To Be In the World But Not of the World
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
(A homily preached to an Anglican community of nuns)
He said, "How will we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable will we illustrate it? It's like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out great branches, so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow." - Mark 4:30-32
In my breviary I carry with me a little sack of relics of saints. One of them is a piece of wood from the kitchen of a monastery of Teresa of Avila and the back of this bookmark carries the inscription “De la cocina donde Santa Teresa se quedo arrobada con la sarten en la mano”, roughly translated as “From the kitchen where Saint Teresa went into ecstasy while holding a frying pan in her hand.” There is a story of her going into mystical rapture while frying fish in her kitchen. The story sounds rather charming but truthfully, the story or the claim itself was rather a dangerous one. Teresa herself was denounced to the Inquisition for her mystical experience and she investigated a few times. Many had accused her either as fraud or demon possessed. Prejudice against women, even female monastics, played a big part. The sixteenth century Spanish Church thought of women as being the weaker sex that made them more subject to the delusions of the Evil One. And as she spoke about her spiritual experiences and encouraged her nuns and those around her to cultivate a deeper interior life than was mostly allowed women, she was thought to be dangerous and subversive for ordinary women, even nuns, ought not to dabble in theological matters and things spiritual for these are to be left to men. In the time of Teresa, the Spanish Inquisition even forbade convents of nuns to possess a Bible for fear that Satan would lead the nuns into heresy. In fact Teresa had no Bible, her knowledge of Scripture came mostly from hearing preachers. She was termed to be a mujer varonil, a manlike woman, a woman who acted like a man, defying gender expectations. But people found her to be threatening not only because she was “manly.” As she went to reform her Order, she attempted to desegregate her monasteries. The rich nuns no longer received preference over the poorer ones as was the usual practice in monastic life then; nuns who came from the aristocracy were to receive no special treatment over those who came from humble beginnings. Her reforms challenged the prevailing class system of her world. Furthermore, in a world that placed a high value of racial and religious purity, she did not posses what was called pureza de sangre, purity of blood because she was partly Jewish. Yet, her mystical claims and her ascendancy as a religious reformer challenged the racial prejudice of her times. Who knew, she asked, that ordinary women like her and her nuns would be considered dangerous and subversive?
In the Gospel today, Jesus compares God’s Kingdom to a mustard seed. Let’s unpack this parable for a moment. When one plants a mustard seed, it does not become a big tree, more like a wild shrub, not that pretty, just quite ordinary. Despite its culinary and medicinal use, a mustard plant has some other “not so good” characteristics. As Jesus says in the Gospel, when one plants mustard seeds in a garden or field, they can grow out of control. They can assume the characteristics of annoying unwanted weeds in that they can destroy the other plants and crops. Therefore, mustard plants were often not wanted in a garden, and in fact, Jewish law in Jesus’ time prohibited planting mustard in a garden. Jesus rightly observed that mustard plants could attract birds that seek shelter; but birds were not necessarily good for the garden or the field because they, too, could feed off, and hence, destroy plants and crops. The mustard plant is ordinary yet dangerous. Jesus’ comparison of his Kingdom to a mustard seed would have been a rather troubling comparison to his audience. It would have been jarring to hear such an analogy. Better if Jesus compared the Kingdom to the great, majestic and mighty cedar trees of Lebanon -these cedar trees often praised in Scriptures- and not to some ordinary and potentially dangerous weed. But what Jesus means by the comparison of the Kingdom to a mustard plant is that the inbreaking Kingdom is a dangerous threat to any power- secular or spiritual- that are opposed and antithetical to the Gospel, and because of this, we who are called to be heirs to this Kingdom are carriers of this threat, we, too, are “dangerous.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked in his book, The Cost of Discipleship about the origins of monasticim:
The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost…. But the… church did keep a remnant of that original awareness. It was decisive that monasticism did not separate from the church and that the church had the good sense to tolerate monasticism. Here, on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved…Monastic life became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.” 1
Monasticism was and is a countercultural “protest” movement if you will. It was and continues to be a conscious attempt to live the ethics of the heavenly Kingdom in the midst of this world, this “saecula” which often stand in opposition to the ethics of the Gospel. Secondly, monasticism was and continues to be an indispensable “gadfly” to the Church which is often co-opted by powers indifferent or hostile to the Gospel. The late Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, once wrote that “the vocation of the [monastic] in the modern world…is not survival but prophecy.” Monastic life, monastic values, indeed pose difficulties, challenges, and threat- dangerous!- to society and to the Church. Your vow of poverty- to live simply, to live according to need and not be ruled by wants and unbridled desire, to share what you have with one another- is prophetic in a society that worships the idols of money and wealth, a society bankrupted by unabashed consumerism and lust for material things that destroys relationships, communities and the earth. Your vow to share things in common is prophetic in a society that has become MORE divided along economic lines, with wealth concentrated in the hands of the few elites. Your vow of obedience- that is, to be accountable to God and to one another, and to community, and not to live solely for oneself, - is prophetic in American society where self-centered individualism is rampant. Your vow of chastity- that is a vow to embody mutuality, wholeness and justice in all your relationships- is prophetic in a world where there is much domination and exploitation of humanity, I don’t mean just sexual exploitation, but domination and exploitation of the human person for profit, wealth, and political power. Your commitment to welcome guests, to welcome seekers, the lost and the hurting in the Name of Christ, to practice this kind of hospitality in a world that has become inhospitable and unsafe for many- this, too, is prophetic. Your commitment to embody in your life a deep love and nurture for God’s earth that is increasingly harmed by unbridled human consumption, or in the name of so called human progress and technology, this, too, is prophetic. To be prophetic is not an easy vocation. Merton says monastics must be content to live as “marginal” persons inhabiting the margins of society and the Church, content with being dismissed by the world as “irrelevant.” Yet, the life you have chosen is hardly irrelevant for in the words of Thomas Merton, you sound a sane voice “critical of the world, of its routines, its confusions, and its sometimes tragic failures to provide other men with lives that are fully sane and human" 2
We thank God for the witness of monastics, for the world and the Church both continue to need prophets who, by their word and their lives, offer us an alternative way of life rooted in a vision of the inbreaking Kingdom of God.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, SCM Press, LTD, 1959.
2 Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, Notre Dame Press, 1998.
© 2012 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a queer Filipino worker-priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
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