. . . they came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” . . . So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
John 6: 24, 26, 28-9
Today’s gospel invites us to ask ourselves why we are “looking for Jesus.” Jesus reprimands the people because they come seeking him because they “ate the loaves and were filled.” So often in life we seek God because we want to be filled by God on our own terms. Why, for example, is it so important for some believers to exclude others whom they consider sinful or unworthy from their ranks? Perhaps it is in part because their God is merely a ratification of their own righteousness and superiority. Those who seek Jesus in t0day’s excerpt from John’s gospel want to know what they can do “to accomplish the works of God.” Jesus answers that there is nothing they can do to be assured they are doing God’s work, what they must do is believe in him. They ask how they can be justified on their own terms, and Jesus says this is impossible. Instead, he says, they must “believe” in him. The verb believe, in the original, is in the present subjunctive, carrying the meaning of continuing to believe, or living in enduring belief (Francis J. Maloney, SDB, The Gospel of John, p. 211). Belief is not a single act of acceding to a given truth; it is rather an enduring disposition of heart.
The early Johannine community must have wrestled with the question of why it was that their community did not, for the most part, consist of the religious leaders, of the most outstanding members of the synagogue, but rather of those on the margins of the religious community. It was not primarily those who appeared “to accomplish the works of God” consistently who had come to “believe in the one he sent.” Rather, it was those on the fringe and the outcasts, those seen as sinners. To believe in Jesus is not to seek one who will complete for us what we have already attained on our own; it is rather, a willingness to enter those aspects of life that are beyond our control, that are the places of uncertainty, questioning, and even dread.
So, what does such “believing” look like in our daily lives? It is, in part, a willingness to respond and not avoid the tasks before us, including those that seem to us beyond us and threatening. Belief means the deep trust that God never asks of us something that is beyond our capacities. The 17th century Carmelite lay brother, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection recounts how when his tasks in the monastery required that he do things which frightened him and which seemed beyond him, he would speak to God and “remind” God that because the task seemed so far beyond his meager abilities, he would do the little he could but God would have to complete it. Believing in the “one he sent” might well mean that today we will “do what we can” with what lies before us, not being concerned about its outcome but rather trusting that to give the little we have is all that is required.
To recognize that “the work of God” is “to believe in the one he sent” is also to realize that the call to “contemplation” is not an esoteric or elitist one. Contemplation, properly understood, is at the heart of Jesus’ call to all who would “accomplish the works of God.” Contemplation is a willingness to open our hearts and minds to life in all of its dimensions. It is the refusal to escape what is difficult and problematic in life by reducing life to our functional capacities alone. Often we over work and stay constantly busy or become addicted to drugs, work, technology, people, habits, even religious practice in order to avoid aspects of life, ourselves, and our world that seem too frightening to admit and too burdensome to bear. Yet, belief requires of us to receive reality in its fullness, for it is on the very margins, and in the very darkness, ambiguity, and longing that the Mystery resides and beckons. In this sense contemplation is not escape or, self-absorption, rather it is the willingness to wait upon the presence and love of the Mystery in everything that is part of our life and world. It is the refusal to reduce reality to what we can do and manage. It is to “stand ready”, in longing love, for however “the one he sent” will choose to reveal himself to us and to respond to whatever may be asked of us, up until the moment when what is asked of us is to let go of our very selves, of the one we have all along thought ourselves to be.
The search for God unites all persons of good will; even those who profess to be non-believers confess to this deep yearning of their hearts.
Pope Francis, on many different occasions, showed the contemplative dimension of life as a way to enter the mystery. “Contemplation is mind, heart, knees” (Morning Meditation, Tuesday, October 22, 2013). It is the “ability to wonder, the ability to listen to the silence and to hear the tiny whisper amid great silence by which God speaks to us. To enter into the mystery demands that we not be afraid of reality: that we not be locked into ourselves, that we not flee from what we fail to understand, that we not close our eyes to problems or deny them, that we not dismiss our questions [. . .], going beyond our own comfort zone, beyond the laziness and indifference which hold us back, and going out in search of truth, beauty and love. It is seeking a deeper meaning, an answer, and not an easy one, to the questions which challenge our faith, our fidelity and our very existence” (Homily, Easter Vigil, Saturday April 4, 2015).
Joao Braz Card. de Aviz, Contemplate, pp. 42-3