The Lord called me from birth, / from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. / He made of me a sharp-edged sword / and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. / He made me a polished arrow, / in his quiver he hid me. / You are my servant, he said to me, / Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Isaiah 49: 1-3
Every so often, after a moment of prayer, or artistic expression or appreciation, or work that is an expression of my own deepest identity and longing, I realize the gift and the purpose of being human. There is deep joy, yet also the pathos of realizing that I only really know this “fullness of life” at such occasional, even rare, moments. And yet, such moments illuminate, albeit at times quite faintly, the whole of life. Today’s liturgy on this Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist is a mediation on the end and purpose of human life. We are called by name, that is uniquely, to become and to be servants of the Lord and light to the nations. We experience being truly alive when we, unselfconsciously, express this call.
We know ourselves as servants when we simply act, when what we do is for no purpose other than itself. Such action is always the result of much diligence and practice. “He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me In the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me.” Living in faith means that we come to see all that is part of life, perhaps especially those things that humble us and frustrate our own willfulness, as sharpening and polishing the instrument of God that we are meant to be. We are born with our call, but that call can only be realized by an entire life of being formed by God into the servant we are meant to be. We spend much of our earlier life developing a counterfeit form, a pride form, so that we might be somebody. But that somebody we come to be is an illusion. The good news is that life teaches us, if we are willing to learn, where we have violated our call and how we can become the servant of God we have been called to be from birth, by becoming nothing in our own eyes. Jan van Ruusbroec refers to this as entering “the valley of humility.”
This same experience of reformation is what allows us also to become “a light” through whom God can show God’s glory. For the light of God to shine through us we must first stop reflecting the artificial light that comes from looking at ourselves in the mirror. Once we forget ourselves, then it becomes God’s light that shines through us rather than our own. John the Baptist is, in our tradition, the exemplar of what the Buddhists refer to as “a finger pointing at the moon.” As John says of himself: “What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet” (Acts 13:25).
The great paradox in the formation of such an unselfconscious way of being is that we first must come to recognize and painfully experience the self-conscious modes of survival we have developed that block the radiance of God’s life and light in us. Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel (Lk 1: 80) tells us that John “was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” To see a great artist perform is to recognize that there is no barrier between the person and the work. When Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello concertos of Bach it is the life of the music, not his personal performance, that is communicated. When a person who truly makes the Word his or her home teaches or preaches, it is the Word, not the style or performance, that comes to life. In each case, there has been the time in the desert, the work and discipline of concerted practice in order to sharpen and polish the instrument of the Work that is truly their life call, their reason for being.
Today, may we receive all those moments in which we are being, in the words of St. John of the Cross, “fashioned and tried” and gratefully and graciously allow them to reform us into the instruments, the servants, the light to the nations we are called to become.
. . . to practice is to manifest eternal time right in the middle of being-time. It means to be master of yourself in whatever situation you may be. When you practice zazen as buddha-nature, this is real zazen: eternal time is connected with all sentient beings, and your practice doesn’t manifest only the small you; it manifests the big you, the self that is the whole universe. You become one with zazen, and simultaneously your zazen influences others. Even when you don’t intend to influence anyone, your activity always influences others because your life is interconnected with the life of all sentient beings. That’s why we cannot just take care of our own lives and ignore others’ lives. To live in peace and harmony, we have to understand the total dynamic working of time and think about what it means to say that our life always influences others’ lives.
Dainin Katagiri, Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time, ch. 16.