Strength Made Known in Weakness

Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Nicolas Poussin, “The Ecstasy of St. Paul”

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows– was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.

Of course, Paul is talking about himself.   Of course, Paul is talking about a religious experience he had and is trying to explain in every-day words something that doesn’t happen everyday.    And of course, Paul’s experience and Paul’s language have to do with us.   Let me explain.

In Theresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle,” Theresa describes seven concentric “mansions” that are within each of us.  In the outermost, the soul is not much aware of God.  In the innermost, the soul lives in continual remembrance of, and with a tender love for, the Lord.  In her chapters on the sixth mansion – the second innermost – Theresa borrows language from today’s passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.   Like Paul, she speaks in the third person about herself.  Like Paul, she cannot say whether she was in the body or out of the body.  Like Paul, she found it hard to give language to what she had seen and heard.  Because Theresa writes in much more detail than Paul, and also because she is 1500 years more contemporary to us than Paul, we can get a sense from Theresa of what Paul may have experienced.  Theresa writes (and this particular passage is from her Autobiography):

Teresa of Ávila by François Gérard

One… sees oneself carried away and does not know where.  Although this experience is delightful, our natural weakness causes fear in the beginning.  It is necessary that the soul be resolute and courageous… in order to risk all, come what may, and abandon oneself into the hands of God and go willingly wherever it is brought since, like it or not, one is taken away.  So forceful is this enrapturing that very many times I wanted to resist and used all my energy, especially sometimes when it happened in public…  At times I was able to accomplish something, but with a great loss of energy, as when someone fights with a giant and afterward is worn out.  At other times it was impossible for me to resist, but it carried off my soul and usually, too, my head along with it, without my being able to hold back – and sometimes the whole body until the body was raised from the ground.

While it is fascinating to imagine Theresa levitating – and contemporary witnesses say she really did – that’s not what I find most interesting about Theresa’s description.  What I find most interesting about Theresa’s description of her “flights of the spirit” (as she called them) is that her language could apply, not merely to mystical experiences, but to everyday Christian living.

I say that one understands and sees oneself carried away and does not know where.  – Sometimes, all of a sudden, doesn’t God lead us – take us, forcefully – to places we never imagined?  A difficult diagnosis, a sudden diminishment in our faculties, a death, the loss of a job, the falling apart of a marriage.  In the twinkling of an eye, our life is changed.

Our natural weakness causes fear in the beginning.  – Since, when our life is so changed, we are on unfamiliar ground and don’t know where we are going, we often experience fear.

It is necessary that the soul be resolute and courageous.  – When God takes us, we are called to be resolute and courageous, trusting that God is with us and ultimately is working on our behalf.

In order to risk all, come what may, and abandon oneself into the hands of God… since, like it or not, one is taken away.  – I remember, for example, as my mother was dying, that – like it or not – she was being taken away.  All I could do was to “abandon myself into the hands of God and go willingly wherever I was brought.”

In this morning’s lesson, Paul follows his reference to mystical experience immediately with a reference to a painful condition:

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me.

We don’t know what Paul’s condition was – scholars have wondered, among other theories, if he had a speech impediment, or if he had arthritis, or if he was near-sighted – but Paul closely connected his “thorn” with his own mystical experience, juxtaposing the two in his letter.  Paul’s juxtaposition suggests that suffering is – or can be – closely connected to a deeper experience of God.

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Bernini

Theresa, too, connected her mystical experience with physical pain.  Perhaps you’ve seen, either in person or in pictures, Bernini’s famous sculpture, “Theresa in Ecstasy,” which is in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome.  The sculpture depicts another of Theresa’s mystical experiences, that of being pierced with a flaming spear:

I saw an angel near me… I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This… he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails… leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceedingly sweet… that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it.

Paul’s linking of his mystical experience with his “thorn,” and Theresa’s description of her own ecstasies as both wonderful and painful, remind us that weakness and a deeper experience of God are closely connected.  Be it an unwelcome diagnosis, a death, a diminishment, a divorce, the loss of a job – or anything else that is a “thorn” to us – suffering, if we let it, can lead to a deeper experience of God.  As God told Paul, “My power is made known in weakness.”

If you are experiencing a “thorn” in your life right now, know that places of weakness and diminishment are not only places where God is with us, that they are not only places where God still loves and desire us, but that our “thorns” may be exactly the occasion, may be exactly the place, where God can lead us deeper into our “interior castle.”  For to enter more deeply into relationship with God, to live more and more in continual remembrance of God, and with a tender love for God, is not only what God wants, but as we go deeper, we will probably discover that it is what we want, too.

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