They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.Romans 1:25
Today is the feast of the great St. Teresa of Avila. In his brief summary of her life, Robert Ellsberg says: “By any standard she was one of the towering figures of her age and of all Christian history — a mystic, founder of seventeen convents, author of four books, a master of Christian prayer.” She contradicts the naive and self-serving notion that a serious relationship with God and a life of extraordinary human productivity are contradictory. Her effectiveness and productivity in the face of her own significant physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering counters Freud’s and Marx’s critique of religion as an opiate for human suffering. For Teresa it was her love of God in Christ that impelled her to spend herself in service to the reformation of a religious life that had become, in Ellsberg’s words, “more a boarding house for wealthy maidens than a house of prayer.”
In the light of this towering figure in the history of our tradition, the words of Romans we hear today take on a particularly pointed meaning. As we live out our lives and we profess our faith, to what degree have we exchanged the truth about God for a lie and served created things rather than the Creator? I know that my own experience is always to some degree or other a matter of self-serving rather than God-serving. This leads me at those times to be serving created gods, largely of my own design, rather than the true God. Put another way, it is a matter of who and what I really love.
Teresa is able, through all the obstacles, to do what she does because she is impelled by love. Even as God tries her with countless experiences of pain and failure at every level of her personality, she endures, she marches on in a faith that is born of love. There is a great interest in mysticism these days. This is, I suspect, in large part because of an understanding of faith that has been communicated as more a matter of intellectual assent than loving encounter. For the mystic, God is not a notion or idea but an experience. One of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 20th century, Karl Rahner, perceiving that in the developed world many traditional teachings were becoming increasingly irrelevant, predicted that the Christian of the 21st century would be a mystic or would not exist.
Teresa becomes horrified by the way of living she encounters in the convent she joins. She discovers it is a place of refuge, comfort, and gossip. Despite its outwardly religious structure, it is a gathering, in large part, of those who are seeking their own gratification and self-interest. What she experiences, in short, is an environment lacking in love. This is at the heart of her efforts at reformation. Any discipline she seeks to enhance is only in service to each member’s deepening love of God. She, first of all, seeks reformation and transformation of her own life, and then experiences the impulse of that love to reform and so enliven the life form to which she has been called.
Pedro Arrupe, SJ reminds us that it is who and what we love that determines everything in our lives. There has been, unfortunately, a great tendency to separate dogmas, morals, and values from their source in love. St. Paul’s theology of grace has as its cornerstone the freedom of those who come to know themselves as children of God. They are free and no longer bound by the law because all they do is motivated by their desire to please and serve the One whom they love. Of course it is the task of any great Wisdom tradition to teach and show the “ways” of love, how we are to practice living with each other and in the world as lovers. There is always however, a tendency in us to forget the reasons of the heart that are our motivation for action. At that point the doctrines and the ethical rules are all that keep us from falling totally into the service of ourselves and from making our own projects and agenda the gods we serve.
Arrupe summons us to “Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.” So many in our day have a difficult time holding to tradition because, as passed on to them, the tradition is not teaching them about the true place of love in their lives. Often, even in the most “progressive” of Christian interpretations, the tradition becomes all about our doing rather than about being in love. Even among Christian ministers, one of the greatest perils of our time is burn out. As a teacher of ours used to remind us, burn out means we are no longer living and working from the fire within. This is the truth that so guides the lives and teaching of Teresa and John.
In The Ascent of Mount Carmel, John says that the only way we can overcome the intense desires we have for pleasure and gratification is through “a more intense kindling of another, better love.” It is, says John, the “urgent longings” in us that this love evokes that enables us to “live in the darkness of all things by denying . . . [our] appetites for them.” In spiritual direction, so often the task is to serve another’s experience and realization of their own experience of “a more intense kindling of another, better love.” Yesterday I wrote of an experience of profound and almost overwhelming gratitude. Another name for that gratitude is love. Gratitude is our realization of God’s love for us, of God’s abiding and faithful presence to, in, and through us.
As I awoke this morning I found myself pondering why it is so difficult for us to love those in our community. From the first descriptions of the Church through to the vision of our own Founder, there is a profound understanding that it is in our love of each other that others will recognize the love of God for them. And yet, there seems to be nothing more difficult than to love each other and then, as Arrupe says, to let that love “decide everything.” Instead we tend to live the reverse order. We decide and do first, then consider the reality and demands of love afterwards. What this feast day reminds us of is that we must know and live in the “more intense enkindling of another, better love” and bear without ceasing the “urgent longings” that love evokes in us in order to truly love each other. For, it is this love and this alone that allows us to “overcome the yoke of nature” and “to enter the night of sense.”
Perhaps in this way, our love or lack of love for each other is a barometer of our love for God, of our urgent longing to live in God’s love. The older I get the more difficult I find it to speak of loving anyone, let alone God. As Macbeth experiences “amen” being stuck in his throat, so do I often enough experience the same with “love.” To utter the word is to confront the truth, the great distance between what the word demands and my own willingness. So it is for us when left to our own designs and strength. What Teresa came to know, however, is that far preceding and exceeding any of her own capacity to love, there is God’s love for her. To truly love anyone is to allow the limits of our own love to reveal the infinity of God’s.
We are not able to love as the other deserves or to incarnate the community of love in which all creation shares. Broken vessels that we are, however, we can radiate to others God’s love of them. In his composition Anthem, Leonard Cohen sings:
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in…
We avoid love, at every level and every turn, because of the pain of living with such “urgent longings.” To live available to God’s love is to choose to live without all we use to distract us from those longings. And so, the “cracks” in us become more evident and more experienced. Our vulnerability becomes the very expression of God’s love for others, even as it costs us what we have taken to be our lives. A loving community of believers would, necessarily, be a community of shared vulnerability and need. All that our non-transcendent culture values (self-sufficiency, power, competence, pride, satisfaction) would be absent from the truly loving community. It would be the place where in humility, meekness, stillness, and quiet we poor, broken, humble vessels wait on the love of God and for the impulse of that love for service.
A love of pleasure, and attachment to it, usually fires the will toward the enjoyment of things that give pleasure. A more intense enkindling of another, better love (love of the soul’s Bridegroom) is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of this pleasure. By finding satisfaction and strength in this love, it will have the courage and constancy to readily deny all other appetites. The love of its Bridegroom is not the only requisite for conquering the strength of the sensitive appetites; an enkindling with urgent longings of love is also necessary. For the sensory appetites are moved and attracted toward sensory objects with such cravings that if the spiritual part of the soul is not fired with other, more urgent longings for spiritual things, the soul will be able neither to overcome the yoke of nature nor to enter the night of sense; nor will it have the courage to live in the darkness of all things by denying its appetites for them.St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, I,14,2