GATHERING MUSIC Sancho from Cervantes Portraits HKJ
WELCOME and ANNOUNCEMENTS
LIGHTING THE PEACE CANDLE Claire Stiles, liturgist
Unless the widening gap between the rich and poor is arrested, and if possible reversed, the very peace and stability of any society will be seriously jeopardized.
Akin J. Omoyajowo, contemporary Nigerian bishop
PRELUDE De Colores Spanish trad.
OPENING PRAYER Teresa of Avila, 1515-1582
MUSIC Pues Si Vivmos Haugen
SCRIPTURE READINGS Let us prepare ourselves for the word of God as it comes to us in the reading of Holy Scripture. Our hearts and minds are open.
John 14:1-4 and 1 John 4: 19-21
For the word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us. Thanks be to God.
MYSTIC READING A Seed of Love Teresa of Avila
REFLECTION Teresa of Avila Rev. Kim P. Wells
What could a Catholic nun from Spain who lived inthe 1500’s possibly have to say to us today? Her times were so different than ours. Her concerns and context so alien from ours today. Surely it was a simpler time without all the complexities and
distractions that we face. Ah, to just have to pray in a convent all day! How hard was that?
Yes, like mystics of every age, Teresa of Avila is known for cultivating the life of prayer. She may be best known for the image of the interior castle or mansion. In her book with that title she begins by telling us, “I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.” She goes on:
“Let us now imagine that this castle, as I have said, contains many mansions, some above, others below, others at each side; and in the center and midst of them all is the chiefest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul.”
Teresa then outlines 7 rooms that lead to the center, which is flooded with light, and where there is intimate communion with the Divine. It’s a beautiful path of contemplative prayer. But, hey, we have apps for that kind of thing today.
So what is it about Teresa that may speak to us? I find her story compelling and illuminating. She was born in Spain to a comfortable family. It was in the aftermath of the triumph over the Moors. So the Catholic church was clamping down hard on compliance with its authority. The Inquisition was in
full force. The society was very class oriented.
People with money had power and got favored treatment in all settings. In her youth, Teresa herself was popular. She was attractive, lively, winsome, charming. Her family and friends took delight in her. So how does she end up going from being a privileged child to a persecuted nun to the patron saint of Spain, all within in her lifetime?
Well, Teresa’s mother died when she was a teen and that rocked her world. And her family was of Jewish heritage and converted to Catholicism to avoid the
Inquisition. So they were extremely devout. And something significant, a traumatic experience, occurred in her teens and we don’t know the nature of the situation. Teresa became very sick, actually several times in her life, with illness that threatened to kill her and lasted for many months. Somehow, through all of this, Teresa made her own path. A path that I believe still speaks to us today.
For one thing, despite the highly stratified society and the strict hierarchy of the church, Teresa had an egalitarian heart. Even her book Interior Castle, is a way of prayer that is accessible to everyone. You don’t need a special guilt prayer book or a priest or to seclude yourself away from day to day tasks for long periods of time. A luxury many cannot afford. So this is a way of prayer that can be practiced by anyone.
She begins with the assumption that every single person, as a human being created in the image of God, has this precious castle within. She tells us, “Each of us has a soul, but we forget to value it. We don’t remember that we are creatures made in the image of God. We don’t understand the great secrets hidden inside of us.” This is not a special gift only for some. It is not associated with money or success or piety. Everyone has this castle within and everyone has access to this castle through what is referred to as mental prayer. We might say contemplative prayer. In other words, it does not require a certain prayer said by a certain authorized person. It is not mediated by the institutional church. It is a process for uniting with God that is available to literally everyone. She describes it this way: “Mental prayer is, as I see it, simply a friendly intercourse and frequent solitary conversation with Him who, as we know, loves us.” She makes things very accessible to everyone.
Another way we see her egalitarianism is in the way she ran her convents. It was the custom for wealthy women who entered the convent to offer large dowries to the convent. This was a source of revenue for running the convent and supporting the Catholic church. Those who donated more money got better, more spacious quarters, domestic assistance, more perks, so to speak. Teresa did not agree with this. She felt that everyone was equal in the eyes of God so when she couldn’t affect reform in the convent she was in she set about founding a new convent in which everyone had the same accommodations and food and work and seclusion.
Teresa felt that money and wealth got in the way of people being treated equally as they should be because everyone was equally beloved in the eyes of God. We are still struggling with this today – in society, in the justice system, in schools, in health care, in the church, in basically every sector of our culture. Money talks!
This is something that the church as well as society needs to be keeping in mind today. We have an underclass, an invisible-to-most class of people in this country that are not part of the mainstream. Teresa sought to eliminate those divisions, especially in the church. She comments: “How friendly all men would be one with another, if no regard were paid to honour and money! I believe it would be a remedy for everything.” Amen to that! Teresa sheds the light of the equality for us today. And we need to follow that light.
Teresa also has a word for us about materialism and consumerism. She saw not only how money undermined equality, but she saw how material wealth could become an impediment to intimacy with God. Material concerns, appearances, a sense of self importance, these things got in the way of pursing union with God. And since she grew up with wealth and comfort, she spoke from experience. Later in life when she has come into her own, after her second conversion and her dedication to founding new convents, she comments, :Thank God for the things that I do not own.” She saw the pitfalls and problems associated with wealth and class and how they could distract from wholeheartedly giving your life to the pursuit of Love.
We certainly need to be reminded of this today. Yes, we have the highest standard of material wealth ever known in human history, but what is the state of our connection – to each other, to Divine Love, to Creation, our beloved Mother Earth? All of these relationships are suffering while our material standard of living increases. These two things are not unrelated. We are seeking from material comfort what it cannot provide – love, connection, intimacy, emotional security. And that pursuit of more and better and newer is distracting us from what does satisfy – connection and relationship. And all of this is fueled by capitalism and the lie that we will all benefit materially and that will make our lives better.
Teresa knew better. She tells us: “Our body has this defect that, the more it is provided care and comforts, the more needs and desires it finds.”
In her convents and monasteries, the monks and nuns had what they needed, and they provided this for themselves and each other. There was no favoritism based on status or wealth. It was a model embodying God’s inestimable love for each and every person. This is a message we need to be reminded of today.
Teresa offers another important insight for us today. She was a big proponent of self-knowledge. In her Interior Castle, she advocates exploring the many rooms and mansions that eventually lead to the Divine center. Countless rooms, really. And Teresa is very much an advocate for exploring them all. She places a high value on exploration, asking questions, getting to know oneself, and Christ and God, intimately. She very much promotes self knowledge, self awareness, and self discovery. For women as well as men. But she cautions: “It is of great importance, when we begin to practice prayer, not to let ourselves be frightened by our own thoughts.” This kind of independent thinking was not encouraged in her time especially for women. But she seems to feel that in getting to know yourself, you are coming to a better understanding of God and God’s grace and generosity and strength in your life. You see better what God is doing for you. And can then have a greater appreciation for God’s love, its breadth and depth. So she believed that self-examination would lead you closer to God. She believed people should explore, examine and investigate their own hearts. Don’t just take the word of an outside authority, a priest. Don’t just adhere to theological dogma presented by the church. Explore and examine for yourself. Know yourself.
This stood her in good stead as she faced the challenges of her time and context. When she lived, the Moors had been driven from Spain and the Catholic church was reasserting its dominance. The Inquisition was in full force. Think McCarthyism or Salem Witch Trials. Teresa’s parents were of Jewish heritage and had converted to Catholicism to avoid the Inquisition. But they were still suspect. So Teresa was watched. And she was investigated. She wrote several books to explain her life and activities and beliefs to the church authorities. They also did not like it that she wanted to found more strict convents. She was challenging social and religious norms. Besides this would cost money, money that would not be going to the current interests of the Catholic church. The church was also suspect of people who had visions or ecstatic spiritual experiences. This kind of manifestation can be a threat to the established power structure. Were these visions from God or the devil? This had to be determined. And Teresa was known for her manifestations because they sometimes occurred in a public setting. She wrote in a letter to her brother:
“You should know that for more than eight days I’ve been in such a state that, if it were to continue, I would not be able to attend to business. Since before I last wrote to you I’ve begun having raptures again, and they’ve been a problem because they’ve happened several times in public, and even during matins. It is no use resisting them, or pretending that nothing is happening. I get so embarrassed that I want to hide, anyplace at all. I pray wholeheartedly to God to stop making this happen to me in public, and you have to pray too, because it’s a real nuisance, and it doesn’t seem to help me at all in prayer. Lately I’ve been seeming almost as if I were drunk.”
Wouldn’t a mystic be grateful for these ecstatic occurrences? Isn’t this the prize of mysticism? Wouldn’t this give a mystic cache? Maybe. But not if it attracts the attention of church authorities who already find you suspicious for a variety of other reasons. So Teresa was not welcoming of her public ecstasies.
But when challenged, Teresa could explain herself, fully and freely, because she knew herself. She had explored her heart and her mind. She knew her loyalties. She knew her devotion to God. And she could speak of these things. She was not hemmed in by the ideas given to her by others, including the church. And because her explanations were so sincere, and honest, and humble, who could argue?
It was all about the love of God and showing that love and living that love. What could church authorities say to a mere woman who declared: “The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and to do that which best stirs you to love.”
This is another aspect of her teaching that speaks to us today. Today everyone is so busy and distracted that they don’t take time to think, to explore, to know themselves. We accept the messages that society sends us about who we are. About what matters. About what is right. And leave it at that. For all of our freedom, we are really caged in our thinking. Teresa advocates thinking for yourself. Knowing yourself. And not just blindly accepting what society or the church is indoctrinating you to think.
Another thing that we see in the life of Teresa is engagement with the world along with devotion to prayer. She did not just stay in her cell all day. She did not remain cloistered in the convents that she founded though she provided that opportunity for others. She follows her own path. She listens and does what she is supposed to do with her life. She finds balance, of a sort. Doing what God wants, entirely, and accepting that even though it kept her very busy!
Teresa was an itinerant traveler in Spain, seeing to her convents and monasteries. There were issues and conflicts and problems that had to be dealt with. It was like running a business with franchises. And on top of that, Teresa had suffered from ill health since she was a young adult. She had bouts of sickness that sometimes lasted years. And there were her books to write. And responding to the Inquisition. And keeping in touch with friends, colleagues and family. So she was very busy. At one point she confronts God about her busy-ness:
“How is it, my God, that you have given me this hectic life and so little time to enjoy your presence. All day, people are waiting to speak to me, and even during meals I have to keep talking to people about their concerns and needs. During sleep itself I am still thinking and dreaming about the problems that wait for me tomorrow. I am doing all this for you, not for myself. My way of life is more tormenting than reward, and I only hope that for you it is a gift of love. I know you are always beside me, yet I become so busy that I forget you and ignore you. If you want me to keep up this pace, please make me think about you and love you, even during the most hectic activity. If you do not want me to be so busy, please release me from it and teach me how others can take over some of my responsibilities.”
Well, it may the 21st century, but certainly many of us can relate to that! And why was she so busy? I would suggest two reasons. First, Teresa herself tells us: “Accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love for they enkindle and melt the soul.” She was committed to love. To showing love. To living love. To giving love. And there was much need in the world for love then as there is now.
But I don’t think that is the sole explanation for Teresa’s business. I think it was also her personality. She was well-suited to being engaged in the world. She was personable, charming, a good communicator, and self-effacing. She was very good at seeming cooperative and innocent, as women were acculturated to be then, and maybe now. She won over the church leaders and her detractors. She herself said, “God save us from gloomy saints.” I don’t think Teresa was gloomy! By the time she wrote Interior Castle, near the end of her life, she was known as La Santa of Spain, the saint of Spain, and revered by even the king.
So Teresa loves, she is intimate with God, she serves others, on terms that do not deny her individuality and personhood, but that honor her uniqueness. As she told others: “Trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.” I think it is that trust that led to her remarkable life and that shows us a path for the living of our days.
Really to me it is her life itself as much if not more than her specific teachings on prayer that shines with wisdom for us today. How she manages sickness, piety, conflict with the church, gender bias, relationships, and engagement with the world. She is really a marvel! She surrenders her life to God, not to be made weak but to be made strong. She once said, “You pay God a compliment by asking
great things of Him.” Well, I think Teresa was giving God a lot of compliments!
May the same be said of us! Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.
Sources used for this reflection and service:
Woman Prayers: Prayers by Women from Throughout History and Around the World, Mary Ford- Grabowsky
Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul, Cathleen Medwick
The Harper Collins Book of Prayers: A Treasury of Prayers Through the Ages, compiled by Robert Van de Weyer
Invincible Spirits: A Thousand Years of Women’s Spiritual Writings, complied by Felicity Leng
Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila, translated and edited by E. Allison Peers
Under Her Wings: Spiritual Guidance from Women Saints, Kathy Bence
Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics, Carol Lee Flinders
Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, Mirabai Starr
UNISON READING A Love Song Teresa of Avila
Majestic sovereign, timeless wisdom, Your kindness melts my hard, cold soul. Handsome lover, selfless giver, Your beauty fills my dull, sad eyes.
I am yours, you made me. I am yours, you called me. I am yours, you saved me. I am yours, you loved me. I will never leave your presence.
Give me death, give me life. Give me sickness, give me health. Give me honour, give me shame. Give me weakness, give me strength. I will have whatever you give. Amen.
MUSIC Pescado de Hombres Gabarain
MISSION STATEMENT The mission of Lakewood United Church of Christ, as part of the Church Universal is to:
- Celebrate the presence and power of God in our lives & in our world
- Offer the hospitality and inclusive love of Christ to all people.
- Work for God’s peace and justice throughout creation.
MORNING OFFERING Morning offerings may be brought forward and placed in the plates on the altar.
Offertory Follow Me HKJ
Prayer of Dedication Teresa of Avila, adapted
Christ has no body now but ours. No hands, no feet on earth, but ours. Ours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion into the world. Ours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Ours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world.
MUSICAL CALL TO PRAYER Wendeyaho Native American/HKJ
COMMUNITY PRAYERS – SAVIOR’S PRAYER
Holy One, our only Home, hallowed be Your name. May your day dawn, your will be done, Here, as in heaven. Feed us today, and forgive us As we forgive each other. Do not forsake us at the test, But deliver us from evil. For the glory, the power, And the mercy are yours, now and forever. Amen.
*BENEDICTION (unison) Teresa of Avila
Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing dismay you. All things pass God never changes. Patience attains all that it strives for. Those who have God find they lack nothing. God alone suffices.
*POSTLUDE Don Quixote from Cervantes Portraits HKJ