You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
There’s a village inside most of our heads. And in the village there’s a little square where trades are practiced and craftsmen set up shop, and where the things we want to buy are readily for sale at prices we can afford. There are plays and movies and poems and music all on offer in the village inside our heads – and they are usually our favorites. There’s a doctor or two that some of us avoid like the plague and on whom others of us call at all hours of the day and night. There’s a therapist too – but it’s not always clear that the therapist in the village inside our heads is the right therapist for us. There’s a critic who stands on a street-corner and who calls out comments and posts daily critiques – stapling them to a kiosk on the corner where they can be read by anyone in the village.
Your mother sits in a rocking chair on a porch not far from the center of town, and chances are good that your father’s voice can be heard with more or less resonance in certain locations, and from certain rooms in the house in which you grew up, which is always to be found in the village inside your head.
And there’s an inner architect who works with us inside our heads to help us build and to develop the village inside our heads. This is the architect with whom you image the addition that will double the size of your house, or the renovation of the kitchen that requires no compromise. It’s the architect with whom you first make plans for the cottage on the shore, or the house in the country, or the condo on the square.
In the village inside your head your pied-a-terre in the city is only minutes away from your place in the country – takes no time to get there, and the traffic is never bad. You can have it all: a place in the mountains, and a spot right on the beach, as well as a Tuscan villa, and a little apartment in Paris. Not only do you have an architect in the village inside your head, you also have the best real estate agent around!
All your dearest friends are also your nearest friends in the village inside your head, and they never move further away than you want them to.
Since you are listening to this sermon, chances are good that there is a church in the square in the village inside your head, and the priest or the pastor, the minister or the vicar of the church in the middle of the village inside your head is the best one for miles: knows just the right way to do things, preaches the best (and the shortest) sermons, always makes you feel good about who you are and your relationship with God. (You have never met such a vicar outside the village inside your head, but you cling to hope.)
And there’s a mason, or a carpenter, or a handyman, or a fence-builder in the village inside your head whom eventually you and your architect hire to build a wall or a fence or a barrier of some sort around the village inside your head. Only if you have the most medieval fantasies do you also require a moat to surround the village inside your head – but some of you might. I don’t know why you must build the wall or the fence or the barrier or the moat – after all it’s only a village inside your head – but you do, we do. We build our defenses, and there are some things that must be defended, and many of them reside in the village inside our heads.
Are there sheep in the village inside your head? There are in mine… along with Labradors and horses. The sheep in the village inside my head need to be protected – that’s one reason (but only one) for the wall, which in my case is made of dry-stacked field stones.
When I hear Jesus teaching, I know that he is talking about the sheep that graze in the pastures around the village inside my head. And when I survey the lovely scene inside my head, I become aware that I am not the rector of the church in that village, nor am I the critic, or the baker, or a singer, I am not even one of the Labradors: I see that I am one of the sheep in the village inside my head, surrounded by the lovely, dry-stacked, fieldstone wall. And I hear Jesus teaching. I hear him promising to keep we sheep safe. I hear him assuring me from the other side of the wall: “Fear not,” he says. “It’s true that there are thieves and bandits, there are strangers who will call your name, but fear not, for I am your shepherd.”
I am munching grass on my side of the wall, and it had not even occurred to me that I needed a shepherd, here inside my village, where everything is constructed just so, just as I want, just as it ought to be to please me. “Don’t worry about me, Jesus,” I bleat out. “I’m just fine here in the village inside my head. My architect has designed this lovely wall, and my craftsmen have built it with skill and artistry. We have no thieves or robbers here, not even any strangers – they cannot get in, for it is a very fine wall, and the grass in here is yummy! Thanks, though!”
“My child,” Jesus calls back over the wall, “that would all be fine and well, but you do not actually live in the perfect village inside your head. You live in the real world. And in the real world there are indeed thieves and robbers and strangers and worse!”
And just like that, a heavy, grey cloud rolls in to darken the once bright sky of the perfect village inside my head, where I begin to quickly walk along the perimeter of the wall, with mounting anxiety.
With the cloud overhead, and me tracing the perimeter inside the wall that surrounds it, the village inside my head begins to feel small and claustrophobic, and I begin to worry if there can possibly be enough grass in here to sustain me and the other sheep. And I keep tracing the inside of the wall, and as I do, the interior of my village feels smaller and smaller, and the cloud still hangs overhead.
And I hear a voice calling me by name, and I know the voice, for some reason I know it is Jesus, and it is the only thing that takes the edge off the mounting anxiety, as the village seems to grow smaller and smaller and the grass supply looks less and less likely to be able to feed me and the other sheep for very long. And I begin to realize that I have been walking along the perimeter of the wall, and that there is one big problem with this wall: the wall has no gate!
I dial up the architect in my head to check with him. “Where’s the gate in the wall?” I ask.
“No gate,” he replies, “we didn’t see the need for it.”
No gate. Didn’t see the need for it.
And I see the vicar standing over by the lovely church in the square in the village, and I trot over to her, panting.
“Vicar,” I say, “are we trapped inside this village? Is this where we are meant to be? Is it safe here inside the wall that I have built without any gate?”
And the vicar strokes my soft, wooly coat, and feels the lanolin on her fingers, and says to me, “Oh, I suppose it’s safe,” she says, “but you do not really live in the village inside your head. I do (which is why my sermons are so good and so short) but you do not. You live in the real world.”
The vicar can see by the look on my face that I am distraught. She knows that I am thinking of all the disaster, plague, poverty, famine, and war that one encounters in the real world. And I look up at her with a face that says, “Why? Why must I live in the real world? Why can’t I live in this lovely, perfect village inside my head, if only that blasted cloud would go away?”
The vicar smiles a kindly smile, knowing what I am thinking, and says to me, “That’s easy, child. You must live in the real world because that’s where Jesus lives, that’s where Jesus is to be found, not here in the perfect constructs of your mind – pleasant though that thought might be.”
As the implications of what the vicar is saying begin to dawn on me, I become anxious again, even hopeless, for around the perfect village inside my head I have built a wall with no gate; didn’t see the reason. And I wonder if I am trapped.
As if she can read my mind, the vicar addresses me: “Child, you thought that you would build an inner wall to protect you from all the evils of the world around you. Doing so, you saw no need to include a gate. But now you cannot tell if the wall you have built has kept your adversaries out, or kept you in. Is it a bulwark or a prison? Hard to say. But since it has no gate, it could easily be either, or. But I hear someone calling you from beyond the wall. If I were you, child, I would listen.”
And because she has always been the perfect vicar, I take her advice. I stand quietly, let my heartbeat slow down, and listen.
And I hear Jesus calling me by name – yes, I know his voice. And I am expecting him to give me a carefully reasoned argument about the existence of God, and explaining the problem of evil, and unraveling the mysteries of the origins of the universe, and providing me with a light-filled vision of heavenly promises that await me in the world to come. But he does none of that.
Instead, he calls my name again and says, “I know you have built a lovely village inside your head. I have been there; I have spent many days with you there, as I think you know.
“There is nothing wrong with the village inside your head, and much that is right with it. The only problem is, it is not the real world in which you and I must live. We cannot escape all that you shut out beyond the wall that you so beautifully designed and had so beautifully built – except without a gate; you saw no need.
“Now you see the need. And I am calling you by name to tell you that I am the gate.
“I am the gate that provides passage between the real world and all the possibilities of your dreams, your hopes, your plans, and more.
“I am the gate between sorrow and joy.
“I am the gate between darkness and light.
“I am the gate between hatred and love.
“I am the gate between sin and forgiveness.
"I am the gate between cruelty and justice.
“I am the gate between famine and plenty.
“I am the gate between foolishness and wisdom.
“I am the gate between death and life.
“You built a wall with no gate. And in time you could no longer tell if it was good for you or bad for you. You do need a gate.
“And I am the gate. You may go in and come out; you will find pasture. And you will be saved, even though you are not even sure why you need to be.
“Remember, you were not sure you needed a gate, either.
“I am the gate. And I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”
And just like that, the cloud lifts, the sun is shining. And a lovely, architecturally perfect gate appears in the wall before me, and the latch is un-done, and the gate swings open.
And it’s noisier, and more complicated and confusing out here than it was in the village inside my head. But I look over my shoulder and see that the gate is not disappearing nor locking behind me: I can go in and come out. I leave nothing behind that I cannot return to.
But a great deal lies before me, I can see. And a voice that I know is calling my name.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
11 May 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia