“Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you claim to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing; it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, “He is our God. But you have not known him; I know him. If I said I do not know him, I should be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word.”
John 8: 53-5
In our day the words of Irenaeus are often quoted: “The glory of God is a living person; and the life of the human person consists in beholding God” (Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7). When Jesus says that he does only what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19), he is revealing a way of living out our life and doing the work God has given us to do that springs from our “beholding” of God. Our destiny as human beings lies in glorifying God, yet, in today’s gospel Jesus says that we do so because God first glorifies us. Our glory lies in our manifestation of God’s glorifying us.
The challenge to Jesus is that he shamelessly compares himself to Abraham and the prophets. This is easy enough for us to understand, because we, for the most part, develop an identity in comparison to others, both contemporaries and those who have preceded us. We learn who we are by imitation. In fact, the etymology of the word “person” seems based on the mask worn in Greek drama. The “person” is the character that one plays on the stage. Our lives, then, can too often be experienced as Macbeth describes them:
Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth V,v,2381-2385)
Jesus responds to those challenging him with a lesson in spiritual anthropology. He points out that his words and his works are not his; they are God’s. As Irenaus teaches, Jesus beholds God and thus becomes an instrument of God’s love and work in the world. His words and actions are but the expressions of his contemplation. The living human person is the glory of God when he or she is doing the work of God. The human condition, however, requires of us that we learn to be a “living person” over the course of a lifetime, that we be formed through “the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life” into the “glory of God.”
We do not spontaneously unfold into the “person” that is the glory of God because we experience a tension between what Adrian van Kaam terms “the Christ form” and “the pride form” in us. Simply put, through our own earliest years of human life and formation we develop an “idea” of who we are that is different from God’s. That prideful idea comes largely from what we see and are taught about who we are supposed to be. It is, as we see in those who argue with Jesus, the developing of a self-identity by comparison. This is the source of competition and envy in us. From this perspective we work in order to build up ourselves. As Jesus explains, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing . . . .” So, we must allow ourselves, in all humility, to be continually formed, reformed, and transformed throughout our lives.
Many years ago at a moment of suffering my own self-alienation and inauthenticity, I spent time with a truly wise counselor. I became amazed at how, in his gentle but firm and challenging presence, I would constantly experience the limitation and the actual delusion of my own interpretations of my life experiences. At such moments of what felt like “breakthrough,” I would begin to “settle into” the satisfaction of this new self-awareness. Yet, inevitably and often almost immediately I would then experience the limit of this new, and what I thought was “right,” interpretation. What I began to learn was that I would never “get right” my understanding of my own life. I would keep experiencing the limits of my self-understanding, but I would never, in this life, know “the total truth” of who I was.
This is the reason why the teachings of the mystics tell us that we are to go by the way of dispossession. It is why Meister Eckhart teaches that detachment is greater than all other virtues because “detachment compels God to love me.” The glory of God shines through our lives when, as Eckhart teaches, we act “without why.” Some cannot understand Jesus because they assume that his motives are those of most of us most of the time, that is, that we act, subtly or grossly, to enhance our own glory. The “liberation and freedom never before imagined” that the Fundamental Principles describe comes to us to the degree that we speak and act “without why,” that is, for no other reason than to say or to do what is to be said or done. At such moments we “disappear” from our own consciousness, and all that is left is the glory of God manifest through the “living person” who is beholding not his or her own self-interest but rather God.
It is our destiny to live for what is more than ourselves. Our very experience is an unparalleled symbol of such aspiration. By being what we are, namely Jews, we mean more to humankind than by any particular service we may render.
I have faith in God and faith in Israel. Though some of its children have gone astray, Israel remains the mate of God. I cannot hate what God loves. Rabbi Aaron the Great use to say, “I wish I could love the greatest saint as the Lord loves the greatest rascal.”
In the face of confusing enigmas we submit our incomprehension to the source of grace and meaning that undeniably fills the world. In communing with stillness we exchange thoughts for light and see the brotherhood of joy and pain, of grief and hope, of mountain and grave.
There is a holy order in the wilderness of history; there is consoling beauty in the fading of cherished hopes. For human hopes are merely the reflected rays of an incandescent promise that never expires. We may falter and fade away, but our sacred tears are like dew that falls on a soil that no treason can desecrate.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, “To Be a Jew: What Is It?”, in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel, p. 8.