And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.
Matthew 11: 23-4
The words of Jesus in today’s gospel strike us as strong and even harsh. They are, in context, words that spring from the experience of the embattled community of Matthew as it suffers the rejection of the larger unbelieving community that surrounds it. They speak to those who, despite all the signs that ratify the identity of the Risen Jesus as Messiah, refuse to accept and believe and who, beyond that, wish to purge those who recognize Jesus as the Messiah from their midst. But they are also words of judgment for us.
We may be amazed to think that people could have experienced the miracles and signs of Jesus and somehow continued to go along as they always had. How is it possible to have such an experience of God-with-us and yet continue to live, as one had before experiencing this truth? Yet, there is a certain willful naiveté in such a reaction. For, in truth, we too have known the presence and love of God in Jesus and yet manage to compartmentalize that experience in such a way that it has a fairly minimal effect on our overall lives.
Jan van Ruusbroec speaks of moments of insight and brilliant spiritual clarity in life, which he calls “blics.” We all have known such moments, in prayer, in relationship to others, in the midst of offering service to another who became, at that moment, Jesus for us. In our own time these “oceanic” experiences of reality were termed peak experiences by Abraham Maslow. For those with the gift of faith, there is no doubt at such moments of God’s reality, love, and presence. What we call spiritual life and practice is developing the capacity to “remember” or “recollect” these moments and to integrate them into our ordinary daily lives. It is to “remember” effectively, so that we can develop a capacity to live in the “nakedness of faith” of which the mystics speak.
But so often ours is the reality described by T. S. Eliot in The Dry Salvages: “We had the experience but missed the meaning . . .” When the flash of truth occurs, it offers us an invitation. The invitation is to cease the strain of our unique pride project and to receive in humility and gratitude the life God has given us. It is to receive all we have been given, in our strengths and weaknesses, our potential and our limits, and, as St. Ignatius of Loyola, to offer it all back to the One who has given it. Jesus reproaches Capernaum because, having witnessed the Reality of the love of God, its inhabitants preferred their old habits and ways to the invitation that Jesus offered. Daily I too find myself making the choice for my old habits, despite the knowing the possibility of the new life that God offers and has even shown me.
There are so many ways to dull our minds and spirits. Today Jesus invites us, yet again, to wake up and live the life that we know is the truth, to realize in practice the meaning of the experiences we are given of God’s light, love, and truth.
The first thing that the self observes, when it turns back upon itself in that awful moment of lucidity–enters, as St. Catherine says, into “the cell of self-knowledge,”–is the horrible contrast between its clouded contours and the pure sharp radiance of the Real; between its muddled faulty life, its perverse self-centred drifting, and the clear onward sweep of that Becoming in which it is immersed. It is then that the outlook of rapture and awe receives the countersign of repentance. The harbinger of that new self which must be born appears under the aspect of a desire: a passionate longing to escape from the suddenly perceived hatefulness of selfhood, and to conform to Reality, the Perfect which it has seen under its aspect of Goodness, of Beauty, or of Love–to be worthy of it, in fact to be real. “This showing,” says Gerlac Petersen of that experience, “is so vehement and so strong that the whole of the interior person, not only of his heart but of his body, is marvellously moved and shaken, and faints within itself, unable to endure it. And by this means, her interior aspect is made clear without any cloud, and conformable in its own measure to the One whom she seeks.”
Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism