They did not understand that he spoke to them of the Father. So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone for I always do what is pleasing to him.”
John 8: 28-9
The Jesus of John’s gospel can be difficult for us, as for those to whom he was speaking, to understand because we are “from below” while he is “from above.” Every word and action of Jesus comes not from his “own authority,” but rather from what “the Father taught me.” Jesus’ words and actions are, at each and every turn, manifestations of the Father’s will. When he is lifted up on the cross, we see, most incredibly, what God’s love looks like when it breaks through into our world.
We live a split existence between what is below and what is above in us, what Thomas Merton calls the “exterior I” and the “interior I.” To enter through the gospel into the intensifying conflict between Jesus and his enemies in these closing days of Lent is to witness objectively the subjective tension in which each of us lives. Our “interior I” lives, as Jesus does, always with and in the “One” who sends us. What we call mission is our doing “what is pleasing to him.” This is to be and to act as an instrument of the One who sends us, not as the object of our own emotional needs and social ambitions as cut off from their spiritual inspirations.
A core disposition of spiritual ascesis is recollection. It is our ongoing effort to “gather what has been scattered” in our daily tasks and efforts. It is our attempt to keep bringing our “exterior I” back into a relationship of discipleship to our “interior I.” We have all experienced moments when our actions or words seem to be given to us. We may struggle with what to say or how to solve a problem at hand, when, at a point, the right words or the right action just seem to arise in us and express themselves through us. Most often, however, this only happens after we have strained and toiled in the “sweat of our brow” and perhaps, in a sense of futility from the struggle, have paused and stilled our tense and willful efforts.
The life that is “common to all” is the life of our “interior I.” The great paradox is that what is most interior to us is what is most common and thus most ordinary. It is the exertion strivings of the “exterior I” that distance and alienate us from each other and the world. The more we strive to “make something of ourselves,” the more we cease to share the life that is “from above” and given to all. There is something in the nature and speed of everyday life that creates a centrifugal movement, a flight from the center and from each other. We need to practice a continuing mode of recollection that reins in the passion and urgency of our anxiety, ambition, and willfulness and creates moments of the kind of silence and self-presence that allow the often suppressed “interior I” to find its life and its voice.
But the exterior “I,” the “I” of projects, of temporal finalities, the “I” that manipulates objects in order to take possession of them, is alien from the hidden, interior “I” who has no projects and seeks to accomplish nothing, even contemplation. He seeks only to be, and to move (for he is dynamic) according to the secret laws of being itself and according to the promptings of a Superior Freedom (that is, of God), rather than to plan and to achieve according to his own desires.
It will be ironical, indeed, if the exterior self seizes upon something within herself and slyly manipulates it as if to take possession of some inner contemplative secret, imagining that this manipulation can somehow lead to the emergence of an inner life. The inner self is precisely that self which cannot be tricked or manipulated by anyone, even by the devil. She is like a very shy wild animal that never appears at all whenever an alien presence is at hand, and comes out only when all is perfectly peaceful, in silence, when she is untroubled and alone. She cannot be lured by anyone or anything, because she responds to no lure except that of the divine freedom.
Sad is the case of that exterior self that imagines himself contemplative, and seeks to achieve contemplation as the fruit of planned effort and of spiritual ambition. He will assume varied attitudes, meditate on the inner significance of his own postures, and try to fabricate for himself a contemplative identity: and all the while there is nobody there. There is only an illusory, fictional “I” which seeks itself, struggles to create itself out of nothing, maintained in being by its own compulsion and the prisoner of his private illusion.
The call to contemplation is not, and cannot, be addressed to such an “I.”
Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p.5