I had the honor of preaching to the Annual Fall Clericus gathering of West Missouri. It was the Feast of St. Theresa of Avila, and we were meeting at the Benedictine Abbey in Conception, MO.
I freely confess the following:
–I did indeed sneak out one night and drive half an hour away to the nearest bar so I could watch the Royals win Game 3 of the ALCS.
–Benedictine hospitality does not appear to extend to their WiFi network. If I had a dollar for every seminary student who refused to allow me on the network, I’d be rich.
–The seminary chapel did withstand all my girl cooties when I preached there. It appears unharmed, and even the vestments I borrowed pulled through. Yet another mighty breakthrough in ecumenical relations!
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
St. Theresa of Avila, doctor of the church
There aren’t a lot of saintly doctors in the church. Theresa of Avila, whom we are remembering today, is one of the four female doctors of the church—in Roman Catholicism, sort of a graduate level beyond just sainthood, into more awesomeness. And she’s up there with Catherine of Siena, Therese of Liseux and Hildegard of Bingen.
Clearly, she is amazing.
A mystic from an early age, like Catherine of Siena, to experience Christ was all she wanted. She wrote about the ascent of the soul to union with God in “The Interior Castle”—a masterwork for anyone of the time in medieval Spain. She described her passionate love affair with God in such compelling terms that her journey has become a model for Christians seeking the Divine ever since. From her we learn about prayer, about meditation, and the possibility of the redemption of suffering, and about God’s unceasing, undying, yearning to be with the world God made.
Now, sometimes, we conceive of spirituality as being a discipline that draws us apart from the world, as something “other,” something “over there”, safe and removed from the troubles that plague us, but here is the truly staggering thing about Theresa:
The more Theresa grew in union with God, the deeper she went into the Divine Presence, the more involved in the world she became. The more troubled she became by the corruption that plagued the institutional church, the more she agonized over the poverty and need that surrounded her, and the more she worked to alleviate all of it.
During her lifetime, Theresa traveled all over Spain, and founded 17 different monasteries, for women and men, wrote a new rule of life for a new monastic order, undertook major reforms so that the clergy under her care actually lived out their vows of service and prayer, and so irritated the entrenched powers of the institutional Church that she was the subject of a couple different persecutions by the Spanish Inquisition.
Her spirituality was a very salty one.
This image of salt and light that Jesus gives us is very evocative—it conjures up a lot.
But in particular—salt is absolutely no good on its own.
Salt does no one any good if you’re trying to eat it straight, or if you keep it neatly in a corner out of sight. Salt only works when it’s suffused with something else. Likewise, light only works when the waves reflect off of something and hit your eye.
Spirituality needs to translate into action in the world. The spirituality of the gospels, the spirituality the Church offers must address directly! the hurt and pain we see in the world.
Because many times we do separate them. How many times when we talk about ‘feeding people’ from the pulpit we’re talking about ‘feeding their souls’? How many times when we talk about ‘healing people’ or ‘reconciliing people’ from the pulpit we’re talking about doing it on a spiritual level, on an emotional level? How many times when we talk about ‘saving the world’ are we talking about doing it on a metaphysical level?
And understand, Not for any malicious reason, no, we do it out of habit, I think, or because that’s how we grew up hearing these subjects addressed. For a long time, now, that is how we have talked in this tradition of ours. We have used spiritual language at times as an escape. As a distancing technique from the pain that surrounds us in the world.
But Jesus reminds us, and Saint Theresa reminds us, that a true relationship with God never draws us out of the world without drawing us into it—first.
Because When a hungry crowd came to Christ, he didn’t just tell them to pray harder, he fed them. Then he preached.
When sick people came to Jesus, he didn’t tell them to accept hisownself as their Lord and Savior—he healed them. When the poor and the oppressed came to Jesus, he didn’t tell them to hope for something better in the afterlife, he condemned the religious and political systems that had left them poor in the first place.
So we cannot spiritualize our way out of our discomfort when we are confronted with the pain and brokenness of this world.
The gospel we preach has to reach out to address the real pains the real problems of the people in our pews, in our streets and in our state—otherwise, it is not the gospel of Jesus. It is not the gospel of the Incarnation. It is neither salt nor light for this world.
And you know, and I know, we don’t have to look far to find the brokenness in our churches and in our community. We know that the pain of grief is a familiar companion for many who sit in our pews. And we see problems crying out for solutions each and every time we turn on the news or walk down the street.
My friends, we are ministering in a time of Ebola outbreaks in west Africa, threatening whole populations—and now here in the US. So what do we say?
We minister in a time of an unprecedented gap between the rich and the poor in this country, which widens by the hour, and eats away at everyone caught in the middle. What do we say?
We minister in a time and in a place where young black people in our communities are disproportionately getting shot and killed by police. Michael Brown. John Crawford. VonDerrit Meyers—and those are just the well-publicized ones, and that’s just since mid-August. And so we are watching as our own state of Missouri is compared to 1960’s era Mississippi for it’s abject failure to carry out a clean investigation. What do we say, as the church in this place? How are we salt? How are we light?
My friends, it is our call and our privilege to care for the spiritual lives of those in our charge. But we are only doing half of that job, if we do not connect the spiritual yearnings of the people who come to us, with the practical challenges of this world.
That is, after all, exactly what Christ did in the Incarnation—broke down the barriers between the human and the divine, and erased forever that which separated the earthly realm from the heavenly.
So now, our task, as we follow in the Way of Christ, is to echo his words, and echo his actions—bringing the salt and light of the Gospel of Christ to bear on every injustice and every sorrow this world can bring to us until finally, with God’s help, everything all seasoned, all darkness banished.
We have the salt. We have the light.
We just have to be brave enough to use them.