And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen; and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe him whom he has sent. You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet, you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
In the fifth chapter of John’s gospel which we have been reading these past days, we are witnesses of a trial, first of Jesus for his breaking of the sabbath but then of his accusers by Jesus himself. As Francis J. Maloney writes in his commentary: “The tables are being turned as the one on trial begins his accusation of the accusers.” (The Gospel of John, p. 188) As we read the words of the scriptures these days of Lent, we are called to allow Jesus to challenge us as he does those who have accused him. God is with and among us. Do we, in the very ways we search for God, refuse to meet God, to come to God as God is coming to us?
How and why would we, even in our search for God, refuse to meet God? Our refusal, as that of the people of Jesus’ time, is often so subtle that we fail to recognize it. It can take the forms of losing ourselves in the pursuit of the idols of our day and also, more subtly, of falling prey in our religious and spiritual lives to the idolatry of our own attempts at self-realization and actualization.
We are no more exempt from the temptation to sin against the first commandment than were the Hebrews in the desert. As we read in today’s passage from Exodus, Moses is sent down from Sinai to the people who have become “depraved” in his absence and lost themselves in the worship of the molten calf of their own making. The truth of the matter is that God’s command that “the Lord alone” is God is a challenge to our human consciousness. We are inherently religious and spiritual, but we not inherently monotheistic. At any given moment we are worshipping multiple gods: wealth, comfort, power, security, as well as our attempts to “seek God’s presence and God’s will.” It is said that human beings are creatures who are able “to put together things that do not belong together.” So, for many centuries, we Christians, whose gospels calls us to poverty, meekness, hospitality and the giving over of our lives for the sake of others have simultaneously worshipped success, power, wealth and self-aggrandizement. In fact, we have developed branches of the faith that see the accumulation of wealth and gaining of status as the very signs of God’s blessing (a gospel of success).
We admire that Pope Francis, upon his election to the Papacy, would pay his own bill and refuse to live in the Papal apartments and instead live in common at the Domus Sanctae Martae. Our immediate interpretation of this is that he is “giving witness” to poverty and humility. Yet, it may also be the case that he is doing so because he realizes how difficult it is that the Lord alone remain his God and his only love and goal. It is difficult for all of us, if we become “important” in the eyes of others, not to lose ourselves in that identity. As Jesus says in today’s gospel, “How can you believe who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?” (John 5:44) How does one who is to all “the Holy Father” not begin to lose contact with one’s true place in the world? Privilege, power, recognition, wealth all very quickly become gods to us. Most of us, even as Christian or Jewish or Muslim believers, are polytheists. Those whom Jesus addresses in the gospel worship the Lord, but also their traditions and rituals, their place in the hierarchical structure in the same way as many church leaders do today. Yet none of us can judge them from a position of moral superiority, for every day we, unlike Pope Francis, lose ourselves, at least temporarily, in our comforts, our reputations, our sense of personal significance and power over others, and the arrogance of our own opinions and perspectives.
The core of all idolatry, however, the way in which we most subtly refuse to come with our whole heart and soul and strength to God, is our self-obsession. With some self-awareness and reflection we can begin to identify the outer temptations to idolatry. We can, perhaps as does Pope Francis, begin to understand that if we take on the trappings of wealth, power, importance in the eyes of others that we are liable to fall into worship of them. Yet, even as we turn to God in prayer, we discover how difficult it is to abandon ourselves as god. Often in our thoughts, prayers, worship we remain at the center of our concern and ask of God to take the place in our lives which we offer God.
At the age of 19, Theodore James Ryken, had an experience which put him “in his place.” We have no idea of what that was, but we do know that this was the moment of conversion for him. For most of us, we experience continually throughout our lives the call to recognize our place in the world. My mother would at times remind me, when as an adolescent and only child, I would be acting out my illusion of being the center of the universe, that I was but a speck of sand on the beach, that although I was not insignificant, certainly not to her, I was but one little person on a very big planet. The tendency to experience ourselves as the center of the universe, however, is not confined to infancy, childhood, and adolescence. We can only experience the world out of our own consciousness, so it is not surprising that we tend to think that our way is the way. So, we can readily try to come to God in such a way that we ask God to take the place in our lives and world that we give God. Those who fail to recognize who Jesus is and from whom he comes do so because they already know who God is. They cannot receive what is before them for all that it is because, from their self-centeredness, they determine the place which they give to each moment, person, and experience.
We are no different. The words of Jesus in today’s gospel are a somewhat “awe-full” challenge to us: “. . . you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” Might it well be that even as we “think” we are coming to God that we are refusing the God who is coming to us? We are looking for one to take the place we would give in our life as we have constituted it. Yet, the stance of true prayer is a humble willingness, in the words of the poet Jessica Powers, to “feed, in weathers sweet or grim, on any word that speaks of Him” (emphasis added). As those who refuse to accept Jesus, we also have our own ideas of what words speak of God. Yet, it is very likely that it will be those words that we would last want to hear that are truly God’s words for us. As Thomas Merton pointed out, in order to become the one God would have us be, we well must first give up what we thought we always wanted to be. That which may look to us to be least “God-like” might, in fact, be more of God’s word to and in us than that of which we are most proud. As Jesus, the Word of God, was called a demon, so too, after all our own efforts to become someone of significance, we may have to learn that we have ourselves exactly backwards. We may have often refused to come to the God who meets us in what is “helpless, and miserable, and dumb” in us, while creating in our own power, strength and reputation the idol that refuses to come to the One Lord.
Prayer is a trap-door out of sin.
Prayer is a mystic entering in
to secret places full of light.
It is a passage through the night.
Heaven is reached, the blessed say,
by prayer and by no other way.
One may kneel down and make his plea
with words from book or breviary,
or he may enter in and find
a home-made message in his mind.
But true prayer travels further still,
to seek God’s presence and God’s will.
To pray can be to push a door
and snatch some crumbs of evermore,
or (likelier by far) to wait,
head bowed, before a fastened gate,
helpless and miserable and dumb,
yet hopeful that the Lord will come.
Here is the prayer of grace and good
most proper to our creaturehood.
God’s window shows this humble one
more to the likeness of His Son.
He sees, though thought and senses stray,
the will is resolute to stay
and feed, in weathers sweet or grim,
on any word that speaks of Him.