All the people and the tax agents had heard and justified God by being baptized with John’s baptism. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s plan for them by not being baptized by him. “To whom shall I compare the people of this age? Who are they like? They are like children in the marketplace. They sit and yell at each other. They say, ‘We piped for you and you didn’t dance! We wailed in lament, and you didn’t weep!’. . . But wisdom is justified by all her children.”
Luke 7: 29-32, 35
In the authorial comment included above that precedes today’s gospel reading, Luke points out how the common people and the tax agents heard and justified God by responding to the teaching and baptism of John the Baptist, but that the Pharisees and lawyers rejected God’s plan for them by not heeding and responding to John. Luke then quotes Jesus to describe how such a difference is possible. Most often, he says, we do not see or hear the other; rather, we place our view and demands upon them and that is what we see. Wisdom is the ability to see what is and not merely a projection of ourselves. As the poet Marie Howe writes: “So when I looked at you, I didn’t see you/I saw the me I thought you saw, as if I were someone else.”
In the conclusion to the Working Papers from the Xaverian Charism Project, Brother Reginald Cruz writes that the vision of Brother Ryken was that the members of his brotherhood would live “an ‘ordinary’ graced humanity in two ways: (1) self-determined to be without privilege and entitlement, and (2) open to the constant yet quiet irruptions of God in the unspectacular flow of daily life.” Luke says that “the people and the tax agents” were open to the irruption of God in the person and teaching of John the Baptist but that the Pharisees and lawyers were not. Those who truly heard and responded to John’s teaching experienced the irruption of God in the “common, ordinary, unspectacular flow” of their lives.
To live in the world and to respond to it in a “non-dichotomized way,” that is to be and act contemplatively, is quite simply to be in, to be capable of perceiving, and so to be able to respond appropriately to the reality of the situation. It is to do what the moment calls for, to do what there is to be done. To live in the ordinary and the common is to live simply. It is to be simply and directly present to what is outside of us from within ourselves, not from a place outside of ourselves whereby we only see the other as a reflection of our own unconscious needs and drives.
The reason that the Pharisees and the lawyers reject God’s plan as it irrupts in the life, words, and baptism of John is that they never really hear him. They don’t see him and, for the most part, they don’t see the world except as a projection or manifestation of their own views, opinions, and beliefs. This is why the priest and the Levite cannot recognize and so respond to the need of the traveler who is robbed, beaten, and left on the road. What is other is not to be encountered or experienced as it is; it is rather to be judged based on their own view of things. The “world” mistakes the arrogant inflicting of one’s own views, prejudices, and biases on reality as strength. However, be it in personal life, in society, or globally such arrogance creates nothing but conflict and violence. In truth, this typical stance of ours, a stance born of the pulsations of our culture, the impulses of our bodily drives, and the ambitions of our functional capacities, is not a manifestation of strength but rather of fear. It is living from an illusory sense of our pre-transcendent potencies because we are refusing the deepest of our human potencies, those of the spirit.
Each of us is a capacity, as William Blake puts it, “to bear the beams of love.” In practice, this means that we are, and this is an act of faith, able to respond to what the other is asking of us in every situation of the “common, ordinary, unspectacular flow” of our lives. All of us, however, either in awareness or unawareness, carry within us the fear that this is not true. In our shame, we feel that we are not up to the task of life as it really is, so we set about creating a life that we can manage. This is why what we call the “spiritual life,” which is really our distinctively human life, is always first a matter of detachment over acquisition. We live at a distance from God, others, and all of reality not because we are deficient but because we have placed our own illusions between ourselves and the world. Luke tells us over and over, including in the first verses quoted today, that it is the ordinary people and the tax collectors who are open to and receive the “quiet irruptions of God” in John the Baptist and then in Jesus. It is the sophistication and the pride of the Pharisees and lawyers that make it impossible for God to break through to them.
Much of life for us is a performance. Much of the time we are the “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.” All of life is a learning how to cease performing and to come back to, to enter within, ourselves, and to be ourselves in the world so that we may offer to it what we have to give. I never cease to be amazed, even as I seem at times to be growing, at how much my identity and my presence is determined by the person I am with and the situation in which I find myself. The very fact that the other so influences the mode of my presence reminds me of how manipulative I continue to be. I am “reading” the other for how to appeal to them, how to be acceptable or superior to them, how to be seen as worthwhile by them, or else, how to bring them down and reduce them to my size. In all of these modes, I am not present to them, both as I am and as they are. Whatever the summons or call of God in them would be to me, I am unavailable to it. I am seeing only what I need to see to serve my project, to prove myself capable and right and too often to prove the other inferior and wrong.
As Charles Taylor points out, once the world was an enchanted place for human beings. The presence of the gods, or God was ubiquitous. Beneath the surface of what was visible, lay the invisible, the Mystery in countless manifestations. One of the impoverishing outcomes of secularism is that we tend to lose awareness of our spiritual potency. We fail to remember that we are not only capable of functioning and dominating the world, we are also a capacity to recognize and respond to its mystery. Some years ago, a book by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly entitled All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics To Find Meaning In A Secular Age argued that we needed to reappropriate some of the sense of our pagan forebears in regard to their sense of enchantment, their awareness of mystery in the world. In all of our functional and technological advances we have, in all likelihood, reduced our sense of the world too much. For example, we are only able to speak of “totally destroying” another people, as if it were truly a possible course of action, because we have ceased to live in awareness and so reverence and awe of the Mystery of life itself. We can only pridefully assert our need for security and dominance over others because we have ceased to see them and the “quiet irruptions of God” that their presence radiates.
The great spiritual and wisdom traditions tell us that it is, indeed, human nature to reduce the world to the size of our own wounded egos. In fact, we shall, perhaps with very rare exceptions, never totally cease doing so. So, good will for us will always mean the openness to “being put in our place.” It will require of us consistent effort to realize the degree to which we are blind, and, as the blind man in John’s gospel, to pray “Lord, I want to see.” The good news is that God is always coming to us. The quiet irruptions are indeed constant. We relish those moments when we realize, usually in retrospect, that we are or have been ourselves, that we have been inside rather than outside of ourselves and so have seen the other as herself or himself. This is what, in the spiritual sense, we call love. If we could see the world as it is, we would love the world and not fear it. We would not need to perform or to manage things because we would be aware of the constant and quiet irruptions of God that all of life radiates.
When I walked across a room I saw myself walking
as if I were someone else.
when I picked up a fork, when I pulled off a dress,
as if I were in a movie.
It’s what I thought you saw when you looked at me.
So when I looked at you, I didn’t see you
I saw the me I thought you saw, as if I were someone else.
I called that outside—watching. Well I didn’t call it anything
when it happened all the time.
But one morning after I stopped the pills—standing in the kitchen
for one second I was inside looking out.
Then I popped back outside. And saw myself looking.
Would it happen again? It did, a few days later.
My friend Wendy was putting on her winter coat, standing by the kitchen door
and suddenly I was inside and I saw her.
I looked out from my own eyes
and I saw: her eyes: blue gray transparent
and inside them: Wendy herself!
Then I was outside again,
and Wendy was saying, Bye-bye, see you soon,
as if Nothing had happened.
She hadn’t noticed. She hadn’t known that I’d Been There
for Maybe 40 Seconds,
and that then I was Gone.
She hadn’t noticed that I Hadn’t Been There for Months,
years, the entire time she’d known me.
I needn’t have been embarrassed to have been there for those seconds;
she had not Noticed The Difference.
This happened on and off for weeks,
and then I was looking at my old friend John:
: suddenly I was in: and I saw him,
and he: (and this was almost unbearable)
he saw me see him,
and I saw him see me.
He said something like, You’re going to be ok now.
or, It’s been difficult hasn’t it,
but what he said mattered only a little.
We met—in our mutual gaze—in between
a third place I’d not yet been.
Marie Howe, Magdalene: Poems, pp. 26-9