Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Homily: Teresa of Avila [October 15, 2008]

Gary Hall
Seabury-Western Theological Seminary
October 15, 2008 [Teresa of Avila]

In the early days of The New Yorker, E.B. White began an occasional feature called the “Newsbreak,” which continues to this day, a short piece that fills out the column at the end of a longer article. My favorite species of Newsbreak is one White named “Block that Metaphor!” in which the magazine simply reprints, without comment, a hopelessly overworked or mixed metaphor taken from the daily press. Here’s a typical “Block that Metaphor!” example from the Des Moines Register: “I’m tired of being Charlie Brown and putting in more hoops for teachers to jump through and then pulling the football of higher salaries away at every turn.”
I couldn’t help wanting to cry “Block that Metaphor!” when I heard Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s answer to a recent question about her belief in “American exceptionalism.” Here’s part of what she said:

"But even more important is that world view that I share with John McCain. That world view that says that America is a nation of exceptionalism. And we are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here. We are not perfect as a nation. But together, we represent a perfect ideal. And that is democracy and tolerance and freedom and equal rights." -- Governor Sarah Palin, October 2, 2008

Now I used to teach American literature before 1900, and so I realize that not everyone knows as I do that our 40th President did not invent the metaphor of a “shining city on a hill.” Few people remember that Ronald Reagan was not being original but was in fact quoting John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon given on board the ship Arabella, “A Model of Christian Charity”, in which he referred to the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s New England experiment as a “shining city on a hill.” As an English Puritan, Winthrop believed that the whole world would be watching what he and his fellow Calvinists were attempting to do in establishing a Reformed theocratic state in the New World. And since to those born after, say, 1960 John Winthrop seems like only a slightly older form of ancient history than Ronald Reagan, I’m not surprised that fewer still know that Winthrop himself did not invent the metaphor but instead took it from his sermon’s scriptural text , itself a passage we just heard read from today’s Gospel:

"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." [Matthew 5.14-16]

It’s a good thing E.B. White didn’t follow Jesus around, what with all this Gospel’s talk of cities and lampstands and even salt. How many metaphors can one man block?
Here, actually, is what Winthrop said to the Puritans as they were about to disembark on their early 17th century “errand into the wilderness”:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going. [John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”]

When Winthrop takes Jesus’s metaphor of a “city upon a hill”, he expands on it in a more interesting way than either Reagan or Palin did. He uses Jesus’s image of a city on a hill with a kind of doubleness: sure, in one sense, a city on a hill is a shining beacon to the world, a figurative statue of liberty proclaiming universal values to a broken world. But it’s also something else: a city on a hill is visible in another way, too. It’s out there, exposed. It’s visible for all to see. It’s a hard thing to hide. And, if you read the Psalms, it’s vulnerable to attack precisely because it’s so obviously exposed. So Winthrop works the metaphor for all its wonderful, complex doubleness. We’re a city on a hill: If we succeed, we’ll be a light to the nations. If we fail, we’ll be exposed as fools for all the world to see.
Now I’m not sure why the lectionary writers chose this “city on a hill” part of the Sermon on the Mount as the appropriate Gospel for St. Theresa of Avila, but it may be because they were following out the way her mind works opens us up to large metaphors like this one. St. Theresa was, of course, the sixteenth century Spanish nun who established the reformed Carmelite order and wrote two spiritual classics, The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle, the latter of which is, you guessed it, one large extended metaphor. The Interior Castle figures the soul as a castle and its journey toward God as an exploration of that castle’s seven “mansions” or rooms, as in Jesus’s Johannine saying, “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” If you’re looking for spiritual metaphors—plain, fancy, simple, or mixed, you can’t to better than this one which appears early on in The Interior Castle:

I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.—[Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle]

For Teresa, the soul is a castle, a large, complex, mysterious dwelling. We are compliecated beings, and we are mysterious, even to ourselves. As Augustine said, we are mysterious because we are made in the image of God, and God is mysterious. Teresa knew what Augustine was talking about. She thinks of the soul as a castle, a complicated, mysterious structure, but just as importantly she thinks of the soul as a castle made out of a diamond. We are not only complicated; we are precious. We are beautiful because God is beautiful, and we are made in the image of God. When Teresa thinks in this metaphorical way, she expresses, as John Winthrop and Jesus did, the truth of a metaphor in all its complexity. To say we are a city on a hill or a castle made of a single diamond is to say two things at once. In Winthrop’s case, it says that we are attractive but exposed. In Teresa’s case, it says that we are hard to know and at times confusing for all that and yet in some indefinable way made of the most beautiful and durable and pure stuff there is.
And running as I might be to block these metaphors, there is something about them that gives us an image of the Christian life in all its fullness. Those of us who feel called to live out the life of an ordained person know something about what it means to be a city on a hill, to be an example to the world in every sense of that word. Because we live out the baptized life in a public and sacramental way, our behavior and our reputations get inextricably interconnected with God’s. If people look at us fragile creatures and see God, then God’s reputation is at stake in how we behave. That’s the life we’ve signed on for. We live the Gospel life publicly. We are potentially both a beacon and what Winthrop calls “a story.” We are visible and we are exposed. It matters how we live our lives.
And when you find that metaphor and its implications exhausting, you might check yourself into Teresa’s interior castle and bask for a time in the mysterious friendliness of that extended comparison, too. You are a castle made out of a diamond. Such a castle would be hard to ignore, certainly: it would be visible for miles around. Yet, in Teresa’s deeper sense, that castle is both mysterious and beautiful. We are complicated because God is complicated. We are beautiful because God is beautiful. We human beings are called to take ourselves and each other seriously if only because all of us, finally, enshrine the image of that beautiful and complicated God.
You are the light of the world, a city on a hill, a castle with an infinity of rooms made out of a single perfect diamond. There are times, with E.B. White, when I want to block all these metaphors because, as Gary Larson of The Far Side once said, they make my head hurt. But sometimes if you root around in them long enough they begin if not to make sense then at least to be true, and it is for their truth and for the lives of those who expound them, like Teresa whom we honor and remember today, that we proceed in the Eucharist to give thanks. Amen.


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