“Yet I consider life of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s grace.”
“Now this is eternal life, that they should know you , the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.”
When I was a young child, I often heard my parents singing the lyrics to a popular song from 1949. The lyrics of the refrain were: “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think. Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink. The years go by as quickly as a wink. Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.” Yet, despite the advice of the song, we cannot will ourselves into enjoyment. It is rather an experience that is given to us under certain conditions and ways of living and doing. In our relatively affluent cultures of the West, we feverishly seek gratification and enjoyment, and yet the actual experience of enjoyment seems to recede from us the more we pursue it.
Although we may find it surprising or even shocking given the religious catechesis and training most of us have received, enjoyment is in reality the ultimate outcome of religious faith and practice. Ruusbroec writes of “the living essential being in which we are one with God above and beyond all exercises of love in a state of eternal enjoyment.” It is fair to say that our most distinctive human capacity is a capacity for enjoyment of our union with God and all that is. This may well be, in fact, what we more familiarly term “the love of God,” that is, the “knowledge” of God’s love for us and in turn our love in awe and appreciative abandonment for God. The “questions” of the purpose and significance of our lives dissolve in the moment of such enjoyment.
Over the years of listening and attending to others, I have come to realize how for so many an experience of enjoyment, of a deep consent to and appreciation of one’s own being, is largely absent from their lives. The source of much of our physical, psychological, and spiritual distress is the lack of knowing the experience of enjoyment, of joy in our very being as one with God. Perhaps we are so busy trying to enjoy ourselves while we’re still in the pink that we are losing our capacity to receive the enjoyment that God would give us.
Today’s readings invite us to ponder the relationship between work and enjoyment. For us who live in an essentially functional culture, this may seem, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. We think of work as the daily task by which we earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brow. If there are to be moments of enjoyment, we see them as times of escape from ordinary life, as a chance to recoup and even to “veg out” after exhausting ourselves in our tasks and in our other daily responsibilities. Yet, this bifurcated view of work and leisure is not the scriptural or spiritual understanding.
Ruusbroec writes: “God’s work is his very self and his nature, and in his works we are empty and transformed, becoming one with him in his love.” As Jesus tells those who are challenging him for healing the man born blind on the Sabbath: “The Father goes on working, and so do I.” (John 5:17) God is act, and we live our true call and destiny when we participate by our work in that act. In today’s reading from Acts, Paul says that his life is of no importance to him as long as he can finish the work he has received from the Lord. As Russbroec says, in doing the work that is ours to do “we are empty and transformed, becoming one with God in God’s love.” In the gospel, Jesus tells us that eternal life is knowing “the only true God and the one whom . . . [God] sent.” This knowing is not primarily a cognitive experience, rather it is knowing God as we act with and in God. It is, in good part, the enjoyment we experience when we are doing the work that God has given us to do.
The great paradox is that enjoyment comes to us not as we fill ourselves but rather as we empty ourselves. We have all had some experience of this in our own unique ways. The artist makes art for no reason other than it is her or his work to do. As difficult as it is and as frustrating as it at times becomes, the artist creates because she or he must carry out the Father’s work in her or him. So too the athlete, the scholar, the teacher, the farmer, the therapist, the minister, the day laborer, the custodian, the factory worker. Because we are who we are, this is not an un-conflicted experience. Often there is a real discipline required if the enjoyment is to be received.
For myself, some of the greatest moments of enjoyment have occurred in engaging in dialogue and study with a class of fellow students. Yet, despite that repeated experience, I continue to dread the hard work of preparation that comes before the teaching. I do all I can to avoid and procrastinate getting to the hard work and discipline that the upcoming class will require of me. It is in those moments of procrastination and avoidance that my own anxious form of life is most acute. It is then that I am most filled with myself. Yet, once the work has been entered into and the actual engagement with the students has begun, I inevitably have moments of “self-forgetfulness,” where I am empty and merely enjoying the work that God is doing through me.
Enjoyment is not passivity. It is, rather, the most profound activity of which we are capable. it is losing ourselves as we give our all to the task at hand and in that emptying realizing who we really are. Were we able to live our oneness with God as Jesus did, we, as he, would never cease working. That work, however, is not the strain and dread of making our own way or creating our own world. It is rather the gift of participation in the ongoing, continual, life-giving action of God. In such work, says Ruusbroec, “we have no demands or desires and we neither give nor take. There there is only a blessed and empty being, the crown and reward of all holiness and all virtue.”
There follows the third point, which concerns the living essential being in which we are one with God above and beyond all exercises of love in a state of eternal enjoyment—that is, above works and virtues in a state of blessed emptiness, and above union with God in unity, where no one can work except God alone. God’s work is his very self and his nature, and in his works we are empty and transformed, becoming one with him in his love. But we do not become one with him in his nature, for then we would come to nought in ourselves and be God, which is impossible. There, however, we are above reason and also without reason in a state of clear knowing, in which we feel no difference between ourselves and God, for we have been breathed forth in his love above and beyond ourselves and all orders of being. There we have no demands or desires and we neither give nor take. There there is only a blessed and empty being, the crown and essential reward of all holiness and all virtue.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, III, D, p. 246