Something which has existed since the beginning,
that we have heard,
and we have seen with our own eyes;
that we have watched
and touched with our hands:
the Word, who is life—
this is our subject.
1 John 1: 1
Aside, perhaps, from the prologue to the Gospel of John, there is no more striking articulation of Incarnation than this first verse of the first letter of John. Whoever the author of this letter is, he or she relates the immediate and powerful experience of knowing, by hearing, seeing and touch, “the Word, who is life.” Whether or not this letter is written by John the Apostle, its opening words certainly reflect the experience of “the Beloved Disciple.” In the experience of loving and being loved by Jesus, the author has come to know, as really as we know what we see, and hear, and touch, the reality of God’s Word, the love of God, for us and by us.
It was many years ago, I believe I was in college and scholastic formation at the time, that these words became a touchstone for my life. In my first year of undergraduate study, while reading the French existentialists among others, I experienced an inevitable “crisis of faith.” I remember going to the director of formation and telling him that I thought I’d best leave religious life as I wasn’t sure I believed in God. In his wisdom, he suggested that I take some time and wait awhile and see how my life and my thinking might develop over time. In the most helpful of ways, he both respected and tempered my youthful enthusiasms.
As he suspected, the coming months and years were quite tempestuous ones of personal growth and change. Despite my somewhat delayed development, I slowly began to realize that we come to know life and world not only in our heads, but also through our bodies and our hearts. As Pascal wrote: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows not.” Ever so slowly, I began to come to life at the level of heart and spirit. Others became not primarily objects to appease and manage but offers and possibilities of love and friendship. The physical world became not merely something to make my way through, but a marvel to be received and appreciated. Little by little I began to see in the beauty of the world around me and in the love and delight (and pain) I intuited from others that my life as a gift of participation in the world and in creation came from One whose life radiated within and all about me.
It was at this “moment” in time that I reread this beginning of 1 John in such a way that it was as if reading it for the first time. Whoever the author is, he or she relates not only the experience of the Beloved Disciple, but my experience as well. I could not “know” God in the way I sought certitude of God’s existence, but I could know God with a spiritual sense that is as real as that of sight, hearing, and touch. I did not understand God, but I knew God because I had been touched by God, and so truly “touched” God in return. It was at once an experience that was new but was also one that had existed “since the beginning,” that had always been and will always be.
It is this knowing and touching of the Word that is the very foundation of our whole life and call. “What we have seen and heard/ we are telling you/ so that you too may be in union with us,/ as we are in union with the Father/ and with his son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1: 3) To be touched by and to touch the “Word, who is life,” impels us to tell others of it, not merely by words but by all the acts of our lives. The works are to be the very works of love that we have known in our regard. The touch we are to offer to others is to be God’s touch, that creative and loving touch of God to Adam that Michelangelo represents on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In the Incarnation God comes to us in ways we can see, hear, and touch, and God summons us to offer that by body, mind, and spirit to others.
Recently I heard a podcast of an interview between President Obama and David Axelrod, his former advisor. At one point Axelrod says to Obama that when he first knew him he wondered if Obama “was pathological enough” to run for President. By that he meant that most who attain the highest offices politically speaking are driven by an ambition born of an emptiness in their lives that they need to fill by such recognition. He then said that despite the fact that Obama was raised without the presence of a father and by an often absent mother, he seemed to lack that ambition born of such an emptiness. In response, the President described his experience as a boy as that of knowing, even when his mother was away, that he, as his sister, was always seen by her as special and as the most important person in the world. Thus, when he resoundingly lost his first attempt at political office, the failure, although painful, was not destructive to him. He was able learn from the failure, because it did not diminish his personal worth and significance. He knew, as he said, that he had a wife and friends whose love was not dependent on his success. He does not have to win, because he has already won. He does not need to earn love; he has already freely received it.
We can work in the world, even undertake what we might see to be “mission,” out of a similar ambition born of emptiness and fear of insignificance. We can work, even for others, in order to become somebody who is recognized as worthwhile. But such compulsive action is not vocation. When we know the experience of being touched and of, in return, touching “the Word who is life,” we “must” then offer that touch to others, not for ourselves but for them. It is our touch, to be sure, but not ours alone. The strikingly physical description of love that opens 1 John is a reminder to us that our vocation, whatever form it takes, is ultimately not a matter of reason or willfulness but rather a matter of love. God delights in us and loves us into being through every person, event, and situation of our lives. To realize this is to realize that this is the truth for every person and that we have but one compelling task in life, to announce this truth to others that they “too may be in union with us.”
But no one can think of God oneself. Therefore, it is my wish to leave everything that I can think of and choose for my love the thing that I cannot think. Because God can certainly be loved, but not thought. God can be taken and held by love, but not by thought. Therefore, though it is good at times to think of the kindness and worthiness of God in particular, and though this is a light and a part of contemplation, nevertheless, in this exercise, it must be cast down and covered over with a cloud of forgetting. You are to step above it stalwartly but lovingly, and with a devout, pleasing, impulsive love strive to pierce that darkness above you. You are to smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love. Do not leave that work for anything that may happen.
The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter VI