“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”
John 10: 25-8
The news about them reached the ears of the Church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to go to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.
Acts 11: 22-3
Jesus speaks to an entire crowd. Some hear his voice and others do not. How is it that many were present as Jesus spoke, but some heard his voice and others didn’t? Some recognized his voice as the voice of the Father, and others thought nothing of it. Perhaps, by simple coincidence, today’s reading from Acts begins to point toward an answer. That answer lies in the person of Barnabas.
Some believers who were fleeing persecution fled to Antioch and “started preaching to the Greeks.” A sense of faith and spirit of life begins to infuse the community in Antioch, and news of what is happening there reaches Jerusalem. The Church of Jerusalem sends Barnabas to see what is happening, and, who knows, perhaps to evaluate it. One can imagine that the experience of the Spirit in Antioch may even be more alive and expressive than that in Jerusalem. It could be possible that the “visit” of Barnabas could have had about it the tenor of an “inquisition.”
Yet, when Barnabas arrives he sees the grace of God in action, and he rejoices and encourages. He does so, the author of Acts states simply, because “he was a good man.” Barnabas could have come to Antioch with an air of certainty and superiority. He could have come with a critical eye in hopes of diminishing the work of the Spirit in Antioch and asserting the superiority of Jerusalem. Instead, however, because “he was a good man,” he is able to see, to appreciate, to be grateful for the life which the Spirit is giving to the community there. Might it not be that the goodness of Barnabas is reflected in his docility and appreciation. He is able to see and to hear what is before him because he comes without bias, prejudice, or resentment. He recognizes the Spirit’s work because he allows the Spirit to work in himself. He would be one who hears the Father’s voice in Jesus because he hears it within.
What makes us most human is our capacity for awe and wonder. These are the primordial human spiritual dispositions. Our capacity for appreciation is intimately connected with our ability to respond in awe to the world. We live in a highly rational and often cynical time. We peer out at the world, and we measure our experience, in large part, in suspicion and judgment. It is often very difficult for us to receive the mystery of daily life with a sense of awe because we are filtering reality through our need to control and to dominate it. We are searching for verification and ratification of our own limited perspective. Unlike the child who is amazed at everything she or he sees and hears, we are very seldom “surprised by joy” in the course of our day to day lives. Life and world are constantly summoning us to awaken to the depth of life, to the voice of the Lord who is always speaking to us. But we are so busy evaluating and judging, of seeing things only through our own projects and concerns, that we often fail to hear that voice.
How is it that in what we call the developed world with its increasing affluence, at least among a sector of its population, anxiety, depression, and even suicide become more and more epidemic? Perhaps we are losing our ability to receive beauty, grace, the word of love that is given to us at each moment of life, that inheres in the creation about us. Perhaps we are so busy acquiring and producing that we are distancing from our deepest spiritual potencies for reception in awe, wonder, and appreciation. It is our capacity for awe and appreciation that keeps us in right relationship to others and to the world. To know the beauty and wonder of creation makes it impossible for us to act in such ways as to damage it. To recognize and realize the beautiful vulnerability and fragility of the human person would keep us from ever deliberately hurting another.
Pope Francis calls for a revolution of tenderness. Tenderness arises in us when we recognize in the beauty and fragility of life the voice of its source. Violence stems from our failure to truly see and hear. We can imagine an inquisitor going to Antioch and unleashing a violent purge against the “heretics” there. Yet, Barnabas, “a good man,” instead sees, recognizes, and appreciates the grace of God at work there and so encourages it. He is not in competition. He longs for the people of Antioch to respond fully to the grace that is given them because this does not diminish him, as he and they share this grace of the Spirit in common.
So often in life together we waste our spirit and energy putting others in their place, which is really our place for them. This is a refusal to see and to hear them, and so to hear the voice of the Father in them. So often we move about in life and cease seeing, and so receiving, the wonder and beauty of the creation about us. Without truly seeing and hearing, we cannot appreciate life. Barnabas is “a good man” because he has kept alive his capacity for appreciation. He can see and appreciate the good, the grace of God, on its own terms and rejoice in it. We pray to awaken where we are asleep, to detach enough from our own self-preoccupation and projects to see and to hear the life, the beauty, the grace of God that surrounds us and is offered to us at each moment of our lives.
The gods die not. What dies is the belief
of the thankless mortal mob.
The gods are deathless. Silver clouds conceal
them from our vision.
O sacred Thessaly, they love You still,
their souls recall You still.
In the gods, as in us, memories bloom,
their first love’s pulse.
When amorous daybreak kisses Thessaly,
vividness of lives divine
passes through her atmosphere; and an airy shape
sometimes darts across her hills.
C. P. Cavafy, trans. Daniel Mendelsohn