This man came to Jesus by night and said to him,“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him: “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again, from above.”
John 3: 2-4
Nicodemus, as a religious leader and teacher, recognizes through the signs that Jesus works that he must be of God. So he comes to question Jesus and to see for himself who this teacher is. The gospel writer, however, tells us that Nicodemus comes “by night.” Clearly enough, Nicodemus is one who is not hostile to Jesus, but he is not as yet able to “see the kingdom of God.” He comes to Jesus still in the darkness of night. Although his good will has brought Nicodemus to Jesus, Jesus makes clear that the leap to the faith, hope, and love which can “see the kingdom of God” will require a reorientation and rebirth that will have to mean leaving behind the ways of the “night” and being “born again.”
The context for John’s gospel is the struggle between the fledging Johannine community and the larger Jewish community. Yet, the dynamic we see in this dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus is one with which each of us can readily identify. In many ways our life is one that is a tension between night and day, between a life primarily oriented to the ways of the “world” and one in which we have been reborn into the life of the Spirit. This struggle manifests at every level, even, as it did for Nicodemus, at that of religion and religious practice.
St. John of the Cross distinguishes between seeing God in all things and seeing all things in God. The first, as admirable as it is, is our way of attempting to bring God into our own way of being and seeing. The second is to be “born again” into a way of living that sees all in light of the “kingdom of God,” that realizes that the truth of all things lies in their relationship to God.
In practice being born again requires that first we die to whatever in us that is not God-oriented. For Nicodemus this required that he would have to recognize that he was still in the dark, and to empty himself of all the knowledge and wisdom he had acquired that the light of God’s Spirit might create him anew. It would mean his realizing that of his own he could never acquire the capacity to see and to inhabit the “kingdom of God.” He had made himself a teacher and leader, no doubt, through much hard work, but to come out of the dark he would have to realize that he still didn’t really know anything of God and become empty enough to receive the new sight that the Spirit would give him.
So it is with each of us. We, as readily as Nicodemus, can come to believe that we know the truth and have, through our own traditions and practices, a privileged access to God. But, to the degree that we are relying on our own humanly developed truths we remain largely in the dark. Yes, our efforts to see God in all things are important. Our disciplines of prayer, our creedal understandings, and our participation in liturgies are ways of disposing ourselves to the grace and life of the Spirit. They are, however, always merely means of dispossession, of recognizing our own darkness and ignorance, so that we may increasingly become an openness to rebirth and to our spiritual potential to “see the kingdom of God.”
We can practice such dispossession by realizing that every experience and encounter that we have today is suffused with mystery, that every comprehension that we have of the people we meet or the situation at hand is very partial. At each moment we must not only act but also learn. In his column of April 11, David Brooks of the New York Times reminded us: “But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me?” To wait upon the moments of our day as a call to us from God requires that we stand before them in unknowing and openness. Theodore James Ryken often repeated to himself the teaching: “Lord, I cannot understand your ways, but I must adore them.” Seeing all things in God means to trust that if we stand and wait, God’s will and call to us will manifest. But first, we must lay aside our own preconceptions and human sense of wisdom.
The Holy Spirit reveals his grace in a person’s heart. If, then, a person wishes to accept God’s grace, he opens his heart and will to God and receives God’s grace and interior working with a joyful spirit. At once her affection toward God outweighs and overcomes her inordinate affection toward all creatures, though it does not overcome every inordinate inclination or desire of her nature, for a holy ilife is a knightly service in which one must hold fast in the battle. For this reason, if you wish to begin a good life and remain in it forever, you must sincerely intend and love God above all things. This intention will always lead you toward what you love, and in love you will practice, embrace, and possess what you love. You will base your entire life on this and always be occupied with your Beloved with great desire. You will thus savor and experience God’s goodness each time you turn within, and so you will love God purely for God’s eternal glory, so that you might love God for all eternity. This is the root of a holy life and of that genuine love which is imperishable and which you will always practice through forgetting and renouncing yourself. Therefore hold yourself above all things so as not to seek your own advantage in love—seek neither savor nor consolation nor anything else which God can give you for your own comfort in time or in eternity, for that is contrary to charity and is a tendency of our nature which makes genuine love wither away.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, I, A