Monthly Archives: March 2015

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Saint Teresa in Ecstasy (1647-1652)

St Teresa of Avila was born in Spain on this day, March 28, five hundred years ago. She was a Catholic reformer, Carmelite nun, author, and one of the greatest mystics who ever lived. Because she is a poster child for Counter-Reformation spirituality, most Protestants have either never heard of her or see her as a symbol of all that was wrong with the Roman Church.

Teresa was two years old when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the symbolic beginning of Protestantism. Luther was himself a former monk, who came to reject monasticism, celibacy, and mysticism. Teresa embraced all three and took them to new heights. She was even the co-founder of a strict new religious order called the Discalced Carmelites. One story illustrates both her humility and distance from Protestant spirituality:

Once a young woman of high reputation for virtue asked to be admitted to a convent in Teresa’s charge, and added, as if to emphasize her intellect, “I shall bring my Bible with me.” “What,” exclaimed Teresa, “your Bible? Do not come to us. We are only poor women who know nothing but how to spin and do as we are told.”

Teresa is perhaps most remembered for her mysticism. She was a visionary and her spiritual raptures even caused her to levitate on occasion. Here’s how she described one of her most famous visions:

It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form. . . . In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire.  With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails.  When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, or will one’s soul be content with anything less. . . .

But when this pain of which I am now speaking begins, the Lord seems to transport my soul and to send it into an ecstasy, so that it cannot possibly suffer or have any pain because it immediately begins to experience fruition. May He be blessed forever, Who bestows so many favors on one who so ill requites such great benefits.

Not everything in Teresa’s life was ecstatic bliss. She suffered much both physically and spiritually. She was often opposed by church authorities and nuns who resisted her reforms. Because of her great love for our Lord, she was called simply “Teresa of Jesus.” Happy birthday, St. Teresa!

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Imperfect

imperfect flower

It’s easier to see other people’s faults than our own. That’s why Jesus told us to take the beam out of our own eye before we try to remove the speck from our brother’s. The tendency to cast a more judgmental eye on others isn’t all bad, however. It can provide fodder for healthy self-criticism when we recognize our own shortcomings in someone else. I first learned this lesson when I was turning 12. My cousin Keith was staying with us for the summer after his father, my uncle, died. Keith and I are both perfectionists, though I didn’t understand the extent or dangers of my own perfectionism at the time.

I remember my mother had us do an art project to help pass the time between more typical summer activities. It was decoupage – gluing a picture on a wooden block and then varnishing it. In the process Keith got a tiny tear in his picture. My mother assured him it was okay. No one would notice. The project would turn out fine despite the flaw. My cousin, however, was so troubled by the small imperfection that he tore up the picture. Seeing his reaction struck a chord in me. He did what I would have wanted to do had I made the same mistake. If I can’t succeed, I don’t want to continue.

Yesterday I made a careless mistake that may cost me hundreds of dollars. It sent my emotions into a tailspin and my whole day went down from there. I wish I could laugh off my mistakes. I can’t. Sometimes they weigh me down like an anchor. While I was wallowing in my self-pity, I got anxious updates throughout the day about a church member who underwent liver transplant surgery. While she was fighting for her life, I was worried about my personal failures and hurt feelings. My worries seem petty compared to her situation. Anxiety is like gas; it fills whatever vacuum you put it in. It’s my own perfectionism that causes much of my anxiety.

Perfectionism is a form of cowardice based on insecurity. It’s rooted in a fear of failure and perfectionists like me will do anything to avoid that red-faced feeling of shame that inevitably comes with it. Perfectionism makes people risk averse and hyper-vigilant.  When perfectionists are in a game and sense they can’t win, they quit. When they’re in a relationship that’s not working, they bail. Afterward they resolve never to try again. To quote one of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs: “If I never loved, I never would have cried.”

I’m not as much of a perfectionist as I used to be. I still feel like giving up when things don’t seem to be moving toward measurable success. But that’s okay. Nobody’s perfect. Not even me.

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Finding Beauty

the-ascension-1801

Benjamin West (1738-1820), The Ascension (1801), oil on canvas, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tenn.

On Friday I returned from a ten-day trip to Millington, Tennessee where I was doing special work for the US Navy. Last Saturday I ventured out in a cold rain and drove to nearby Memphis to visit the Dixon Gallery of Art. I passed through some pretty slummy areas of the city to get there. My first impression of the Home of the Blues was mostly negative until I arrived at the Dixon. This small but impressive museum was founded by the English-born cotton magnate and fine arts patron Hugo Dixon, who made a large fortune in the cotton business.

French impressionist paintings by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Bonnard form the core of the permanent collection. There are also two Marc Chagall paintings on display and even an abstract expressionist painting by Sir Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932) who literally colored outside of the lines, painting over the frame. But the work that has stuck with me the most since my visit is a stunning painting of the Ascension of Christ by the artist Benjamin West (above).

Conspicuously absent from the museum collection is any depiction of the laborers upon whose backs Mr. Dixon’s fortune was built. No sharecroppers. No African-Americans. No Americans of any kind for that matter. Dixon ascended to glory on the backs of the poor who have no representation in his art collection. We all compartmentalize our lives and I don’t want to be too harsh on a great philanthropist. For all I know, he may have given millions to help the poor. But a museum brochure mentions only Dixon’s generosity to the fine arts and higher education.

The day after my visit to the Dixon Gallery, I traveled to the Mississippi Delta where cotton is still king, and rural poverty, which was invisible in the art museum, is all too apparent. I went to the tiny town of Shaw (pop. 1,952) where our daughter Natalie took a mission trip during her spring break last year. Shaw’s infrastructure and buildings are literally crumbling. Along the main street stores have collapsed behind their fronts and several empty buildings have fallen prey to arsonists. This once thriving town is now in a state of decay. Most businesses left after whites moved out in the 1970s and 80s. Now there isn’t even a supermarket. The only place to buy food is at the local gas station. Many people are unemployed. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. It’s not a pretty picture.

However, even in the depressing surroundings of Shaw I found beauty. There’s beauty in the people who continue to scratch a living from hard circumstances. There’s beauty in the three nuns who run a tutoring center for under-performing children. As I reflect back on my trip, I can’t help thinking about Benjamin West’s image of Christ ascending. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Even though parts of it look like hell, maybe Shaw is closer to heaven than it appears.

Shaw MS storefronts

Shaw, Mississippi

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