“WHOSE ARE WE?” (Jn 10:1-10): 13 April 2008 (Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday)
Bernini has a beautiful and somewhat controversial marble sculpture in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. The sculpture is called “St. Teresa in Ecstasy” and portrays a religious experience of St. Teresa of Avila as she describes it in her autobiography: She sees a vision of a young angel who pierces her heart and her entrails with a spear, causing her to moan out of pain and ecstasy.
Some people have been scandalized by such an unconventional account of a mystical experience. Religious experience described like that sounds much too sexual for comfort. Bernini’s Teresa has been criticized as someone not so much in the throes of mysticism, but–believe it or not–“in veiled orgasm!”
In truth, however, many mystics have compared spiritual intimacy to the physical and even the sexual. So St. Teresa’s somewhat controversial religious experience as depicted by Bernini’s equally controversial scultpture only expresses the depth and the intensity of the intimacy that the saint enjoyed with the Lord. It is small wonder that she has been known not only as “Teresa of Avila,” but also as “Teresa of Jesus”–naming not only who she was, but also whose she was.
When you think about it, there are two important questions that we need to answer in our lives. The first question confronts us almost the moment we are born: “Who am I?” As we grow, we grapple to discover our identity and our gifts–what makes each of us unique–or as someone put it, “what makes me me.” But as we do so, we also at the same time shape our selves and our character, making decisions and taking actions that define who we are.
There is another, equally important question that every person also needs to answer–a question that is usually forgotten. We need to answer this second question as much as the first if we want to find the meaning of our lives. This second question is: “Whose are you?” In other words, to whom do we belong? The answer to this question covers not only the self-defining friendships we keep, but also to the life-shaping commitments we make. And just like the first, we go about answering this question not so much through our words but through our actions, not so much with our lips but with our lives.
If you’re wondering what all the talk in today’s gospel about sheep, shepherds, and sheep gates are, the Lord is really speaking of whose we are. We are his. Or, at least he wants us to be his. First, he describes himself as a shepherd who calls his sheep by name and whose voice his sheep recognize. He lays his claim on us as his. But still not content with that, he mixes metaphors and describes himself as the very gate through which we his sheep enter the fold.
Much can be said about the Lord as a shepherd or even as a sheep gate, but what struck me in today’s reading is that on these occasions when he calls us his, he also defines himself as ours. We are his sheep, but he makes himself our shepherd. He even makes himself our gate!
And that, for me, is the greatest wonder of all: Not only does our relationship define us as his, but the Lord loves us so much that he does the unthinkable: He also allows our relationship to define him! By claiming us as his, he makes himself ours.
St. Teresa of Avila tells another one of her religious experiences, this time involving not an angel but the Christ Child himself. According to the story, one day at the convent she meets a mysterious child coming down the stairs. The child stops in his tracks and asks her who she is.
“Teresa of Jesus,” she replies before asking, “And who are you?”
The child looks at her and says, “I am Jesus–of Teresa.”
Here’s a Quick Question for you: “Do you recall a moment in your life when for some reason, you felt–more than usual–that you belonged to the Lord, that you werehis?” Think about it, and feel free to share a thought, a feeling, or a question.
(image: detail from Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy)