This sermon was given at the HDS Episcopal Fellowship on October 15, 2012, on the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila. The preacher, Noah van Niel, is a student at Harvard Divinity School.
A couple of years ago, my Grandparents passed on to my wife and I, a beautiful ceramic tile, painted in the soft blue and white of the Dutch Delft style. On the tile is a Dutch proverb that reads: “Van het concert des levens krijgt niemand een program” which means “In the concert of life, no one gets a program.” Now this is not really a new or radical idea in and of itself. We’ve often heard things like this before, but it’s cute and I found myself reading it much more literally than I think it was probably intended. I started thinking, you know, I hate concerts where there is no program. I’m a wreck. I sit there thinking, what comes next? Which movement are we in? Is this the allegro? DO we clap now? How long is it? How far into it are we? And on and on and on. I much prefer to be able to situate myself within the larger structure of the concert, checking back in every once in a while, knowing that there is some progression that I can map out and trust in. It helps me to relax and enjoy the music. So I don’t apologize for being someone who likes to have a plan; who loves order and structure. It gives me something to grab onto, to hook my anchor on so I can get on with the business at hand.
I believe this speaks to a larger principle about humanity. Well I hope it does, otherwise, this will be kind of a lonely sermon. To varying degrees, we love structure. We need it. We depend upon it to bring order to our lives which otherwise float, unmoored through whatever this things is we call existence. Plans, maps, organizations they are all a part of how we attempt to control the chaos so that we might inhabit it. Civilization strikes me as really just a series of interlocking structures of our own devising, generally agreed upon, that allow life to proceed. Political systems, economic systems, social customs, rule of law, rules of logic or reasoning. Language itself is a set of agreed upon rules and principles which make the unintelligible, intelligible.
And I would argue this is what religion attempts to do with the Divine. And I don’t think that’s in and of itself a bad thing. In Christianity, and in Anglicanism in particular, there is a definite structure to worship, to prayer. We have a whole book that outlines the way in which every conceivable kind of worship service should be run. This is one of the things I find very helpful about our tradition. Much as in the same way as at a concert, I can relax into the worship service, knowing where my attention should be at any given time. “Oh now I’m supposed to be listening to the Bible.” Oh now I’m supposed to be confessing my sins” “Oh now I’m supposed to be remembering the supreme Sacrifice Jesus made on the cross for my sake.” I like the poetry of the prayers and the form and cadence that the language brings to the liturgy. When I find myself in a more free flowing church, I find it much more difficult to worship. I can’t get past the nagging questions: “where are we now?” What are we doing next? How long does this go?”
However, this orderly worship does not necessarily leave us predisposed to the kind of mystical religious experiences spoken to by some of the early church fathers or medieval mystics. Imagine my delight then, when I discovered Teresa of Avila! Here, with such works as the Interior Castle, was someone laying out a plan, a map or guide of how to have a mystical experience. This was perfect for someone like me! For those of you who don’t know, Teresa was a Carmelite nun in Avila, in central Spain in the 16 th century. She wrote a number of works on mysticism and her central metaphor in the Interior Castle, the work I’m most familiar with, is that of a huge mansion situated inside ourselves. There are various rooms, or stages which one passes through in prayer which culminate in a continual, consistent, union or rapture with God. She uses the language of divine marriage, in the sense of two becoming one flesh. It all sounded very wonderful so I set about reading the Selections of the Interior Castle. A mystical map to the divine AND in an abridged version! I was sold.
As I read I made a point to literally draw out the different rooms as concentric squares creating a kind of rough floor-plan of this spiritual mansion. I started at the outer level, then moved progressively inward. I mapped myself on the floor-plan, trying to figure which room I was in and trying to determine how to make it to the next one. It was like Super-Mario or something, trying to make it to the next level.
However, I learned quickly that while she may have done me a great service
in laying out what she saw as the necessary steps to a complete union with the Divine, the
closer you got to the center, the more and more inward you had to travel. As I mapped it,
the rooms got smaller and smaller as you moved along, in proportion to the number of
people that actually make it to those stages. But as I read I realized that spiritually the
inverse sizing is true: the deeper you go the wider and larger the rooms become for the
closer and closer you get to a union with a God who is not held within the walls of a room,
no matter how large. The journey was one from specificity to expanse. The deeper you
moved the less and less form played a part. Wordy and worldly prayers gave way to
longings and groanings and yearnings and moanings which bespoke an inward impetus
towards this force, whom, once tasted, once glimpsed, became the sole focus of the life of
prayer. The closer you get the more you have to relinquish control, not maintain it. You
didn’t move from room to room, God pulled you from room to room. Teresa bottoms out at
point where she says, that the truly divine encounter, even a breath of that union simply
cannot be explained adequately; it just must be experienced.
“They say that the Soul enters within itself and at other times, that is rises above itself.
With such terminology I wouldn’t know how to clarify anything. This is what’s wrong
with me: that I think you will understand by my way of explaining, while perhaps, I’m
the only one who will understand myself” (39).
Now we, as intellectually responsible and highly intelligent, rational beings here at Harvard Divinity School tend to distrust this kind of highly personal, untranslatable, individual experience. It does not lend itself to being analyzed. But this is exactly the same place Paul is calling us to in Romans. That place of “inward groans” where the “spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” That place where quiet and cloudiness and ambiguity reign over order and structure and form. This is where God resides because there he can transcend the shackles that our structures and our language and our outline place upon Him. It is here, beyond the realm of the intelligible, that he can communicate most honestly and directly with us.
“What God communicates here [in spiritual union] to the soul in an instant is a secret so great and a favor so sublime—and the delight the soul experiences so extreme—that I don’t know what to compare it to. I can say only that the Lord wishes to reveal for that moment, in a more sublime manner than through any spiritual vision or taste, the glory of heaven. One can say no more—insofar as can be understood—than that the soul, I mean the spirit, is made one with God” (122).
So if we are to really commune with God, if we seek that union with him that I believe he seeks with us. We must give credence to the inward longings of our heart. We must pray simply with sighs too deep for words. We must fight against our need for structure in the name of the sublime. We must learn to embrace the place of feeling, the place of longing and the place of the unintelligible, this is where God resides and the exact reason we cannot, in our limited means, express these things more intelligibly almost works as proof that this is the realm in which God is at work: in the formless, the murkiness, the fogginess of our hearts. Places we can’t even penetrate without the profound effort of letting go of our need for order. We cannot write a program for God’s symphony!
At a certain point the structures we’ve erected to allow us to function and flourish, especially in our spiritual lives, can become the fetters, the chains, which bind us to it; “It” being the structure itself, and not God. They become the shackles that hold us down and from which we must break free if we are ever to rise up and soar, transcending ourselves and our humanity and reaching the heights or depths of the all-powerful, ever present God. Like a rocket ship that sheds its various apparati as it climbs higher and higher through the atmosphere and into the weightlessness and freedom of outerspace. This may not come
easily. But as we move forward on this journey of faith it becomes more and more apparent
that the house we have built for God to live in is too small, it’s stretching at the seams. The
shirt we have knitted him to dress him up in our image, is ripping apart on his back and
he seeks to break free, expand into the full capacity of our hearts and minds and beyond.
And we can pray, out of a spirit of weakness that God would fill us so completely that we
are overflowing with his presence, and logic and language and learning break down and
we are left with the moans and groans and sighs of our pre-formed selves crying out in
supplication. That is a heavenly call.
Alfred Lloyd Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” that says pretty perfectly what I just
spent the last ten minutes trying to say.
“Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they”
To that I would only add…Amen.