The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor,/the utterance of a man whose eye is true,/The utterance of one who hears what God says,/and knows what the Most High knows,/Of one who sees what the almighty sees,/ enraptured, and with eyes unveiled. . . .
Numbers 24: 15-16
Today is the feast day of St. John of the Cross, one of the greatest teachers of prayer and spiritual transformation in our tradition. For John, as for his contemporary and friend Teresa of Avila, prayer is not an activity, even a “spiritual” activity among others, it is rather the act of growing in love by being transformed into the one whom God has called us to be. It is embracing the cross and dying to all that is false in us, that we may come to live the life of Christ in us.
In today’s reading from the Book of Numbers, we hear the description of Balaam, a person “whose eye is true,” who “hears what God says and knows what the Most High knows,” and “who sees what the almighty sees, enraptured, and with eyes unveiled.” For the most part such a description leaves us in awe and with the sense that such a person stands far above most of humankind, especially ourselves. Yet, John of the Cross teaches that the fire of “love’s urgent longings” within each of us is also calling us to such a life. The Incarnation reveals to us human destiny. As we pray at each Eucharist, “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
How can and how do we give ourselves to the serious life task of reformation, of allowing God’s transformative work in us? John says we must do so by the way of “dispossession.” As St. Paul says, “I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and gain a place in him.” (Phil. 3: 8) Most of us are very aware that our eye is, at best, partially true, our ear only faintly hears what God says, and what we see is markedly distorted from the reality that God sees. Life is not simple for us, and our motives, known and unknown, are a source of complexity and tension in our lives.
Through the course of our years, life is constantly and continuously attempting to teach us the way of dispossession. Early on we are taught by painful experience that we shall eventually lose every person and thing that is precious to us. We discover how often other people and circumstances fail to meet our expectations and gratify us. We experience that our very bodies are vulnerable and fragile and are made to last a relatively brief time. Yet, in the face of all evidence, we continue to strain ourselves to gain rather than release our possessions. We seek to attain and to hold comfort, wealth, pleasure and the favor of others. To the degree that we do so, we shall never have an “eye that is true.”
We all have rare moments when, as Balaam, we see “what the almighty sees, enraptured, and with eyes unveiled.” At such times we see with the eye with which God sees. This is seeing all with the eyes of love: both what we desire and what we dread; what we experience as pleasurable and what as painful; what brings joy and what brings sadness. When we begin to cease to discriminate based on our own preferences, we begin to see with “an eye that is true.”
One way we are called to learn such dispossession is by taking as a gift and call from God the present moment as it comes to us. We must let go of the stories which we have accumulated through our lives and by which we live and judge the world. Were we able to be, even for a moment, without such judgment, we might glimpse the moment with the eye of God. Although we are a capacity for such an openness, it requires of us very hard and constant work. We are, day after day and moment after moment, to detach ourselves from our cravings and aversions, from the demands we place on life and on others based on the “stories” we have heard from our youth. This is why St. John says we are to prefer the difficult to the easy. We judge what is difficult and easy based on the stories we have heard for generations. There are peoples in the world who perpetuate a hatred for each other which they have learned over the generations and even centuries. Similarly, in our personal lives we have learned and developed preferences for people, situations, and ways of acting that are all filters to seeing “what the almighty sees.”
On this feast day of St. John of the Cross, may we pray for a pure heart and may we, in some small way, accept the small cross of living without the presumption of knowing and the reactions of our unconscious that seek personal gratification. In this way we may discover the true enjoyment of life that is not restricted by our personal preferences.
God is pleased by one work, however small, done secretly, without desire that it be known, than a thousand done with the desire that people know of them. Those who work for God with purest love not only care nothing about whether others see their works, but do not even seek that God himself know of them. Such persons would not cease to render God the same services, with the same joy and purity of love, even if God were never to know of these.
John of the Cross, The Sayings of Light and Love, #20