One brisk morning at 6:30 AM, as my unit was preparing to take yet another physical fitness test (push-ups, sit-ups, 2-mile run), we spotted the first streaks of sunlight illuminating Mt. Ranier to the east of Fort Lewis in Washington State. Standing next to an enlisted soldier who was known to be a pious Evangelical Christian, I remarked: “Specialist, didn’t Jesus give us a beautiful day for the PT test?” He looked up and, with a rather annoyed expression, replied: “Chaplain, Jesus had nothing to do with it.” Of course he was “correct” in the obvious sense; it’s naïve to think of the Lord as, in the words of St. Thomas, the “direct, efficient” cause of the weather. Would it have made any difference to argue that God is the First Cause of all things, Who works through a series of intermediary, natural forces to produce everything in nature, even a sunrise? Probably not. It did occur to me, however, that Catholics have a different idea of the relationship between grace and nature than many of our non-Catholic friends. For them, there is a clear distinction between the sacred and the secular, even to the point of seeing them as opposites. It follows that, for them, the Word of God always contradicts secular wisdom. (They may have a point.) For Catholics, however, the interplay between nature and grace is much more subtle. Where, exactly, does the sea pick up and the sand of the beach leave off? As a great saint once remarked, “The Lord walks among the pots and the pans…”
This week (October 15), we honor that friend of God, St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). Born to an aristocratic Spanish family, she joined the Carmelite order of nuns, and because of her status, lived very comfortably. Educated, engaging, and talented, she was much sought out for her spiritual advice, but discovered that the very popularity of her convent prevented her from living a life of simplicity and prayer. She established a reformed order, the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites to pay greater attention to the interior life. Her spiritual works, The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection, are classics that put her among the Doctors of the Church. In the former, she understands the individual soul as the dwelling place of God. One discovers the Lord by beautifying that structure through the “purgative” way (clearing away inordinate, sinful desires), the “illuminative” way (the discipline of active and contemplative prayer), and the “unitive” way (ultimate surrender to God that brings the powers of the soul into harmony); this last is sometimes called “mystical marriage.”
Today’s artwork is the Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1647-52), located in the Church of St. Mary of Victory in Rome. It is a perfect artistic expression of St. Teresa’s account of meeting an angel who pierced her heart with an arrow tipped with fire. This enflamed her entire being (body and soul) with the love of God, but at the cost of pain, that of being satisfied by nothing less than God himself. As it happened, the statue caused great controversy in its time. The soldier I described above would probably have been scandalized by the expression on the face of St. Teresa, her swooning and levitating in the presence of God. (“Is that any way for a nun to act?”) Well…yes, it is. Catholics know that human beings are body and soul, that the ordinary is filled with the extraordinary, the body with the spirit, agony with ecstasy, and the human with the divine. Our mission is to alert our neighbor to the presence of God in the commonplace.