This sermon was delivered during Evening Prayer at Enid Community Corrections Center, on the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, Oct. 15, 2019, as part of the prison ministry of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid, Okla.
Faith, I think, is best described as a passionate love affair between the soul and its Creator — between us and God.
St. Teresa of Avila, whose feast day we celebrate today, exemplified that passionate love of God. Teresa lived from 1515 to 1582 in Castile, Spain, at the height of the wars between Catholic Spain and the Moors who occupied the neighboring Andalucia region of Southern Spain.
At age 7, Teresa, overcome by a passionate desire to be with Christ, persuaded her brother Rodrigo, then 11, they should run away from home, across the lines into Moorish territory, so that they might be martyred. Fortunately, her relatives caught up to the wayward, zealous youth and returned them safely home.
Later in life, as her faith matured, Teresa came to the knowledge that it is a sin to intentionally try to have herself killed — we can’t, in essence, commit suicide to achieve martyrdom. But, this episode demonstrates a passion for Christ that never wavered in Teresa’s life.
While writing her 1577 treatise on spiritual development, “The Way of Perfection,” Teresa elevated love of God above all else: “May I not depart this life till there is nothing that I desire, till I have forgotten what it is to love anything but Thee and till I deny the name of love to any other kind of affection.”
These were not the words of someone who loved God in a cold, detached, impersonal way. These are the words of a woman whose soul ached for Christ.
The depth of her passion is reflected in our readings for today. From Song of Songs — the sexiest book in the Bible — we have imagery of a bride whose gifts are locked away, awaiting her groom: “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed … Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.”
No less sensual, in Psalm 42, our desire — Teresa’s desire — is described as a spiritual need as deep and urgent as something as basic as the body’s need for water: “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?”
Finally, in Romans 8, our spiritual rebirth in Christ through the Holy Spirit is described in the moans and physical exertion of a woman giving birth: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
And, when our weakness overcomes us, and we do not know how to pray, the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
St. Teresa experienced this kind of passionate love for God, so much so that her passion — which some felt evoked sexual connotations — still makes some uncomfortable today. In one of her many visions while praying, St. Teresa described an angel who appeared before her with a golden spear: “He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and… to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.”
Teresa would be satisfied with nothing less than God. Because, as she learned, and as we must learn, anything less than God is less than the true aim of our eternal souls.
“We did not come here to seek rewards in this life, but only in the years to come,” she wrote. “Let our thoughts always be fixed upon what endures, and not trouble themselves with earthly things which do not endure even for a lifetime.”
Fueled by this great passion to strive for nothing less than Christ, Teresa became a great reformer of the monasteries and convents of her day — making impacts still felt today — and founded at least 17 convents before she died.
Teresa understood, it is not enough to simply be passionately in love with God. We have to make that love the foundation and source of action — but we must act.
From our reading today in Matthew, Jesus tells us to get out in the world and be salty: “Jesus said, ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.'”
Jesus is using a reference to salt being used to cure and preserve meat in his day. Salt made things clean. It preserved them so they could feed the body. But it only worked if it was rubbed into the meat — if it permeated it. So too must we permeate the world around us. We must take our faith off the shelf — and preferably, it should be like the passion of a bride for her groom — and we must work that salt of our faith into the pores of our society, our community, and all around us, so that we may preserve the Body of Christ.
Again, in Matthew, Jesus tells us we’re not to hide our passion away: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
St. Teresa was such a light. By her life, and her passionate love of Christ, she teaches us to be living lights in a dark world. She calls to you, each of you, to be that light. Become a light of God’s love by letting go, and by allowing yourself to fall passionately, desperately in love with Christ.
The night before she died, St. Teresa called out to God, not bemoaning or dreading her death, but looking forward to coming face to face with the lifelong object of her passion: “O my Lord and my Spouse! This is the longed for hour, it is time now that we should see each other, my Beloved and my Lord, it is time now that I should go to Thee; let us go in peace, and may Thy holy will be done. Now the hour has arrived for me to leave this exile, and to enjoy Thee Whom I have so much desired.”
In our life, in our death, and in every step in between, Teresa’s life, and the words of Holy Scripture, call us beyond an impersonal relationship, beyond an academic knowledge of God. We are called to a passionate, bone-aching kind of love, that centers our being, our efforts, our passions and our last breath, on the one and only true source of our life and worth — our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
O God, by your Holy Spirit you moved Teresa of Avila to manifest
to your Church the way of perfection: Grant us, we pray, to be
nourished by her excellent teaching, and enkindle within us a keen
and unquenchable longing for true holiness; through Jesus Christ,
the joy of loving hearts, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and
reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.