March 22

The Vision of Saint Teresa of Avila

By Marsh Chapel

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Ephesians 5:8-14

John 9:1-23

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Many near and far are praying for elderly or variously compromised loved ones, now in this season of virus.  The eerie changes, including our own here in a quiet sanctuary, bring out and back other memories. Of the hours following John Kennedy’s assassination.  Of the 1987 market crash. Of the Enron debacle. Especially of 9/11, and that particularly for those just coming to awareness of history and life in those years.  Of 2008, and what that meant for our graduates in those hard, lean months following. And now, Corona, 2020. Right now, you may be bearing the inability to visit a loved one in the necessarily confined nursing home, or care facility, in which he is located.  It is a season of dislocation, profound and pervasive dislocation.

My sisters, nearby and perseverant, provide most of the daily care, for our mother, at 90, in a nursing home.  Once a month or so I see her. She greets me, knowing that she should know who I am, and not wanting to appear discourteous or ungrateful.  I stumble through some sort of greeting. She is at ease, happy, bright. She then looks out into a distance that I do not see or understand.  I mention a conversation with my aunt, her sister. She nods, and then looks again out into a distant…something. I remember a conversation with my sisters, Cynthia and Cathy.  Cynthia and Jackie, she asks? Again, the turn out to the distance. I show a video of her youngest, west coast, great grandson. Nice, she says, then the gaze, the outlook, out to the beyond.  What is it that she is looking at, or looking for, or looking toward? A hug and a kiss and a goodbye.

My friend Sam told me a decade ago, about his mother, in this season of looking out into the beyond.  He always left her, saying ‘I love you’. And she always replied, ‘I love you’. Then one day she added, ‘Remind me, why is it that we love each other?’

Through all the traumatic and terrifying dislocations of life, the response, in the moment of the look out beyond, the response to the question, ‘And why do we love each other’, is the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and Jesus Christ, the Son of Man.  We love because we are loved. Even in dislocation.

John 9

John 9 is about dislocation.  It is about the expulsion of a small group of Jewish Christians from a traditional synagogue.  One word, 9:22, holds the whole gospel of the day, ‘out of the synagogue’. They were thrown out of the synagogue, dislocated, a fearsome hurt now known by many directly, in illness, in separation, in isolation, in quarantine.  And known better, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, by those of us who may just acquire a little more sympathy, a little more compassion, a little more care, for those in need, as we swirl through this season of need.

‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’.  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’

John 9 describes the healing of a man born blind, and the communal controversy surrounding that healing.  Like the rest of the Gospel, this passage reports two layers of healing, of blindness, of community, and of controversy.   On one hand, the passage remembers, perhaps by the aid of a source or as part of a source, a moment in the ministry of Jesus (30ad), in which a man is given sight.  On the other hand, the passage announces the spiritual unshackling of a hero in the community (90ad), who bears witness to what Jesus has done for him, no matter the repercussions from others, from parents, from family, from community. 

The preacher in the Johannine community of the late first century is telling the story of the Son of Man.  To do so, he celebrates the courageous witness to healing, and the courageous endurance of expulsion, of a man born blind.  Here, he says, is what I mean by faith.  The story he uses comes, through un-trackable oral and written traditions, from 30ad.  The story he tells comes from 90ad.  Every character in the story has two roles.  Jesus is both earthly rabbi and heavenly redeemer.  The blind man is both historic patient and current hero.  The family is from both Palestinian memory and diaspora synagogue.  The opponents are both the contemporaries of Jesus and the nearby inhabitants of the synagogue, the Johannine community’s former home.   When Jesus gives sight, Christ gives freedom.  When the blind one is cured, the congregation sees truth.  When the man is cast out of his synagogue, the community of the beloved disciple recognizes their own most recent expulsion.  When others criticize Jesus, the synagogue is criticizing the church.  When the healing story ends, the life of faith begins.  His voice both addresses you and emanates from you.  Not your voice, his is nonetheless your voice. 

John 9 illumines the central struggle of the community, their bitter spiritual itinerancy from the familiar confines of Christian Judaism, out into the unknown wilderness of Jewish Christianity.  History and the history of religions bear manifold witness to this kind of crisis in communal identity, and the long hard trail of travel from primary to secondary identity.  In retrospect, as the community gathers itself in its new setting (the pilgrims in Boston, the Mormons in Utah, the Cherokee in Oklahoma) the story of the tearful trail itself becomes the heart of communal memory and imagination.

What is here unearthed in John 9 can also and readily be applied to the rest of the Gospel of John as well:  to the wedding at Cana, to Nicodemus, to the woman at the well, to the healing on the water, to the feeding of the thousands, to the controversies with the Jews, to the raising of Lazarus, to the farewell discourse, to the trial and passion.  All of these reflect the experience in dramatic interaction between the synagogue and John’s church. This includes, later, the mysterious figure of the Paraclete, the Spirit, who functions as Jesus’ eternal presence in the world, Jesus, God ‘striding on earth’ (Kasemann).  In this way, the Paraclete himself creates the two level drama.  Where the world is mono focal, and can see only the historical level of Jesus in history or only the theological level of Jesus in the witness of the Christian community, the Paraclete binds the two together.  The Word dwelling among us, and our beholding his glory, are not past events only.  They transpire in a two-level drama.  They transpire both on the historical and contemporary levels, OR NOT AT ALL.  Their transpiration on both levels is itself the good news, an overture to the rapturous discoveries of freedom in disappointment, grace in dislocation, and love in departure.  Especially, in John 9, through dislocation. Tell me sometime about your worst lived dislocation.


Santa Teresa of Avila traveled endlessly to reform her Carmelite order.  Once, upon a rough Castilian road, she was heaved out of a lurching cart, into the mud.  What a fine thing you have done to me, dear God!  A voice replied, That is how I treat all my friends!  And her tart response, No wonder you have so few! She too knew dislocation.

There is a physicality to the mystical prayer, the contemplative devotion, in the work of Teresa, our Lenten conversation partner this Lent. Teresa had to have a carefully balanced approach to her writing and teaching, honest to herself, helpful to her order, but outside of or unscathed by the watchful critique of the Inquisition.  This is a dilemma many know, in searching the heart, while still mollifying the ‘powers that be’. (50, notes from Rowan Williams, Teresa) She even had something of an emotional ‘affair’ with a priest.  She reflected, praying about prayer, The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thought.  (Marcus Aurelius).

Teresa was a woman of some Jewish descent.  She was challenged by 60 “difficulties with inexperienced and insensitive directors” Yet she cherished “the absolute gravity of God’s grace, given beyond expectation or desire”, and admonished herself to be ‘content to be near the light’.  She longed for 63 ‘a state of prayer in which we sense ourselves ‘anchored’ in the presence of God’, awaiting “a sense of delight…the soul does not know whether to laugh or to cry”

Long before Hegel, she lived a dialogical spirituality: 68 both through her deference to the church’s challenge and critique, and through her confidence in the presence of God’s agency.   Her prayer rested in a physical involvement in the inner process (of prayer) 71 and a hostility to technique 72 (She could combine) her frailty and fallibility…with the irresistibility of her experience.  She could think twice, hold two thoughts, two vistas together at once.

That is Teresa developed her own, her own manner of prayer, as we should too.  For her, this included 73 ‘locutions’, a kind of speaking the spirit. 74 For her, this included, the companionship of Christ, an awareness of being loved by God, so loved sot that any need we have is met in advance.  For her, this included the assertion that 85 God does not want anyone to be a passive contemplative. 86 For her, this included an admission that God’s grace is a shock to the system, and the admission that we continually need to re learn the realities of friendship with God; God looks on the person, while worldly regard concentrates on wisdom and status (a warning for us academics).  And her conclusion: 89 Christ as a companion both affirms and challenges our emotions. Teresa developed her own manner of prayer. Can we do the same? Shall we do the same? In this quieter Lent, 2020, may we do the same?


As Santa Teresa of Avila learned from within her dislocation, finding grace in dislocation, we too pray to do so in our time.  We have help.

Steven Kinzer, in the Boston Globe, has helped us this week:  Our new crisis also illustrates the danger of continuing to define enemies the way tribes and nation-states have for centuries — as outsiders who threaten aggression. Protection from that kind of enemy may come in the form of a strong army, to be used in defense, counter-attack, or preventive war. In today’s world, though, civilization’s most potent enemies threaten all states. Pandemics, nuclear war, and climate change are the three most urgent. Yet we cling to traditional models of power politics and confrontation, even on matters of urgent common interest. If the Chinese and American governments had spent the last two decades nourishing their public health systems as generously as they have nourished their armies, our present crisis might never have emerged. (BG, 3/18/20)

Bill McKibben, in the New York Review has helped us this month:  The motto for those studying the real-world effects of (global warming) is probably ‘Faster Than Expected’.  The warmth we’ve added to the atmosphere—the heat-equivalent each day of 400,000 Hiroshima sized bombs—is already producing truly dire effects, decades or even centuries ahead of schedule.  We’ve lost more than half the summer sea ice in the Arctic; coral reefs have begun to collapse, convincing researchers that we’re likely to lose virtually all of them by mid-century; sea-level rise is accelerating; and the planet’s hydrological cycle—the way water moves around the planet—has been seriously disrupted.  Warmer air increases evaporation, thus drought in arid areas and as a side effect the fires raging in places like California and Australia. The air also holds more water vapor, which tends to drop back to earth in wet places, increasing the risk of flooding: America has recently experienced the rainiest twelve months in its recorded history. (NYRB, 3/20, 13).

We have spent now about two weeks to resituate and recalibrate our ministry together here at Marsh Chapel.  It is notable that, through all manner of dislocation, in concert with that known in your experience, with that of the Gospel of John, and with that of Santa Teresa of Avila, we have found God’s grace sufficient.  Down came the notices. Up went the strictures. Out flew the letters. In came the responses. As in the Gospel, we found grace right in the heart of dislocation. But not without cost. It is in the small things.  I was fine through all the big changes, more or less. But then, in her typically gracious, quiet way, our Director of Hospitality, Heidi Freimanis-Cordts asked, You know, Dean Hill, the sanctuary will be empty on Easter.  I guess, I mean I suppose, I mean I guess I need to cancel the Easter Lilies order, don’t I ?  And there it was.  An Easter without lilies, the first in forty two years.  Maybe, though, these lesser hurts will allow us to look up and see, and to learn to love one another, as Christ has loved us: ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’.  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’

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

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