Preached at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the General Theological Seminary on the feast of St. Teresa of Avila
Romans 8:22-27, Matthew 5:13-16
Have you ever met someone who really loved his or her faith? Someone with such a passion for their God and their worship that it almost struck you as a little odd, but also made you hope for a taste of a love so personal and profound? I have encountered several such people.
My middle school friend Aaron was the first person I knew to wear a kippah and tallit with tzitzit (or fringes) to school. Growing up in the foothills of Virginia, in a town without a synagogue, Aaron’s Jewish faith already made him a bit of an anomaly. But his attention to prayer and spiritual practice as a teenager is what made him stand out to me. He showed me how to tie the tefillin on my head and my arm according to the Shema: Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad… These were not just words or motions or traditions or cultural practices—Aaron exhibited genuine piety, joy and palpable faith that I found both curious and inspiring.
And then there was my roommate in Baltimore who was born and raised in a Catholic home and in Catholic schools. Despite her liberated theology that might make some turn from the church in frustration—my friend’s immense love for the sacraments kept her grounded and hopeful. She once described to me the intense intimacy she experienced during the Mass, blushing as she described the climax she felt when receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. Her depiction was so beautiful and vulnerable and bizarre to me—it left me wanting more—wanting a love for God that would make me blush.
Teresa of Avila was one such Saint. A Carmelite Nun, a Mystic, a Reformer, and one of only two women declared a “Doctor of the Church,” Teresa’s love of God was one of ecstasy and joy. A love as curious as it was inspiring. She received visions, she conversed with Christ, she levitated during prayer, and the story of her heart being pierced by an angel with a golden spear is so sensual, only Bernini could capture her ecstasy in sculpture.
Teresa describes the encounter thus:
“In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God… So gentle is this wooing which takes place between God and the soul that if anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God, in His goodness, to grant him some experience of it.”
All this talk of penetration, consummation, sweetness and wooing. No wonder Teresa says, “When this pain of which I am now speaking begins, the Lord seems to transport the soul and throw it into an ecstasy. So there is no opportunity for it to feel its pain or suffering, for the enjoyment comes immediately.”
You can imagine that writings such as this raised quite a few eyebrows in the church. Teresa’s unbridled passion for God meant she faced the inquisition and imprisonment, but it also led to the establishment of 17 convents of Reformed Carmelites. She was a spirited troublemaker, a reformer and a true lover of God. And I, for one, really like her.
Teresa had what Matthew’s gospel describes as “salt” and “light.”
Honestly, I can’t hear today’s gospel passage without breaking into song. I often have a mental soundtrack for projects and papers and sermons I’m ruminating on. Some of you have even seen me break into song over the refectory menu. This week’s soundtrack has been a mixture of Godspell’s Broadway musical rendition of “Let your light so shine before men…” and the Spanish Taizé chant attributed to Teresa, “Nada te turbe, nada te espante…”
So lets start with the upbeat Broadway tune. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” But he says if salt has lost its saltiness, it might as well be thrown out and trampled on. Jesus is telling us: be salty! Be that which adds flavor to life. Spice it up. It’s amazing what a pinch of salt can do. Rather than being a flavor all it’s own, salt is known for enhancing the flavors it is mixed with. That’s why you can add salt to just about anything—even chocolate chip cookies. Teresa clearly exhibited salt. Her life and her visions added flavor to the convents she reformed and to the people who continue to seek out her teaching and writings on prayer and contemplation.
Jesus also tells us, “You are the light of the world,” and he compares us to a city on a hill. You can’t hide if you’re on a hill, and neither should you hide your light. Jesus is telling us: get out there and shine! Don’t “hide it under a bushel, NO!” We can’t hide our light in these chapel walls. We can’t hide our light on The Close. We’ve got to get outside those gates and get shining. I mean that! I know most of you well enough to say you are lights in this community and in my life. And that’s great. But Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” The world! Teresa took her light on the road, and so should we.
What does all this salt and light have to do with Teresa’s prayer sung at Taizé? “Let nothing disturb you; nothing frighten you.” Well being salty and letting your light shine takes courage. And Teresa would know. To really let the earth get a taste of who you are and to really let the world see your light shine, you’ve got to be willing to put yourself out there.
Do you sometimes feel like you need an extra dose of courage just to be yourself? Do you feel like you’re under the microscope as you journey along this path of discernment and vocation? I feel that. I need that courage. The call to be salt and light is a call to boldness, because it is a call to vulnerability. And Lord knows vulnerability isn’t for the weak.
A dear friend and colleague here gave me this prayer card of St. Teresa just last week—not because I’d be preaching on Teresa this week, but because Teresa’s prayer is one I need to contemplate daily as a senior.
In a moment we’ll sing a version of this same text, so pay attention to the words. Perhaps it can be your prayer too:
Let nothing disturb you; nothing frighten you.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Nothing is wanting to him who possesses God.
God alone suffices.
And get shining!