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Revelation 7:9–17 | 1 John 3:1–3 | Matthew 5:1–12
Today I want to talk about people who actually have the word “Saint” in front of their names. As you may recall, Lutherans often talk in broad terms about being both sinners and saints, at the same time—all the time—thanks both to human nature and God reaching toward us—and this has a broad application. Saints, then, are people who are known, imperfect, and though whom we have seen God. ALSO, there have been some particularly outstanding people in history whose passion and courage in seeking God—often in the face of opposition—had remarkable effects then and continue to inspire now. While criteria are set up to become a Saint with a capital “S” in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, along with practices for intercession that not all Lutherans understand, the role of the Saints in “bringing us closer to Christ, the Holy Trinity and the body of Christ—both living and dead” (Catholic Bishop’s website)—is significant! These remarkable people designated as Saints perceived a burning flame at the center of existence, pursued it like the pearl of great price, suffered and gave back much. I think, in the election week, focusing on the saints is a great exercise!
So, a couple of saints who knew each other: St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Teresa was a mentor to John, who was 25 years younger.
First, to set the stage: In Spain—from the 800s to 1100s—Jews, Christians and Muslims lived and worked side-by-side, even collaborating on worship spaces and universities in a so-called “convencia”—until warfare from the outside began to break this collaboration apart. It’s influence lingered, however, until the Spanish Inquisition under Ferdinand and Isabelle—when anyone considered “different” was expelled, tortured and and burned: Although many Muslims had already left, Jews and outspoken Christians were not tolerated. Teresa was born in the ancient walled city of Avila in the middle of Spain just as Martin Luther was preparing to nail his theses to the door in Wittenberg, Germany, hoping for peaceful conversation in the church about some issues. Teresa’s grandfather had converted from Judaism—though its influence lingered—and his feisty granddaughter was sent to a convent as a teenager at the time of her mother’s death—purportedly to "keep her out of trouble.” Teresa threw herself into convent life wholeheartedly, with passion for her “Beloved” as she called Christ.
Some years later, John’s journey into the monastery was also a result of the times: His grandparents were wealthy, but his father was disowned for marrying a poor woman—and then died shortly after John’s birth. John spent years living in destitution with his mother and brothers—often homeless and malnourished; ending up in a church school where at least he could be fed. But he took to life in the school—and eventually, the monastery—with its study and worship. He, too, was captivated by the very-real movement of Christ in his life and the world; and wanted to reform the monastery to encourage this attitude of single-minded seeking and service to neighbor.
Now, maybe talking about these two leads you to feel like Facebook does: Everyone else has it together except for you. (BTW watch “the social dilemma” as former Facebook, twitter and Instagram executives and engineers describe how mathematical algorithms that are meant to keep you clicking for the sake of marketing/selling are so personalized that they are shaping your understanding of the world. For instance, not everyone who googles “climate change” gets the same suggested results—and has the effect of making our views more and more extreme; and people more and more divided.) What is important to know about St. John and St. Teresa, is not just their complicated social contexts and upbringings (they are human!) but their continued struggle. Teresa suffered a debilitating illness on and off throughout her life; sometimes being paralyzed because of it. John was imprisoned, beaten and nearly starved to death because his views were considered outside the norm. Both pushed back against the system of which they were a part: Teresa’s Carmelite order catered to the wealthy and seemed to be drifting from its purpose of prayer and service. After the “great persecution,” consisting of “gossip, derision and being called crazy”, she was allowed to start a new Order. Many followed this renewal movement, including John. This process of doing being true to their faith was messy, painful and even dangerous.
But here’s the thing: Teresa, for sure, kept her sense of humor. She writes in verse:
How did those priests ever get so serious and preach all that gloom?
I don’t think God tickled them yet.
And another poem she calls, “Laughter came from every brick.”
In prison, John composed passionate poetry and is still considered one of Spain’s foremost poets. He is able to speak about this dark time as one that was to him precious—because in it, he became aware that God was closer than he was even to himself; that the goal of his life was oneness with this God and that nothing else mattered. It all flowed our from there. And he didn’t have to hang onto all those compulsions and fears: His poem "Dark Night" begins like this:
Once in the dark of night, when love burned bright with yearning, I arose
(Oh windfall of delight!) and how I left none knows
dead to the world, my house in deep repose.
Many times, poetry in its economy of language and ability to express emotion, is the best way of talking about our experience of this God. Even as Jesus describes with it’s like in these verses—the beatitudes today: How we thought that perhaps power and strength were the goal; but how ironic and yet true when we become so fully one with God (and each other), we see it’s through those things that like: Mourning and meekness; hunger and thirst; mercy and desire for clarity and what is right. Our thinking minds cannot always grasp it, but in the seeking and the living, we at least grasp a bit of the truth of it. And as we hear in Revelation, it makes sense as we stand in the presence of God. But what a glorious time that is! Indeed: “Rejoice and be glad. For yours is the Kingdom of God.”
From modern day (in my opinion, Saint) Fr. Keating:
p. 63 “Humility and boundless confidence in God’s infinite mercy emerge, and the ongoing journey becomes whatever God wants it to be.”
Finally, some verses by St. Teresa of Avila, that are also a blessing:
Let nothing disturb you; Let nothing make you afraid.
All things pass; But God is unchanging. Patience, is enough for everything.
You who have God, lack nothing. God alone is sufficient.
Thanks be to God. Amen.