life as an approach to God.  You can hear in her titles, even, the emphases in the works:  way, wholeness, relationships, ecstasy, love….God.

Application: Conversation

The incarnational mysticism of St. Teresa is, among so many other glorious things, just utterly…Spanish.

We sat on Las Ramblas a couple of summers ago. Barcelona Blue…I had forgotten…How blue the skyHow gentle the seaHow sweet the breezeHow happy the peopleHow young the cityHow luxurious the conversationHow smooth the coffeeHow clean the sandHow fine the trainsHow old the culture…

Barcelona looks today so very much smaller to me than it did in 1974.  The view from a hotel’s 26th floor, and the view from 40 plus years later, and the view from the other side of so many hurts, deaths, illnesses, betrayals, defeats, sins and worries, made it so, smaller, much smaller than 40 years ago.  And Jan saw La Sagrada Familia, for the first time, and said ‘what a mess, but what a beautiful mess’. (J)

Sitting on Las Ramblas, watching, literally, the whole world walk on by:  rich and poor, women in burqas by the dozens, a girl with colorful clothing, skinny 80 year old men who drink tankards of beer in minutes, couples of every stream and color and type, Germans known by their excellent English and Americans known by their mediocre English, people with selfie sticks, 20 year-olds holding hands, jovial African kids, an occasional Texan with cowboy boots and hat, Asians wearing cowboy hats, short and long haired Hispanic women, mothers and daughters, holding hands, white men in black with black women in white,  the steroid children’s strollers of a new age, gay men and women—the world at pause, together, in conversation, call it common prayer.  Call it conversational, Las Ramblas prayer.

The Spanish…talk.  They give the art, beauty, craft and joyful surprise of conversation the time it needs, the refreshments it needs, the spaces it needs, the vocabulary it needs, the cigar smoke it needs, the spirit it needs, the respect it needs.  This is why one loves Spain so much.  Walk and talk.  Walk as long as you can.  Talk as long as you can. August in Barcelona is to be alive.  The glory of God is a person in Barcelona in August.  Like Boston, Barcelona is a pedestrian city.  No houses, apartments.  No cars, trains.  No poor, taxes.  And conversation, conversation, conversation…

We are in conversation about prayer this Lent, alongside our conversation partner, St. Teresa of Avila.  Someone you know far better, from our own time, Mother Teresa, took her name and gave us the prayer with which we end, today:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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