I am praying for them, I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours; all mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.
John 17: 9-10
A few days ago I was listening to a radio podcast in which a woman related the experience of the pain she suffered as a result of giving up her newly born son for adoption. She spoke of how a nurse who was working at the hospital at the time had said to her, “You have had to experience in one week what most of us have 18 or more years to learn.” Aside from the ethical and psychological issues of giving up one’s child at the time of birth, the lesson offered by the nurse for all of us lies in the truth that everyone, even those we most love, are not ours but rather are God’s. “I am praying for those whom you have given me, for they are yours; all mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.” Jesus’ prayer draws us into the very heart and truth of human and divine relationship.
In Book X of the Confessions, St. Augustine asks himself the question: “What do I love when I love my God?” He discounts the answer that it is the world and all that is in it, or the flesh of others. As he questions the physical world, he hears the response that none of this is what he loves when he loves God, but it is rather the One who made it all. “We are not God, but God made us.” At this point Augustine realizes that his inner self knows the truth that God is the One who made him as well. He then asks why doesn’t every human person see and understand this, and he answers: “. . . it speaks unto all but they only understand it who compare that voice received from without with the truth within.” Love in its deepest sense requires seeing with “the inner eye of love.” One can only know, so only love, in truth when the voice from without resonates with the truth within.
Jesus knows that those whom he loves and for and with whom he has worked have been given him by the Father. He is glorified as he completes the work he has been given to do, the Father’s work in his life and through his life in the life of others. So often when we speak of the members of our family, or those with whom we work, or those over whom we have responsibility we speak of them as “ours.” It is my wife or husband, my children, my students, my faculty, my employees, and so on. Many years ago I was told the story of an encounter between two of our brothers who were school administrators and who had not seen each other for an extended time.. One said to the other: “I just lost two of my brothers.” As the one who received this news began to utter his condolences at this terrible news of the loss of two siblings, the brother went on to explain that two brothers who were members of the school faculty were moving on to other work. It is most human to see those who work for us, are close to us and those whom we “love” as possessions of ours.
Jesus, in today’s gospel, reminds us that love of another is always service to her or his inner truth. It is the love of God active within us that moves toward the love of God within the other. As with Jesus, we are glorified in the other when we, in whatever small way, serve the unfolding of the other’s unique life in God. In the “common” life of God that is our inheritance and destiny all that is God’s is also ours, as Jesus says. We do not possess them, but we are in communion with them. When we are called to care for the life of others who are vulnerable and weak, we are serving, as necessary, the unfolding, or perhaps diminishing, of a life that belongs to God. Even as we tend to God’s lamb or sheep, we stand and serve in reverence for the mystery of a life that is radiant with the life of God. We are glorified to the degree that we serve the unfolding radiance of that life.
For the last twenty years of her life, my mother suffered the diminishment and sometimes agony of losing what appeared to be everything she was to Alzheimer’s Disease. Agonizingly slowly she continually diminished, losing every bit of autonomy until, finally, her body had forgotten how to function. Throughout those years, this very strong and independent person required more and more attention and care. From at first needing help with the management of household and financial affairs, to requiring the structuring her daily life, to alleviating her growing anxiety, and finally to tending to all her physical and bodily needs, she became more and more dependent on the care of others. There is a unique appearance that grows in the long-term sufferer of dementia, a look of distance, anxiety, and muscular tension. It can seem that the actual person whom one has known and loved has somehow disappeared. Yet, at the moment of my mother’s death, the mask of Alzheimer’s suddenly disappeared. As the strain and tension that had taken over her physiognomy disappeared, her beauty and her very personality seemed to return. It was, as if, the disguise, the mask, of recent years, and especially months, had been removed. It was clear that this had been her all along.
Many times, while caring for my mother, my consciousness reduced her to a task and a responsibility. Yet, at the moment of her death, I realized that the experience had been something of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. In the moment of her death, as with the disciples in the breaking of the bread, I had no doubt that it had always been the Lord. It was the Lord in this person who was at once so close to me and yet who, in the deepest sense, remained so mysterious. She was not merely “my mother.” Her life was not limited by its relationship to me, both when she cared for me and when I cared for her. In all the ways my life and hers intersected, she was “given to me.” She was glorified in me, and I in her, to the very degree that we served, in reverence, the gift of God that we each are. The radiance of her face at the moment of her death manifested the glory of the one who made her and who makes us able to serve that glory in the other from our own share in it.
When we experience that God with all his riches wants to be ours and to dwell with us always, then all the powers of our soul open wide—above all, our eager craving. All the streams of God’s grace flow forth. The more we savor this grace, the more do we desire to savor it; the more we desire to savor it, the more deeply do we open ourselves to God’s touch; the more deeply we open ourselves to his touch, the more does the flood of his sweetness flow through and around us; and the more this flood flows through and around us, the more do we feel and know that God’s sweetness is incomprehensible and without ground. It is for this reason that the Prophet says, “Taste and see, for God is sweet” (Ps 34:9). He does not say, “Taste and see how sweet,” for God’s sweetness is beyond measure, so we can neither grasp it nor take it wholly into ourselves. God’s bride in the Song of Songs also bears witness to this when she says, “I have sat in the shadow of him whom I desired, and his fruit is sweet to my taste” (2:3).
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, II,D