This morning’s sermon is about a kind of prayer called “mystical prayer.” “Mystical prayer” may seem a little much for a beautiful May morning, but I know we’re up to the task. I’m going to begin by reminding us about Wile E. Coyote and gravity.
Where would Wile E. Coyote be without gravity? If you’ve seen the cartoons, you know how many of the coyote’s attempts to catch the roadrunner rely on gravity: Now the coyote sets up a boulder to push off the cliff and onto the roadrunner below. Now the coyote pours a pile of birdseed over the bridge and bungees down to catch the roadrunner. Now the coyote dons roller skates to skate down the hill after the roadrunner. Even if we haven’t seen the show, because we’re familiar with gravity, we can guess how the coyote fares in each of his attempts: The road runner appears at the cliff’s edge with his signature, “Meep, meep!” and, instead of the boulder, the startled coyote plunges with a whistle to the canyon floor. The coyote bungees off the bridge toward the pile of birdseed and catches, not the roadrunner, but the front end of truck. The coyote with roller skates sees the sign, “Bridge Out Ahead”… but can’t stop, and plunges with another whistle to the canyon floor.
Where would Wile E. Coyote be without gravity?
If we knew nothing about the Holy Spirit except what we read in the Acts of the Apostles, we might well ask, “Where would the Holy Spirit be without gravity?” For, if the Acts of the Apostles is any indication, the Holy Spirit depends on gravity. Two of the most common verbs Acts uses to describe the action of the Holy Spirit are “gravity verbs:” “pour” and “fall.” Both are used in today’s lesson:
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”
“The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”
It is appropriate that the Acts of the Apostles uses “gravity verbs” to describe the action of the Holy Spirit because, just as there is nothing we can do to control gravity – gravity just “is” – so there is nothing we can do to control the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will “fall” on whomever it chooses, whenever it chooses.
Here’s where we turn to mystical prayer. Theresa of Avila, the 16th-century Spanish mystic, draws on a passage from the Song of Songs to explain how, as much as we might want to fast-track our spiritual life and to experience greater union with God now, there comes a point when there is nothing more we can do to make that growth happen. Theresa writes (in her wonderful, breathless style!):
Now I recall, in saying that we have no part to play, what you have heard the bride say in the Song of Songs: “He brought me into the wine cellar.” It doesn’t say that she went. I understand this union to be the wine cellar where the Lord wishes to place us when he desires and as he desires. However great the effort we make to do so, we cannot enter… His Majesty must place us there and enter himself into the center of our soul.
By our own efforts, we cannot gain entrance into the “wine cellar” – the depths of our soul where we can find and relish the presence of God. Only God can bring us there. “He brought me into the wine cellar,” she writes. “It doesn’t say that she went.”
Though two of the most popular verbs Acts uses to describe the action of the Holy Spirit are ”fall” and “pour,” there is a third verb that Acts uses in conjunction with the Spirit, something that we can do in regards to the Spirit. That verb, too, is used in today’s lesson:
“Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’”
There is nothing we can do to make the Holy Spirit fall on or be poured out on us. But we can open ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit.
In her book, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, Sr. Ruth Burrows – herself a member of the Carmelite order founded by St. Theresa – uses the image of three islands to describe progress in the spiritual life. The first two islands can be reached by our own effort, she says – by the narrow causeway, or by boat or by swimming. But there is nothing we can do to gain the third; only God can take us there. Perhaps you’ve heard the line: “I’ve worked and worked at swimming. And I think I’ve finally learned to float.” Making progress in the spiritual life doesn’t mean waiting passively for the boulder of the Spirit to fall on us wherever we happen to be. If we wish to make progress in the spiritual life, we can work on our swimming, we can place ourselves in the probable path of the onrushing boulder. And then, once we have worked on our swimming, once we have placed ourselves in the path of the boulder – once we have better learned to receive the Holy Spirit – perhaps then Jesus will bring us into our “wine cellar” to savor his sweetness.
“Mystical prayer” may seem like something reserved for only a few, special Christians. But all Christians, by virtue of our Baptism, have the capacity for mystical prayer. Thomas Merton writes:
Why do we think of the gift of… mystical prayer as something essentially strange and esoteric reserved for a small class of almost unnatural beings and prohibited to everyone else?… Contemplation is the work of the Holy Spirit acting on our souls… to increase and perfect our love for Him. These gifts are part of the normal equipment of Christian sanctity. They are given to all in Baptism, and if they are given it is presumably because God wants them to be developed.
I wonder if we would like to develop these gifts? I wonder if we would like to be brought into the “wine cellar?” I wonder, what is our capacity to work and work at swimming until we finally learn to float?
Theresa refers to the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples in the upper room to tell what can happen to the soul as we persevere in prayer and let God do as God wills. Theresa says that, even though the doors of our “upper room” may be shut, Jesus can enter us as he entered the locked upper room, and can say to our soul as he said to his disciples, “Peace be with you.” I wonder, who wouldn’t like to hear Jesus say in his or her heart, “Peace be with you?”