Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.”
John 1: 45
The opening of today’s gospel reading for the Feast of St. Bartholomew begins with a description of the encounter between Philip and Nathanael, whom some take to be the Apostle Bartholomew. It is a familiar dialogue, as in it Nathanael utters the somewhat cynical response: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Today, however, I was more struck by the stance of Philip, who “found Nathaniel and told him . . . .” The story of the meetings of the first disciples with Jesus and with each other involves, in John’s gospel, a certain play on the verb “found.” Who is finding whom? The disciples think they found Jesus, but, in truth, it is Jesus who found them. Yet, they can and do find each other.
In what sense does Philip find Nathanael, and what is it that he finds? Philip is among the first messengers of the Jesus who is the one seeking Nathanael, as he seeks each and every person. Simply put, Jesus is able to find Nathanael through the instrumentality of Philip. Jesus knows Nathanael far beyond the way that Nathanael knows himself. Yet, for Nathanael to come to know Jesus’ call for him, it is necessary first for Philip to find him. In his willingness and availability to Nathanael’s deeper self and call, Philip opens the possibility of Nathanael’s being truly found by Jesus.
We read in the gospel, and in our own daily lives, so many descriptions of what seem to be such common and ordinary experiences that it is easy to fail to recognize the depth of tension and conflict in them. Philip “found Nathanael and told him” about Jesus. Why does he bother? Why not just smile, nod, and wish him a nice day? Or, even more likely, why not just walk by “on the other side”? Is there anything more difficult in our daily lives than really speaking to and communicating with another? How often do we take the time and the effort and overcome the inner anxiety to actually speak to and try to “find” the other?
Much of our daily contemporary lives consist in a frantic effort to dull the pain of the disconnection and distance we feel from each other. Even those we live and work with, with whom we spend most of our days, remain strangers to us, and we to them. We call our life settings “families” and “communities,” and, yet, so much of our deep eros, our life energy which contains Jesus’ desire to find each of us in our true life and call, is spent in avoidance of the pain that conceals what is deepest and most important and necessary within us.
To truly serve Jesus’ desire to find those we love would require of us to begin to listen to and to speak of what it is that is most unspeakable for us. In faith, we believe that we are not alone, that in the love of the Trinitarian God we are one. So, why do we feel so often isolated, misunderstood, and unloved. Might it not be that we are not making the serious effort to overcome our resistance to finding each other, and so ourselves. Do we really care about what the others are going through? Are we willing to sacrifice our autonomy and to change our lives by becoming true friends and fellow disciples with them? Are we willing to overcome the obstacles of fear and resistance and actually initiate an honest and open conversation about what is most important, and therefore usually most unspeakable.
Jesus finds Nathanael because he is first found by Philip. We only truly come to be in relationship. Who we truly are, our true call and task from God, is only known initially through its tentative and fragile expression to another who is willing to receive it. Nathanael at first responds to Philip with the “common sense” of his culture’s prejudices. Yet, Philip, undeterred, invites him to “come and see.” The mystery of true encounter is a profound experience of shared vulnerability in which a space is preserved, through all the tensions and resistances, for the true life and call of a person to become known and expressed.
So, what are we afraid of? Why do we so often avoid true speaking and communication? The reasons, of course are legion. But perhaps a significant one is that we instinctively know that every true encounter will require of us that we change our lives. To truly find another is to have a new companion on the path, on the way. This new presence and one’s life are now inextricably linked. No longer, can I live and act as if my life is merely my own. From now on I must take the other into account.
In our age and in especially in western culture, loneliness and the depression that springs from it is epidemic. What we often fail to recognize, however, is that this loneliness is a choice we make and for which we are responsible. We want autonomy and lack of responsibility for others while, at the same time, not to experience loneliness. We want community without prioritizing the time and effort of presence and dialogue. We want, to invert the teaching of St. Francis, “to be loved rather than to love.”
Today, as everyday, in our families, in our communities, in our workspaces, we shall be provided multiple opportunities to find another, to be with and for each other in all that we are going through. The gospel teaches that this opportunity is not only an encounter between two human persons, it is also the way in which Jesus’ desire to find the other is known and realized. May we more fully attend to those opportunities and to the ways we accept and refuse them.
Perhaps it is too late. Maybe we do not have the inner force to live community. Perhaps we are all too broken, the inner pain is too great. But somewhere, in the heart of humanity today, there is a cry coming from our own loneliness and the injustices and pain of our world: a cry for community, for belonging, for togetherness and for love.
More and more people are becoming conscious that our God is not just a powerful Lord telling us to obey or be punished but our God is family. Our God is three persons in love with each other; our God is communion. And this beautiful and loving God is calling us humans into this life of love. We are not alone; we are called together to drop barriers, to become vulnerable, to become one. The greatest thirst of God is that “they may be one, perfectly one, totally one.” But we have to die to all the powers of egoism in ourselves in order to be reborn for this new and deeper unity where our uniqueness and personal gifts and creativity are not crushed but enlivened and enhanced.
Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community, pp. 34-5