A Homily for the Feast of Saint Teresa of Avila
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus, our Great Love. Amen.
There’s no avoiding this topic, so let’s address it head on, shall we? We all probably know Saint Teresa best for the very intimate description of her ecstatic visions. These charismatic experiences are often understood as having at least some erotic subtext as Teresa wrote about the penetrating love of God. In her own words, Teresa discussed the connection between soul and body, the physical sensation of religious experience, the moan-inducing rapture of divine visions. Her writing is put on stunning and beautiful display in Bernini’s famous statue, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, a sculpture that more closely resembles two lovers than an angel and a prophet. This perspective is so vital to the Church, to a body with such a long, painful, and complicated history with human sexuality and so often confused about the relationship between spirit and flesh. Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, her colleague who incorporated much of her imagery, offer profound sources for feminist and queer prophets to proclaim a Gospel that is at peace with human sexuality. But there are better and more capable voices than mine to expound on the value of both men and women claiming such intimacy with God.
And, as with all saints, we do a disservice to Teresa if we reduce her to only one identity. We cannot confine her to a handful of provocative excerpts.
As we heard earlier, Teresa’s ministry was both busy and fruitful. She led the Church in a time of era-defining reform – born only a few years before 1517 and dying twenty years after the Council of Trent.
Teresa spent years confined to bed, suffered numerous illnesses, faced opposition within her family and the Church, and still accomplished so much. Aside from Teresa’s much-lauded work on prayer and religious experience, her writings on poverty and humility rival those of Francis and Clare. She founded and influenced scores of reformed monasteries, emphasizing contemplation and simplicity of life rather than the pursuit of wealth and worldly power. Along with Saint Catherine of Siena, she was one of the first two women to be declared a “Doctor of the Church,” putting her on par with Chrysostom, Augustine, and Aquinas.
There is much to claim and celebrate about Teresa. Like so many of the great women saints, her entrance into ecclesial life went directly against her father’s wishes. Like so many reformers, her work in the Church angered bishops and cardinals. Like so many prophets, her message was ahead of its time.
There is also much in Teresa’s life that is strange to us. If we’re being honest, how many of us are comfortable with charismatic experiences? In the ELCA, where even a hearty “Amen!” can be hard to come by, her particular ecstatic displays such as swooning and auditory revelations are rare – perhaps even unheard of within North American Lutheranism. There were even claims that Teresa levitated during the Mass; this is more the stuff of Pentecostal revivalism than Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
Then there are the aspects of Teresa’s life which would worry us if we heard them coming from a parishioner. She believed her long illness to be a punishment from God. She believed that suffering for its own sake brought her closer to Christ, a belief used so often to perpetuate oppression.
At times, she took up practices of self-harm and mortification of the flesh. (If I learned anything in Intro to Pastoral Care, it’s that this is a clear case for an immediate referral to outside therapists.)
Teresa was complicated, and it’s in this complication that we see her clearest connection to our reading from Romans.
During her the early years of her long illness, confined to her bed, Teresa’s prayer life suffered. This wonderful saint, this shining example of charismatic experience and prayer, knew the crushing weight of feeling unworthy to approach God. The Teresa confined to her bed for years was not the ecstatic or levitating Teresa so often depicted in art.
Beloved, we know not how to pray as we ought.
There are the days when we wish we could just stay in bed for years on end, the days that we feel the crushing weight of our unworthiness for the sacred vocation of ministry.
There are the days where, like Teresa, it’s easier to simply neglect the life of prayer because there’s just so much to do.
The days when ecstatic experiences sound like foolishness and hevel havalim.
The days when hope is not seen and feels so far off.
The days when the budget dwarves the pledges.
The days when the copier breaks down again and it’s the hundredth thing to go wrong in the ten minutes since putting your bags down.
The days when you see the stats about clergy burn out and think, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
The days when we have to send the hungry away because we really just don’t have the funds.
The days when you count up the names to be read on All Saints’ and feel the crushing realization of how many families are in mourning.
There are the days where it feels like you are the only hands God has in the world.
And on these days, we pray not as we ought be only as we’re able: a broken Kyrie eleison with fingers crossed.
But dear ones, do not let your hearts be troubled; only believe.
Jesus our Lord has gone before to prepare a place for us; we do not know the way, but the Risen One does.
And as we wait for Christ’s glorious return, as we hope for that which we cannot yet see, the Spirit is interceding for us in sighs too deep for words the same way She interceded for Teresa and all the saints who have come before us.
Take heart. Hear some Good News: You are not God’s only hands in the world. The weight of the world is on Christ’ shoulders, not yours. And while hope may seem invisible and so far off, when you realize that you know not how to pray, in the dark night of the soul or under the scorching heat of the midday sun, in the crushing loneliness of Holy Saturday, these labor pains will give way to new and miraculous life. And we will witness the rapturous and ecstatic joy of God’s glory.