What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
1 John 1:1-3
Many, many years ago, as an undergraduate student, I made a special kind of weekend retreat called a Cursillo, a little course in Christianity. At the heart of the experience was time spent with other members of one’s “table community” sharing our lives at a level of expression and listening that was really quite different for me. As a highly introverted and even shy person, I had a fair amount of experience listening to others but very little in actually expressing myself, in actually speaking out to others my feelings about my own life, what I tended to “go through” in my personal experience. As the weekend drew to a close, those making the retreat spoke with strong emotion about their experience of the weekend. At that moment, however, I continued to feel something of the alienation that characterized my life experience. I had appreciated the sharing that had occurred, but it was not for me an overwhelming emotional experience of conversion. I remember returning to my room that evening and wondering yet again, in a far too familiar way, why so often my experience of life seemed so different from that of most others.
Yet, strangely enough, within the next week or so I found myself inserted in the world in a very different way. I recall sitting and speaking with a friend outside during a beautiful spring day in Washington, DC, and realizing that the trees, the sunlight, and the early spring flowers seemed so sensually beautiful, shining and shimmering with a life that I had never before noted. I also experienced the presence and words of my friend as a gift of life and love to me. During this time, I also heard the words of the first letter of John as I never had before. “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was made visible . . . .” In a kind of wakefulness that I had not known before but that recurs at moments throughout my life since, I realized that the mystery of the Incarnation is an ongoing reality. No less than the Apostle John himself, when we are really awake we can hear, see and touch the Word of life in the very matter of our universe.
In a recent New York Times piece, the columnist Nicholas Kristof described an interview with Cardinal Tobin. At one point Kristof asks Tobin if he, Kristof, can be a Christian if he has trouble believing in the miracles in the Bible. In response Tobin says to Kristof, “The most mind-boggling miracle is the incarnation. We believe that the Creator of the Universe, the one who existed before time and before anything else, became one of us. If you accept that, then there are a lot of other things that don’t seem to be quite as unbelievable.” Now there were those who heard, saw, and touched Jesus and yet did not touch “the Word of life.” The author of 1 John, however, speaks of the experience of those who, like the Apostle John, hear, see, and touch with senses that are informed by love.
When I was studying formative spirituality, a teacher pointed out to us that the opposite of expression is repression. The effect, although somewhat delayed, of the Cursillo weekend on me was that in the new ways I had begun to express myself I had ceased to repress my own unique sensibilities; I was now able, at least at times, to really hear, see, and touch in ways I had not been able to before. I would continue to experience this throughout the years following moments of deeper self-expression: in friendship, in ministry, in writing, in psychotherapy. I remember leaving some sessions of therapy and actually experiencing being embodied in the world in a different way.
Adrian van Kaam says that as the great repression of Freud’s time was sexuality, the great repression of our time is spirituality. We are a capacity to hear, see and touch the Word of life, but often that capacity of heart, of soul, and of spirit is repressed. To touch and so at the same time to be touched by God changes everything for us. 1 John says that “. . . what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” The mystics of all traditions understand that the greatest of human illusions is our sense of alienation and separateness. The manifestation of ordinary neurosis in us is the feeling that we are cut off, that somehow we are not one with the human condition. It is this sense of disconnection that makes us ashamed, and so we feel and live as if our connections to others and to the world are broken. 1 John tells us that our fellowship, the truth of our communion, is with the Father and with Jesus, that is to hear, see, and touch the Word of life is to know our fellowship. This is an intimacy that is the opposite of the shame and isolation we mistakenly take to be our lot much of the time.
We cannot make ourselves hear, see, and touch by dint of our executive will. What we can do, however, is to dare to give expression to our unique life and call in the world. This means not only speaking and acting but also listening and receiving what others and the world are communicating to us. Because in our time we so value the functional and technological, we tend to keep our distance from the world in order to manipulate it. Throughout a typical day we behave in ways that would keep our distance from life, from our own experience, from the human other, and from the natural world. It takes time and quiet to see the shimmer of the sun on the trees and the movement of the wind through the branches. It takes space for another to be able to tell us what she or he is going through. It takes mindfulness to be present, to speak, and to act from the truth of our own experience. Most of all it takes faith, hope, and love, it takes trust to dare to be close when so much in us is moving us to distance and withdraw from life.
The story is told that late in his life the Apostle John only spoke one simple sermon: “Love one another.” For John, the opposite of love was fear. It is fear that leads us to withdraw within ourselves and to repress our capacity to receive God and love. There were many in Jesus’ day who looked at him but did not see him, who bumped up against him but did not touch him, who heard the words he spoke but did not really hear him. So often I move through life in the same way. I live my own isolated preoccupations, obsessed with the narratives of my own mind and the demands of my own superego, and so fail to truly hear, see, and touch reality. Too often I can speak without really expressing myself. Jesus says that we are to give the gift we have received as a gift. That is true expression. Far too often we live out the repression of who we most truly are, because we have learned to depreciate it. In such repression, we are incapable of recognizing the gift, and so unable to give it away.
Back around 50 years ago, I began to learn, often to have to relearn it, that life and world and all that are part of it are a gift of the Word to me. It is truly joyful and life-giving to hear, see, and touch that Word of life. And it comes with the impulse to share it, in a way that is unique to each of us. When we receive the Word and when we proclaim it in our own way, we then know the fellowship, the communion that we are. The mystery and miracle of the Incarnation is happening always. To really know it and make it real in our lives, however, we must come close to the human condition. As St. Francis in encountering the leper, we must move against whatever shame and repulsion would distance us and instead embrace our life and the life and world of others. Then God is no longer an idea or abstraction but One we can hear, and see, and touch.
Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, the Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem-star may lead me
To the sight of Him Who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day.
Gerard Manley Hopkins