“Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”
In the interchange in today’s gospel between Jesus and Thomas, it is possible to read a degree of anxiety. In the preceding verses of the chapter, Jesus Is attempting to reassure the disciples that their hearts should not be troubled because where he is going he will prepare a place for them. He then tells them that they already know the way to where he is going. An anxious Thomas then points out that the disciples don’t even know where Jesus is going, so how can they possibly know the way.
Any truly reflective person knows first-hand the experience of Thomas. We are living our life and we have no idea where it is going. We are responsible for that life, and when we are awake to the dimensions of that responsibility, we feel anxiety. In our everyday experience, we know that we can accept responsibility to get someplace when we know the destination. Yet, in life we must accept and live out our responsibility for our own life without knowing the destination. As Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “This angst is the dizziness of freedom which occurs when the spirit would posit the synthesis and freedom gazes down into its own possibility, grasping at finiteness to sustain itself. In this dizziness freedom succumbs.”
One result of this basic and existential anxiety is the ever present desire and temptation to cede responsibility for our lives to another. From our parents, to our governmental leaders, to our communities and churches, to our teachers, to our friends, to our therapist, to any guru or Buddha that we happen to meet on the road, we look to be shown the way and to be told how to get there. It is in the face of this basic human reality that Jesus tells Thomas and us that we know the way.
Many years ago, a teacher told us that “If you have a question, you already have the answer.” In counseling and in direction, as in day to day encounters with our friends and others, the person we encounter often asks us a question about his or her life. And often, at such a moment, we dig into our own experience and offer them an answer from our own lives. This is precisely what Jesus does not do. He calls on his disciples to dare, to have the courage to be responsible for their own lives and to dig deep and discover the way that they already know.
This may all sound somewhat mysterious and perhaps even somewhat gnostic to us, yet our everyday experience bears it out. We all have experienced the uselessness of giving someone a share of our “wisdom” for which he or she is not prepared, the truth or significance of which he or she has not yet experienced for her or himself. Over and over again in life, we try to follow a way that we admire in another and discover our inability fully to appropriate and sustain it. Of course, there are times when what we have heard or learned becomes our own because it has spoken in a significant way to who we are and to what our experience bears out. Sometimes, in fact, we discover the truth for ourselves of something that was said or taught to us years and decades before. Yet, it is at that moment that it becomes our own way, not a way that we have assumed from outside.
The anxiety of responsibility for our own life lies in our, actually quite accurate, estimation that we alone are not up to it. We might learn to do many things and come to be seen in our societies as quite powerful and potent, and yet never have been able to accept the responsibility for our life and its “way.” it is at this point that the further revelation of Jesus in today’s gospel becomes essential. He says not only that we know the way where he is going, but also that he is the way. We are able to be responsible for our own life because we are more than we recognize ourselves to be. Beyond and beneath the one who is so anxious and fearful lies our true and deeper life that lives in, as Jan van Ruusbroec says, “superessential beatitude.” We know the way, but most of the time we don’t know that we know it.
Jesus is the way for us because in its depth and unique truth our life is his life. The Lord is not a merely historical figure who is the ethics teacher par excellence. Rather, the Lord is our way, our truth, and our life. When what is false and prideful in us is emptied, we then know the truth of a life that is ours whose way is but to live it out eternally. Ruusbroec describes this “common life” of ours in God in this way: “This takes place in the fathomless abyss of his love, where we find full satisfaction, for we have God within us and are blessed in our very being through the interior working of God.”
In ordinary experience, our life is a tension between fear and anxiety on the one hand and love and faith on the other. To accept responsibility for our own life is to commit, moment by moment, to love and faith over fear and anxiety. Fear tends to paralyze us and leave us in a state where we want to be rescued, where we want the false security of being reassured by another or a structure outside of ourselves. Yet, it is possible, in the moment of fear and anxiety to do our best to love. We can move toward in love what we are shrinking from in fear. This is the teaching of the Prayer of St. Francis: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury pardon . . . .”
We encounter many “forced smiles” in our lives. All around us people who are lost and frightened attempt to present themselves as fulfilled and happy. In our consumer society, all kinds of people feign affection for us in order to seduce and manipulate us. On the other hand, there arise in life those whose smile is authentic, whose love and enjoyment of life, their own and all others, is infectious. There is the smile of the Dalai Lama, the beauty of the worn face of Mother Teresa, the infectious joy and affection of Pope Francis, the wisdom and kindness of Huston Smith. And such persons are present even closer to home. The steadfast presence and love of grandparents, the fidelity in the midst of our most terrible moments of our spouse or good friends are all expressions of the “fathomless abyss” of the love in which we truly live. This same life is in us and is our life. It is our way, a way we know even though through most of life we follow it in the darkness of faith.
To refuse responsibility for our own lives is bad faith. Finally, we must follow the way that is ours, the way that is the life of Jesus, of God in us. As we, in the words of John S. Dunne, take one step after another out of the heart, we experience a movement from anxiety to enjoyment. Yesterday a friend and I were speaking of experiences of work that were joyful and enlivening for us. They were moments when we forgot ourselves, and we were simply doing, with enthusiasm and joy, what was to be done. The tasks themselves could be quite mundane, but when the fears and doubts that so often preoccupy us disappeared from before us, we experienced our “selves” as truly existing in and contributing to the world. Such are moments where we realize, not merely in thought but in act, that we do know the way.
Thomas’ experience is one that we readily recognize. In truth, it can seem enormously anxiety provoking to face our own lives and to be responsible for living them fully and well. Jesus is always reminding us, however, as he reminded Thomas, that we are not orphaned in the world. Our life is a common life in God’s love. The love and life of Jesus is longing to be expressed in our life. Our task is to refuse and reject the allures of our false form. It is to empty ourselves of our need for false recognition and of our demand that others take care of us and be responsible for our lives. it is to empty ourselves of whatever is not God’s life and work in us, so that we may live in the enjoyment of our ordinary and common life: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”
Furthermore, in our state of emptiness, in which we are one with God in his love, there begins a superessential contemplative experience which is the highest which anyone could express in words. This is a dying life and a living death, in which we go out of our own being into our superessential beatitude. It occurs when, through grace and God’s help, we have so mastered ourselves that we can become free of images every time we wish, right up to that empty state of being where we are one with God. This takes place in the fathomless abyss of his love, where we find full satisfaction, for we have God within us and are blessed in our very being through the interior working of God. There we are one with him in love, though not in being or nature. Rather, we are blessed—and blessedness itself—in God’s essential being, where he enjoys both himself and all of us in his sublime nature. This is the core of love, which is hidden from us in darkness and in a state of unknowing which has no ground.
This unknowing is an inaccessible light which is God’s essential being; it is superessential to us, being essential to him alone, for he is his own blessedness and enjoys himself in his own nature. In his blissful enjoyment we die, for by being immersed in him we become lost as regards our enjoyment, though not as regards our being. Our love and his love are always alike and one in this state of enjoyment, in which his Spirit absorbs our love, swallowing it up into himself in a single state of blessedness and enjoyment with himself.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, III,D