Teresa’s Butterfly and Paul’s Thorn

Listen to sermon here: Teresa’s Butterfly and Paul’s Thorn

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Psalm 123

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Mark 6:1-13

This sermon was preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Monte-Carlo, Monaco on July 8, 2012

Although Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever pray is ‘Thank you’ that would be enough”, I personally feel that the words ‘thank you’ are not quite enough to express my gratitude and appreciation to Father Walter and to St Paul’s for this opportunity to preach and to worship with you this morning, but I will say it anyway, “thank you.”

As some of you already know, I am a PhD student of Christian Spirituality in Berkeley California and I have been exploring Europe the last couple weeks before I leave for the Netherlands, where I will study the work of René Girad with theologian James Alison. Last weekend, my travels turned into a spiritual pilgrimage as I visited the hometowns of two of my favorite Christian Mystics: St John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. Wandering through these small Spanish towns, I imagined how the ancient aqueducts of Segovia informed St. John’s understanding of God as the Fountain Source and how the city walls of Avila informed St. Teresa’s view of the soul as the inner castle. In Avila, it was the colorful butterflies that especially caught my attention and imagination, reminding me of St. Teresa’s metaphor of the mature soul trusting in Christ through deep darkness and unknowing like a silkworm in a cocoon. In the experience of the darkness, the soul transforms and, like the silkworm, is given wings to take flight once the cocoon falls away. I felt a connection to St. Teresa as I watched the sunlight flicker off the butterflies’ wings in their playful flight, on this bright outer side of the dark cocoon.

Both St. Teresa and St. John articulated most eloquently and poetically the mystical reality of the darkness that often and perhaps inevitably accompanies spiritual growth. St. John of the Cross famously names this experience the “dark night of the soul.” In short, the soul’s “dark night” is the painful death of old ways of knowing and experiencing God. During this “dark night,” God no longer answers prayers in the same way nor does God arouse the same sense of feeling loved or cared for. One often feels as if God has completely just up and left. The “dark night” may feel similar to the lonely isolation experienced by seafarers, when separated from familial love for several months. The “dark night” may also involve a brutal humiliation of the ego, forcing one to confront one’s humanity, limitations, weaknesses, and even one’s fears and anxieties. Psychologist (and mystic in his own right) Carl Gustav Jung describes this aspect of the dark night as the integration of one’s shadow. “There is no light,” Jung explains, “without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection. To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.”[1] For these mystics, the experience of the “dark night” is not a reason to lose hope but rather to open oneself up to new ways of knowing God. On the other side of the dark night is a profound union with the divine.[2] This “dark night” can help illumine our Scripture readings this morning.

In the Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples “authority over unclean spirits.” And with this authority, the disciples cast out many unclean spirits and, with the anointing of oil, cure many people. The disciples and those whom they visit experience Christ as One who brings life and casts out disease, demons and death. Christ heals, loves, and responds compassionately and actively to the people’s pleas. This is who God is in Christ: a loving healer; a gracious provider; an active and compassionate responder. According to St. Teresa, many Christians enjoy these aspects of God’s love during the first stages of the spiritual journey when the soul is first introduced to the divine. And thanks be to God that God is truly a loving healer and gracious provider, through and through, as the Gospel proclaims.

However, in the Epistle, we read the words of another Christian Mystic, St. Paul, who after describing his own mystical ascent into heaven, recounts an interaction with Christ that reveals God as more than just a healer and granter of requests. Paul complains about what he calls his “thorn in the flesh”[3] and, although he never specifies what the thorn actually is, it is clear that this “thorn” brings him face-to-face with his weakness and his humanity. He even goes so far as to name the “thorn” a “messenger of Satan.” And with a name like “messenger of Satan” it is no stretch to compare Paul’s thorn with the Gospel’s unclean spirits. However, in the Epistle, the satanic messenger is not cast out by Christ. Three times, Paul appeals to the Lord for the thorn to be removed. The “three appeals” express Paul’s persistency and urgency. In these desperate prayers, Paul experiences the “dark night of the soul” in which the old ways of knowing and experiencing God begin to die. God in Christ does not grant Paul’s request, even after his urgent persistence. Instead, Paul is invited to experience God in a wholly new way: not as a granter of requests, but as one whose power is made manifest in Paul’s weakness. After his desperate prayers, Paul receives a message from Christ that invites and empowers him to integrate this “thorn,” to accept this “messenger of Satan” as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Christ tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in your weakness.”

Throughout Scripture and the history of Christian spirituality, there is a motif of humans undergoing these spiritual dark nights and then, like Paul, bringing their difficulties to God in prayer, sometimes humbly, sometimes boldly and sometimes with anger and accusation. From the psalmists and Job to the Apostle Paul to St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa, the pain and suffering of the dark night is brought to the throne of God in prayer. Scripture and history show how God welcomes these prayers and responds with love and patience and self-sacrifice. This interaction creates a space for the human and the divine to grow closer together in intimacy and for grace and divine power to be made manifest in our lives.

In our prayer, we can acknowledge the frustration that these thorns bring and then expect a divine response that reveals how Christ’s power is made manifest in the thorns. We can expect to encounter Christ in our thorns, in our limitations, our weaknesses, and even in our loneliness and isolation.

Last summer, I struggled with some anxiety over a health issue. I prayed for healing and when the health issue failed to subside I brought my anxiety and frustration to the Lord in prayer. Instead of receiving what I initially asked for (healing), I received a divine response inviting me to trust in the Lord in the midst of my health issue. A friend shared with me a poem that St. Teresa kept in her breviary that I have come to accept as God’s response to my prayer, not too unlike Christ’s words to Paul in response to his prayer of frustration. The poem, has continued to show up for me, as it did this last weekend, and as I’m sure it will next week when I visit Taizé France where they have put the poem to music. In Spanish, the poem sounds like this:

Nada te turbe

Nada te espante

Todo se pasa

Dios no su muda

La paciencia

Todo lo alcanza.

Quien a Dios tiene

Nada la falta

Solo Dios basta

In Taize, they translate the poem: “Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting. God alone fills us.” Theologian James Alison also translates Teresa’s poem, trying to capture the sharpness of her Castillian language. He translates,

“May nothing wind you up,

Nothing affright you;

Everything comes and goes

God, still, just there;

Through patience

All will be achieved.

If you have God,

You lack nothing:

God alone will do.”

Perhaps this message of God’s sufficient presence and grace came to Teresa in response to her own prayerful plea to be rescued from her dark night of the soul, from her thorn in the flesh, from her dark cocoon. Perhaps this poem came to her as a divine response, not necessarily removing her thorn but giving her soul wings in the midst of her thorn, in the midst of her dark night.

This morning, I invite us all to bring whatever thorns we have in our lives to the Lord in prayer, be they painful emotions, physical maladies, or severe isolation and loneliness. And furthermore, I invite us to be open to new ways of hearing God’s response to our prayers. God may not grant our specific requests or provide us with complete answers. St. Teresa actually said, “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.” Fortunately, God does not always answer our prayers in the midst of our thorns by simply granting our request, but God does respond. And if we have ears to hear God’s response, we can move into new ways of knowing and experiencing the divine, even in the midst of our thorns and our dark nights.

The psalmist writes, “Our eyes look to the LORD our God, until he shows us his mercy” ( Psalm 123:3). The readings this morning, along with St. Teresa, urge us to direct our eyes to the  Lord, even if that means praying with our frustration and isolation. And the readings urge us to keep praying until God shows us mercy, not necessarily by granting our request but by giving us a response that moves us into further growth and, like Teresa’s butterfly, gives us wings to fly in the midst of our thorns. Amen.

[1] CG Jung, Dreams

[2] St. Teresa likens the “dark night” to a wedding chamber in which the bride waits for her groom. At the end of the “dark night,” the soul and God unite, and for Teresa, it would be appropriate to say, that the soul and God consummate their love. It is no longer God and me, according to St. Teresa, it is God in me.

[3] For the last two millennia, Christian commentators have offered guesses galore on what this “thorn” actually was for Paul. Tertullian suggested a pain in the ear or severe migraines. Gregory the Great suggested sexual temptation. John Chrysostom suggested it was Paul’s oppressive opponents, while others have suggested epilepsy, malaria, defective speech, mental illness, demonic oppression, agony over Jewish rejection, ophthalmia and even homosexual desire. Due to the many guesses about Paul’s “thorn,” Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “this passage…seems to have afforded an uncommonly favorable opportunity for everyone to become an interpreter of the Bible.” Although making educated guesses about Paul’s “thorn” can be fun and entertaining, the specifics about the thorn remain unclear.


2 thoughts on “Teresa’s Butterfly and Paul’s Thorn

  1. This is very insightful, in my opinion. Sta Teresa’s butterfly reminds me of one of my favorite Bible verses which is from last Sunday’s Psalm 30: “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

    1. Sharon,
      Thanks much! I enjoyed preaching and worshiping with the eclectic group of Anglicans (mostly expats) at St. Paul’s in Monaco. The “friend” I mentioned in the sermon who shared Teresa’s poem with me was you.

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