When Philip ran up, he heard [the Ethiopian] reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “ How can I,” he replied, “ unless I have someone to guide me?” So he invited Philip to get in and sit by his side.
Acts 8: 30-31
For all of us who have been students and teachers, today’s story from Acts is one of the most touching and beautiful of scriptural passages. Jesus promises his disciples that he will not leave them orphaned (Jn 14:18) and that there is only one teacher, the Christ (Mt. 23: 10). In today’s story from Acts we see how the Spirit of the Risen Christ inspires Philip to be an instrument of Christ, the teacher. Philip is called by the Spirit to be present and available to the student who is ready to be taught.
On the other side of the encounter, the Ethiopian realizes his lack of understanding and his need for a teacher. “How can I [understand] unless I have someone to guide me?” The power of this passage lies in the heartfelt tone of this question. When we truly touch the desire to know God that lies deep within us, a fear arises in us that we shall not be able to bear the loneliness and aloneness of such strong aspirations. We fear, as Jesus understood, that we shall have to live with the burden of being orphaned with such unrealizable desires. We read today, however, that the guide and teacher will always be there if we dare to truly experience our need for him or her. Philip is for the Ethiopian the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that we shall not be left without a teacher. For our part, we must have the courage to enter our hearts deeply enough to dare to experience desires and aspirations that far exceed those of our bodily and functional levels: our aspirations to know as we are known.
Currently, we seem to be living in a cycle of history that is permeated by diversion and distraction. Through constant work, entertainment, and information overload, we are close to experiencing a waking life without a moment of space or silence. The result is that we are not able to experience and recognize those human desires which transcend those of the vital and functional dimensions of our lives. Without knowing our own deepest desires and aspirations, we cannot begin to know who we really are and the possibilities and responsibilities that really define us. It is in moments of silence and solitude that those painfully deeper needs manifest themselves. Perhaps this is why the simple words of the Ethiopian seem so extraordinarily powerful to us. “How can I unless I have someone to guide me?” For all our social communication, we are experiencing a greater and deeper disconnection that increasingly seems unbridgeable. Can we dare to know and express our need for another to accompany us, facing in doing so what seems the likelihood of an unbearable disappointment?
Perhaps this day we can take some time for ourselves to allow our deepest desires to find expression in our minds and on our lips. Jesus has promised us that if we ask and seek from the depth of our hearts, the guide and teacher will be there to accompany us toward the answer.
In yielding is completion.
In bent is straight.
In hollow is full.
In exhaustion is renewal.
In little is contentment.
In much is confusion.
This is how a sage embraces primal unity
as the measure of all beneath heaven.
Give up self-reflection
and you’re soon enlightened.
Give up self-definition
and you’re soon apparent.
Give up self promotion
and you’re soon proverbial.
Give up self-esteem
and you’re soon perennial.
Simply give up contention
and soon nothing in all beneath heaven and earth contends with you.
It was hardly empty talk
when the ancients declared “In yielding is completion”.
Once you perfect completion
you’ve returned home to it all.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, #22, trans. David Hinton