Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children; and that is what we are.
1 John 3:1
I did not know him myself but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”
John the Baptist tells us, in today’s gospel, that although the purpose of his life was to make known the Lamb of God to Israel, he did not know him until he saw the Spirit come down and remain on him. John had begun his “ministry” of baptism, yet, until Jesus came to be baptized and God’s Spirit came down and remained on him, he did not know the true destiny and purpose of his life’s work.
There is something of this experience in the life and the “mission” of all of us. We see, and so we work, seeing “only a reflection as in a mirror” (1 For 13:12). As we read in 1 John 3:2, “We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.” We are led by the Spirit, and we recognize the presence of God in the presence of God’s Spirit. Such recognition, or what we commonly call discernment, requires of us much dedication and effort. The Spirit is always present, but recognizing it does not come “naturally” to us.
Last Friday, I was privileged to participate in day’s retreat for college students. Almost twenty students gathered to reflect on their experience in college and the struggle to remain faithful in their new and very different environment to their own sense of vocation and commitment to discipleship. At the conclusion of the day there was a question and answer period. One of the students asked the brothers who were present to identify the experience of their life and vocation that was most different and surprising from their initial understanding of their vocation. All of us who have traveled a good way along the road of our lives’ journeys realize how many surprises we have encountered along the way. So much of what we initially thought our commitments involved and of the plans and expectations we had of them has turned out differently than we had anticipated.
As I pondered the question I thought about how I had hoped, through my commitment, study, and ministry, to become a new and different person from the one I took myself to be. I desired to develop competence, where I was incompetent, wisdom where I was ignorant, strength where I was weak, and goodness where I was sinful. Becoming different and improved in these ways would be how I could become something of a servant and minister to others. It was by overcoming all I did not and could not accept about who I was that I would fulfill the call of the Fundamental Principles to “minister God’s healing touch of love, through word and deed, to all whom you meet in your journey of life.” Yet, much to my surprise, the course of my life has taught me that the Spirit can only alight on the truth of who we really are. As Jan van Ruusbroec says, God unites himself with one who “turns within himself in the most profound way. . . .” That profound turning within means not escaping and rejecting who we are, but rather gratefully and humbly appropriating it.
The human way is a way of poverty and dispossession. It is in our poverty, recognized and appropriated as our own, that we find in ourselves the room for God and the presence of God’s Spirit. It is in such a ground of humility that we recognize what Ruusbroec calls the “common life.” “This is what is meant by the common life of contemplatives, for at this exalted level a person is capable of knowing all creatures in heaven and on earth, together with the distinctions in their lives and in their rewards,” We cannot know other creatures without truly knowing ourselves. We cannot recognize the “distinctions,” the uniqueness of others, their strengths and their needs, without having come to the level of contemplation that perceives the truth, both within ourselves and so in those around us.
What we call ministry is, above all, a lived, not a merely cognitive, knowledge of “the common life.” This is the life we hold in common with God and with all other creatures. John the Baptist, as Mary, Joseph, and the other models of faith in the gospels, follows his call and commits himself to his life work as he is and in the darkness of unknowing. He begins his work of baptism while waiting for the Spirit, in God’s own time, to come down on the one to whom he points.
In terms of our own designs, we never feel really ready “to put our hands to the plow.” We are called to be with and for others not because we are good enough, or strong enough, or competent enough but because we share a “common life.” Who we truly are are God’s children. To receive our lives in this humble but holy truth, we become able, according to Ruusbroec, to know “all creatures in heaven and on earth.” Mary exults “because God has looked upon his lowly handmaid” (Luke 48). It is in her lowliness that she becomes the bearer of the Word to the world. So too with us. It is our childhood that we share in common. It is from this place that we discover the “enlightened reason and active love” that we are called to bring into the world.
If material things which God created can unite without intermediary, much more can God unite himself with his beloved when he wishes, provided they turn and prepare themselves for this by his grace. For this reason, when an interiorly fervent person whom God has adorned with virtues and has also raised to a contemplative life turns within himself in the most profound way, there is no intermediary between himself ad God except his enlightened reason and his active love. Through these two intermediaries he cleaves to God, and this is what it is to become one with God, as St. Bernard says. But he is also raised above reason and above active love to a state of bare seeing in essential love, apart from works, and then he is one spirit and one love with God, as I said earlier. In this essential love and by means of the unity with God which such a person has in an essential way, he infinitely transcends his understanding. This is what is meant by the common life of contemplatives, for at this exalted level a person is capable of knowing all creatures in heaven and on earth, together with the distinctions in their lives and in their rewards, provided that God wishes to reveal this to him in a single vision. But before God’s infinity a person must give way and must pursue it in an essential and unending way, for no creature can comprehend or attain that, not even the soul of our Lord Jesus Christ, which has received the highest union granted to any creature.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Little Book of Clarification, II,B