Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
John 1: 47-49
“Nathanael said to Jesus, ‘How do you know me?’” In a very brief gospel story, we are given ample illustration of precisely how guileless Nathanael is. As “a true child of Israel,” Nathanael knows well the words of Psalm 139: “You discern my going out and my lying down;/you are familiar with all my ways.” He stands before the one he will declare to be “the Son of God,” and he has the courage to ask the one who knows him through and through how he knows him.
Many of us are familiar with a construct of self-understanding known as the Johari window. It is made up of four segments. They are: the arena, that which is known both to ourselves and the others; the facade, that which is known to ourselves and not to others; the blind spot, that which is known to others but not to ourselves; and the unknown, that known neither to ourselves or others. Many years ago one of the candidates for the community would express how frightening he found the blind spot, that is that others knew things about him that he did not know about himself. To some degree or other, we can all identify with this fear. Yet, even more fearful is the unknown, that there are dimensions of ourselves that neither we nor others know. Psalm 139 declares that here we are known to God alone. Every one of us at times prefers darkness, that is, that we not be known, to light. “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me/and the light become night around me,’/even the darkness will not be dark to you;/the night will shine like the day,/for darkness is as light to you.” Even where we are unknown to others and to ourselves, we are known to God.
The only reason we care bear the truth of being known, even as unknown to ourselves and others, is that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” This is an act of faith. Even as we attempt in shame and humiliation to hide ourselves from others, we are known to God as a wonderful work. The great sacred texts are for us reminders of a truth that in our ordinary modes of consciousness we tend to forget. Our former candidate lived in fear of what others saw in him that he did not know, which is to varying degrees true of all of us.
So, the call of Nathanael includes the striking display of guilelessness in his opening himself to Jesus out of that place where he does not know himself. To speak about this in contemporary terms we might say that Nathanael shows a pronounced capacity for intimacy. From the very beginning he relates to Jesus, he begins his following of Jesus without conditions. He offers his life in all respects, in what he is aware of and unaware of, in what he knows of himself and in all that he does not know.
The ordinary way for human beings to grow in trust and intimacy is slowly and step by step. Our relationships develop gradually and tentatively. Trust is extremely difficult for most of us, so we are continually testing the other. We consistently both reveal and conceal ourselves. We only slowly open ourselves to the other’s experience and knowledge of us. For the most part we open ourselves to the other only to a certain degree, prepared to withdraw and conceal ourselves again at the first sign of violation or pain. Thus, with even the person or persons closest to us, we are always a capacity for yet greater intimacy. This way of proceeding with our human relationships is the same way we relate to God.
Today’s gospel, however, compresses that long process into a single moment. For most of us it takes a lifetime, and even perhaps not until the moment of death, to say with complete trust and transparency of God: “How do you know me?” The faith of Psalm 139 is one into which we must slowly grow throughout our lives. “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;/your works are wonderful,/I know that full well.”
What makes faith in the promise of Psalm 139 so difficult for us? It is that we live in confusion about who we really are. Most of us, unlike Nathanael, are not guileless. As an inheritance from our first parents, we are always feeling the need to hide aspects of ourselves, and, strangely enough, we are fearful of what we do not yet know about ourselves. Recently someone was relating to me an experience of being back home with her family. She lives at a great distance from them, and so sees them only rarely. On this trip she, a very mature and well developed person, became somewhat horrified to experience herself as reacting to them with the same feelings she had as a young child. When she felt a lack of attention or care directed to her, she felt rage and resentment. We can all understand this, both the reality of our own “irreducible infantile residue” and our experience of fear and shame when it arises in us. Who is this person, having worked so long to develop dispositions of self-reliance, gentleness and compassion, who now feels such hate and rage?
We want to be who our culture and our religious teachings summon us to be. We want to be competent and effective; we want to be kind and gentle; we want to be hospitable and generous. So, we tend to hide from others and ourselves, except for those intense moments where we “explode” in one way or another, all the ways we have not been and are not those cultural and religious values. In this way, we all have something to hide. Today’s gospel, however, focuses the radical nature of the call to discipleship. We cannot bring only what we show and only what we like to our following of Jesus. To do so means not to follow the Lord in reality at all, because God knows “us through and through.” Until we can stand before the Lord and guilelessly ask the question “How do you know me?”, we are not relating in truth. Far too often we are spending our life fruitlessly trying to become someone who we think God wants us to be. We just cannot believe that, as we really are, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Some persons gather in structured religious community out of the aspiration of together following Jesus and growing to live together in faith, hope, and love. And yet, so many religious communities consist of persons who devote much energy to distancing and hiding from each other. How is it possible to live a life of defensiveness and self-protection with those we are with everyday and develop trust and openness with God? How can we grow in love spiritually when we live in fear relationally?
For pretty much all of us, what is presented in the gospel as the initial meeting of Jesus and Nathanael is the work of a lifetime. Faith may, in some theological sense, be a gift, but it is only made real and formative in our everyday lives by consistently learning day by day how to trust and how to love and be loved. it will always be a bit frightening to show ourselves to others and to allow others to show us to ourselves. Yet, for us there is no other way to prepare ourselves for the meeting that will come “in death,” with the one who knows us through and through.
Let my song be simple as the waking in the morning, as the dripping of dew from the leaves.
Simple as the colors in clouds and showers of rain in the midnight.
But my lute strings are newly strung, and they darken their notes like spears sharp in their newness.
Thus they miss the spirit of the wind and hurt the light of the sky, and these strains of my songs fight hard to push back Your own music.