Jesus said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.” . . . They said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “What is the point of talking to you? I have much to say about you and much to judge; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” They did not understand that he spoke to them of the Father. So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.”
John 8:23, 28-9
In the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, the “Captain” of the chain gang famously says to Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” In today’s reading from John’s gospel, we encounter the great gap in communication between Jesus and those around him, one that we know well in our own journey of faith.
Because the ways of God and our ways are so different, we tend to speak very different languages. The great difficulty and yet the real energy in prayer lies in our struggling, vulnerable and heartfelt attempts to find a shared language with God. As Jesus says in the gospel today, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.”
Throughout most of our days we live the life “of this world.” Our thoughts, our words, and our actions emerge from and are “conformed to the present age,” the life and customs that constitute our consciousness. Yet, at moments we are haunted by the experience, the truth that we are not only “of this world.” In moments of what Jan van Ruusbroec calls “blic,” the carapace of our self-creation is pierced and we realize, for a moment, the reality of the “other world” of Jesus that we somehow share.
We grasp at such moments what Jesus declares in the gospel: that this is the truth. “The one who sent me is true.” Life for us, then, is a life that is torn between two worlds: “this world” in which we experience ourselves in isolation and alienation and the world “from above” in which we know that we are in communion with one “who has not left me alone.” This is why moments of communication with God are, for us, both unbearably joyful and incredibly painful. As St. John of the Cross writes in The Living Flame of Love,
O living flame of love
that tenderly wounds my soul
in its deepest center! Since
now you are not oppressive,
now consummate! if it be your will:
tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!
The joy of being wounded by God’s presence and love is the experience of our truth and our destiny. It is the realization that, as Jesus says, we are never left alone. This realization is also the source of the pain. In much if not most of our life in this world, we feel alone and alienated. Our longings remain unfulfilled, and so we live the pain of a desire for union and communion, for knowing and being known, that is mostly disappointed. It is the pain of this desire and longing that leads us to evade the truth and to lose ourselves in the falseness of “this world.”
Prayer, not only verbal prayer or even quiet prayer but also the prayer of striving to unify our will with God’s, is our attempt to communicate, to commune in the deepest sense, with God who is truly our life. This is why, above all activities, it is imperative that we strive to avoid falseness in prayer. So much of our life is conformity and affectation that it is very easy to bring this same way of being, this same form of self-protection, into our life of prayer. We can speak, act, be as we think we “should” be, rather than in the truth of who we are. We can busy ourselves at prayer in actually building up our own ego rather than opening ourselves in all our vulnerability to God — and, as Jesus did, to the world itself.
When Jesus says that he does “nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the father has taught me” he declares his inability to lie, to be false. He cannot conform his words and deeds to the demands of the outer situation but must only speak and act as his father commands him. Might it be the case that we experience our own alienation from God to the degree that our lives, our actions, our words are not yet “true.” So distant are my thoughts from God’s that I must honestly admit that I don’t know the truth most of the time. I don’t even really know who I am. Thus, the one whom God has created and loves is a mystery to me. I know myself, for the most part, on the world’s terms. I judge myself and the world based on what I have learned as I live in conformity with the world.
Thus, the experience of “blic,” of the in-breaking of God into my life, is at once an experience of intimacy and communion but also a wound of distance and alienation. The alienation is my distance from God, but also from the only place where God can be known to me, “the deepest center” of my soul. Some years ago I visited a very close friend whom I had not seen for some time. Our visit was very cordial, but as I left I felt sad. As I reflected on my experience, the words that came to me were: “There is nothing more painful than being in the presence of someone you love but not really being with each other.” My friend and I spoke about many things during our visit, but we were both unable, after such a time apart, to honestly and vulnerably communicate our true feeling and experiences, our love and care for each other.
Is not our alienation from God, from the world “above” where we live with God, not due, in significant part, to our distance from the truth of ourselves? It is the work of prayer that is our way to that truth. It is not an external truth that others, our families, our societies, our churches can give us. It is rather one that can come only by the purifying of our vision as we seek to know as we are known and to see with the eye with which God sees us.
Henri writes about prayer as an experience of intimacy, where we are deeply vulnerable to and with the other who addresses us in the very heart of ourselves. The ability to be vulnerable implies the risk of getting hurt, that’s the connection between vulnerability and woundedness. If we want to have a truly intimate relationship with someone, we are offering our heart to them and risking its breaking. Being vulnerable is frightening, as Henri well knows:
The tragedy is that we are so possessed by fear that we do not trust our innermost self as an intimate place but anxiously wander around hoping to find it where we are not. We try to find that intimate place in knowledge, competence, notoriety, success, friends, sensations, pleasure dreams, or artificially induced states of consciousness. Thus we become strangers to ourselves, people who have an address but are never home and hence can never be addressed by the true voice of love. (Lifesigns, p. 38)
When we act like people who have an address but are never home, we have created a dwelling where no visitors are welcome, and so no intimate communication can take place.
When we live this way, the call, Henri says, is to be “converted”—we need to convert or change our ways so that we move from the “house of fear” to the “house of love.” “Conversion,” he writes, “means coming home, and prayer is seeking a home where the Lord has built a home—in the intimacy of our own hearts. Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God.” (Lifesigns, p. 39) In prayer, we are coming home to ourselves and finding that God is already there waiting for us.
Lisa M. Cataldo, Praying with Henri Nouwen, in Praying in the Catholic Tradition, ed. Robert J. Wicks, p. 390