As he was reclining at table with them, he took bread. He blessed and broke it. He gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him. And he disappeared. They said to each other, “Were our hearts not burning within us as he spoke to us on the road, as he opened the scriptures to us?”
Luke 24: 30-32
In his commentary on this passage, Luke Timothy Johnson points out that Luke uses the same word (dianoigo) for both the opening of the eyes of the disciples as for the opening of the text of the scriptures by Jesus. The narrative makes clear that the disciples eyes can be opened to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread because they had first been opened to hear the scriptures anew through the stranger’s, i.e., Jesus’, reinterpretation of them.
It is clear, however, that this “openness” and recognition do not come easily. As the story begins, the disciples are repeating to each other, and then to “the stranger,” the story of disappointment, despair, and confusion that they have already developed around the events of the past days. “Are you the only person staying in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened in it during these days?” But after they relate their story to Jesus, he says to them: “O you foolish people, so reluctant to believe everything that the prophets said!” A more literal translation of what Jesus says to them would be: “so slow of heart to believe.” The stories we create are our ways of giving form to and interpreting our lives. They are the way that we give life meaning. But, they are also the way in which we reduce life’s meaning and especially its mystery. Once we establish a narrative, we are very “slow of heart” to let it go and to open ourselves to new and greater possibilities.
Despite their slowness of heart, the disciples are ultimately able to have their eyes and hearts opened because of their hospitality and communication. Despite their discouragement and fear, they welcome the stranger into their presence and they open themselves to his words and actions. They even receive his admonishment. There is a powerful drive in us to create and maintain “closed systems.” At the individual and communal levels, we are “slow of heart” to believe in the promise of the resurrection, that is, that God is always creating something new and that what appears to us as death is but a seed of new life. But for the seed to find fertile ground, we must open our closed systems, we must admit the partiality and poverty of what we have created, of the stories we have developed.
One way we can tell that our stories have atrophied is by the experience of “burn out.” When we have contact with our hearts and our deepest hopes and desires, our hearts “burn within us.” As the accretions of our now tired and lifeless stories separate us from those deepest desires and aspirations, however, we come to feel bored and tired. Instead of experiencing the mysterious calls of life with a burning heart, we, as the disciples, struggle with discouragement and cynicism. Our way back to life lies in returning to the fragile but passionate desires of our hearts, to dare to experience the gap between the familiar closed stories we are forever repeating to ourselves and the desires and aspirations of the child of God within. How is Jesus longing to be resurrected in us this Easter? What storylines of ours, need to be transformed?
Consider now a comparison which will show what this exercise is like. When natural fire has, by means of its heat and its power, brought water or some other liquid to a boil, that is its highest activity. The water then reverses direction and falls back down to the bottom, where it is again raised up to the same boiling activity through the power of the fire, in such a way that the fire is constantly exerting its force and in the same way. It drives, urges, and impels the heart and all the powers of the soul up to the boiling point, that is, up to the giving of thanks and praise to God in the same way I have already described. Then a person falls back down to the same ground where the Spirit of God is aflame, so that the fire of love is constantly burning and a person’s heart is constantly thanking and praising in word and deed and yet constantly remaining in humble lowliness, for such a person considers what he should do and would like to do to be something great and what he actually does to be something small.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, II, A