Then the jailer brought out Paul and Silas and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.”
“But because I told you this, grief has filled your hearts. But I tell you the truth it is better for you that I go. If I go, I will send him to you.”
John 16: 6-7
One of the most appealing aspects of the story told today in Acts is the simplicity and naïveté of the jailer. He sees the mysterious action of God and the caring response of Paul and Silas to his fears and then spontaneously asks them what he must do to be saved. The appeal of such a response to us lies in its contrast to our typical everyday complexity. Yet as the dust of our complicated thoughts and feelings begins to settle, we can hear the question of the jailer reverberate deep within us. “What must I do to be saved?” Those of us raised in the Christian tradition have heard the term “to be saved” so often that we can read or utter it almost without question or meaning. The experience it points to, however, is one that each of us knows quite frequently and consistently in our life.
In moments of fear, or grief, or anxiety, or doubt we know how deeply we long to be rescued and saved. In the gospel today, we hear of the grief of the disciples at hearing from Jesus that he will leave them. He tells them, however, that they will not be left on their own and orphaned, but rather that His Spirit will be with and in them. This points us toward that from which we long to be saved. It is from ourselves. It is from being left to our own devices to navigate life, to live meaningfully and well within ourselves and with and for others.
Too often the “salvation” that we perceive as being offered to us by conventional religion is salvation by dissociation. Make believe, it tells us, that life is other than it is. Pretend that you are different than you are. Find deliverance from the pain of life by distancing from the ordinary day to day reality of your life, avoiding the problems that your own deficiencies create. Make believe that certain human institutions are Divine realities. Cover over what you really feel or think with an imposed vision of idealized humanity. In truth, of course, reality always catches up with us. We may be able to put on a happy face for a good while, but, in time, what is truly in us will emerge.
Jesus tells the disciples that they will come to know the Spirit’s presence to them through the grief that they feel at losing him. Without that grief, they would not know the need for the Spirit. They would not have or be an emptiness for the Spirit to fill. We expect of life that it will fill us, that over time the things and the relationships we accumulate, the strengths and qualities we attain will complete and fulfill our lives. Without diminishing the significance of these things, we must come to know and admit that, in truth, life does something of the opposite: it empties us. At some point, everything or everyone in whom we put our trust will leave us and be lost to us. Finally, we shall be left with the feeling that we are thrown back on ourselves.
This is the experience of the disciples as Jesus leaves them. This is finally the great fear of our lives. Whatever we have accumulated as abilities, relationships, possessions, even apparent virtues will not sustain us. If we are, as our ego consciousness tells us, alone and supposedly self-made, life is desperate. We try to do good, but we are stymied by our self-centeredness. We try to be good, but we find ourselves, for all our efforts, also doers of evil. We work at making something of ourselves, yet we discover that much of what we have made is false. It is at the moments of these realizations that we find ourselves calling out from the depth of our being, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul’s answer is to “believe in the Lord Jesus.” Jesus offers the promise that His Spirit is with and in us. When we experience the limits and the illusions in all we have believed in and anxiously struggled for, then it becomes possible for us to believe and to know that we are more than we have taken ourselves to be. The futility of our efforts to create an alternate reality can be our way to know the Reality that we are not or ever have been alone.
It is our nature to want to be other than we are. So, inevitably, much of what we do and think distances ourselves from ourselves. Because we believe that what we can do and who we are is not enough, we strain ourselves to be who we aren’t and to do what we can’t. Richard Byrne claims that contemplative living consists in large part in doing what we can and not what we can’t. It is saying “Yes” to God’s will in us, which means a consistent encounter with our small yet beloved uniqueness. Our ideas about what we should do and who we should be are very often sourced by our “search for glory.” We all, to varying degrees, create legends of ourselves in our own minds.
Life keeps showing us and teaching us what is false in and about us. This is the purgation by which God would form and purify us. As we are taught the distance between who we are as God’s beloved and the one we have strained to be and present to the world, we utter from the depth of our being the question: “What must I do to be saved?” We may well discover that, in part, we are called to try to do what we can and cease working so hard to do what we can’t.
To love God, then, is to allow Christ’s own original tending toward the Father to permeate and transform our own orientation toward the Father. How? By freely consenting to his yes within us. Such free consent is our good will. Our consent tends toward the Good who is the Father himself. It springs from the goodness within us which is the spirit of Christ always crying “Abba, Father. Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.”
Deep within our hearts, therefore, lives the original mystery that both originates and transcends our being. This is the mystery of Christ in us, our hope of glory. It becomes the mystery in us of Christ’s own response to the Father. Authentic love is Christ’s love for the Father and our own good will joined to it; our yes to God from the center of our heart. Such good will is the origin of love that leads to contemplation.
Love for God is not thus mere emotion. It is not feeling anything in particular for or about God. Love for God is not necessarily conscious awareness of his presence. Still less is it intense illumination or sublime religious experience sought in and for itself. Love for God is not successful moral living. It is not appearing holy or different or more radiant or spiritual than others.
. . . love for God is above all a matter of willing. Whenever we quietly say, “Yes, Your will be done” to the Father in union with Christ, we are loving God. We love, even if this free choice of God has no immediate effect on our behavior or conscious interiority; even if we cannot change our deficiencies; even if we have no felt awareness of God or seem completely overwhelmed by our own unredeemed selves or by the forces of evil and confusion around us.
Richard Byrne, OCSO, On Doing What We Can: Good Will As An Origin of Contemplative Living