“You study the scriptures, believing that in them you have eternal life; now these same scriptures testify to me, and yet you refuse to come to me for life!”
John 5: 39-40
As we enter these days of Lent 2017, Jesus addresses us, as he does those antagonistic religious leaders of his day: “. . . and yet you refuse to come to me for life!” Every few weeks a small group of us meet to discuss a text which we have been reading together. Currently we are reading and discussing Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience. Our reading for our most recent session was from a chapter on five mystical texts on contemplative prayer. Merton comments on a passage from The Cloud of Unknowing as follows:
Though the essence of God cannot be adequately apprehended or easily understood by human intelligence, we can nevertheless attain directly to Him by love, and we do in fact realize obscurely in contemplation that by love we “reach Him and hold Him close.” And when love reaches Him we are satisfied. Knowledge is of no importance. We know God by love. (pp. 83-4)
This reading evoked in me the question: “As I know this to be true, how is it that I live most of my life as if it were not?” In light of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, I might ask myself the question even more starkly: “Why do I refuse so much of the time to come to Jesus for life?”
Yesterday I had a pre-physical exam at my doctor’s office. While she was giving me various tests, the nurse told me about how she and others in her inner city Church gathered with youth from the community every week to share their lives. So many of the young people involved have not been raised in stable and sustaining family environments. So, when the topic of befriending Jesus and Jesus’ being one’s best friend came up, the young people could not understand it. Their notion of friendship is standing up for their “bros”, being willing to do anything to defend their friend, even to harming or killing anyone who would threaten him. This bond for them was stronger than any other, even the bond of a future marriage. They would take the same stance with their friend, even if they had the responsibility for a wife and children, even if this left their family without their presence and support. She asked for prayer for them all, that somehow they could communicate across their great cultural gap and perhaps in time come to some different understanding of love and friendship.
It may well have been this conversation that brought my attention today to the above passage of the gospel. There are those who do not come to Jesus because they do not know him and perhaps have not been formed in their capacity for love and friendship with him. Then there is myself, who has been given all I need to love but who, so often, refuses to come to Jesus for life. Those who refuse to recognize and come to Jesus, says the gospel, are thus unable to recognize that he is God’s very life with them. As Jan van Ruusbroec says, “To comprehend and understand God as he is in himself, above and beyond all likenesses, is to be God with God, without intermediary or any element of otherness which could constitute an obstacle or impediment.” The refusal to come to Jesus is based on the refusal of life itself, which includes our very own life. It is not only the inner city youth who are more ready to fight than to love; it is myself as well.
A good friend responds almost daily to these reflections with what they evoke in her. Last week she replied with a reflection on friendship and on what she was experiencing as she recently reached out to someone in an offer of friendship. She wrote: “But now that I have reached out and begun the search for a new context, there is anxiety. ‘What if I am not enough?’ The competitive gratification of having a friend and being a friend looms larger than I had realized. Friendship requires the willingness to be changed.” We keep Jesus, as we keep others and even ourselves, at a distance because “friendship requires the willingness to be changed.” I refuse to come to Jesus for life because to receive that life means to lose the life I now live. I want to manage any change in my life; I don’t want everything to be changed.
In our funeral liturgy, as well as in Handel’s Messiah, we hear the oft-repeated verse from 1 Corinthians (15:51): “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed . . . .” Our fear of death is our fear of change. This is also the fear we have of coming with our whole lives to Jesus. Every close and intimate relationship contains a significant component of fear. The author of the first letter of John seemed well aware of this fact. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18) In saying that it is “perfect love” that “drives out fear,” the reality of fear in our imperfect loving is affirmed. The fear is that love for us always requires a dying to ourself, as we take ourselves to be.
Ruusbroec says that “Whoever, then, wishes to understand it [that our true life is to be God with God, without intermediary or any element of otherness) must have died to himself and be living in God and must turn his gaze to that eternal light which is shining in the ground of his spirit, where the hidden truth is revealing itself without intermediary.” To come to Jesus, and so to know in him the Father and our life with them, requires the purgation and giving up of “any element of otherness.” To come to Jesus for life means the abandoning of the search for comfort and gratification elsewhere and the direction of our gaze to the ground of our spirit. The love of Jesus may be perfect, as the letter of John says, but it is also demanding and absolute.
When we were children there was always the question at the beginning of Lent: “What are you giving up for Lent?” Often it was candy, or ice cream, or a certain television show, or snacks between meals. Perhaps the teaching here was that at some point the call to discipleship would ask of us that we give up everything to which we hold on. Finally, in death, “we will all be changed.” The eternal life that we have and that we are in Jesus, however, requires of us that willingness to be changed before our physical death. Perhaps the question of our childhood is not really childish after all. It may need, however, a slightly different articulation: not what will I give up, but rather what must I give up to come to Jesus for life.
Few persons can attain this divine contemplation because of their own incapacity and because of the hidden, mysterious nature of the light in which one contemplates. For this reason no one can properly or thoroughly understand its meaning through any learning or subtle reflections of his own, for all words and all that can be learned or understood in a creaturely manner are alien to and far beneath the truth which I mean. However, a person who is united with God and enlightened in this truth can understand the truth through itself. To comprehend and understand God as he is in himself, above and beyond all likenesses, is to be God with God, without intermediary or any element of otherness which could constitute an obstacle or impediment. I therefore beseech everyone who does not understand this or feel it in the blissful unity of his spirit not to take offense at it but simply to let it be as it is. What I want to say is true; Christ, the eternal truth, said it himself at many places in his teaching, if only we are able to manifest and express it well. Whoever, then, wishes to understand it must have died to himself and be living in God and must turn his gaze to that eternal light which is shining in the ground of his spirit, where the hidden truth is revealing itself without intermediary.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, III, intro.