“I cannot do anything on my own; I judge as I hear, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.”
John 5: 30
We live in a time where “relativism” is becoming the dominant influence in our social and political life. At the highest levels of government in the United States, we no longer debate the merits of our perspective and understanding. Rather, we simply declare any viewpoint that is different from ours to be “fake news.” Even ostensibly reputable news organizations and journalists seem to feel the necessity, “for the sake of balance,” of giving patently false positions equal time in the debate.
There is no question, as Adrian van Kaam points out, that human persons are essentially “perspectival.” That is, no one of us is capable of seeing things exactly as they are. This is why you can have perfectly honest eyewitnesses attesting to very different versions of the same event. The fact that we as individuals always come at things from a perspective does not mean, however, that there is not a truth to the way things are. What it does mean, in practice, is that we each must maintain a stance of humility in the face of our own perception and be aware of the limits of our own perspective. As a good friend has recently pointed out, this is the inherent danger of hierarchy, the over-reliance and even deifying of any one person’s view. The limitation of any one person’s view is that of his or her inherent blindspots. When we seek to respond to reality collegially and communally, we have a much better chance of acting in light of the truth, since the blindspots of each of us are different.
For believers, it is God’s way and will that are the truth. This is why Jesus tells those who are challenging his claims that he comes not seeking his own will but the will of the one who sent him. Jesus makes clear that there is always a difference between our will and God’s precisely because we are perspectival, because we have our own unique blindspots. In the light of the fifth chapter of John’s gospel, it is fair to say that what we call “the spiritual life” is the conforming over a lifetime of our will to God’s will. It is giving ourselves over in humility to God’s work of formation, reformation, and transformation in us, so that in time we may come to the point that Jesus describes in today’s gospel: “…the Son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for what he does, the Son will do also” (John 5:19). This is why the Fundamental Principles enjoin us to:
Stand ready to answer God
when He asks you
if you are available for Him
to become more present in your life and through you to the world.
may you willingly respond:
Let what You have said be done to me!
When we continually pray the words from the Our Father, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are abandoning to God our own cherished sense of self and our desire to set our life direction autonomously that we might be changed and transformed into “the unique expression of God’s love” that we were created to be. We acknowledge that in our day to day lives there is a gap between God’s will and how we typically behave and work. This leaves us, then, with the “practical” question of how do we “practice” living so as to dispose ourselves to this transformation.
Perhaps the first step or practice is awareness. Jesus tells us that “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). The darkness and pain of the spiritual path comes as we grow more and more aware of the gap between our will and God’s, between what we take to be life and the life to the full that God desires for us. It is this growing awareness of the distance between God’s will for us and our own ways that is the source of a humility that can begin to create a space in us for God and God’s will to enter. It is our relativizing of our own perspective, our humble acceptance of its limits and blindspots, that makes a growing enlightenment possible. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). It is in the darkening of our own lights that the eternal light of the truth can begin to be recognized and accepted by us.
The German mystic and disciple of Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, says that in the last and fullest stage of the spiritual path “. . . the Lord leads a person out of himself into himself.” God will lead us out of ourselves, will lead us to the truth of ourselves and of reality, but first we must recognize that we are not who we take ourselves to be. When Jesus says that he cannot do anything on his own, he is speaking of the self who attempts to make a life and do a work that is separate from the one who is the child of God. It is this one that we must be led out of, so that we might enter into the life of the one whom Jan van Ruusbroec called the “ordinary.”
To abandon the one we take ourselves to be, however, requires a trust and a faith that what seems to us to be nothing is really, as the mystics say, that which is “no-thing.” To our ordinary lights, to that perspective on which we have relied and based our whole lives, it seems as if we have entered sheer darkness, as if we are left with nothing. At the summit of Mount Carmel, says St. John of the Cross, there is “nothing, nothing, and yet more nothing.” While at the level of our rational-functional dimension, we can grasp reality only from a perspective, in a very partial way, at the level of spirit we can touch the truth as a whole. Yet, the truth is far too much for our sensible and functional capacities and so it seems like nothing and darkness.
In practice, this movement out of our taken-for-granted life and perspective requires of us a trust and a willingness to abide in the darkness, in the not-knowing. This is extremely difficult for us and threatening to us. We think that without our own management of the world on our terms that we shall be nothing, that there will be nothing to be done. Yet, this is precisely how we learn to work not out of our own will but in obedience to the will of the one who sent us.
Less this sound too ethereal, let’s offer an example. Typically when we gather to make decisions in a group, each member of the group comes with his or her own perspective and opinion. Often it is the one who is most convincing or most manipulative or most tireless that convinces the others of his or her view. So, all that has happened is that a group has made a decision to ratify that person’s limited perspective. Yet, there is another, if far more difficult way. That way is a call to become comfortable with the darkness, with the unknowing. It is to enter a true conversation without preconceived ideas and demands. It joins with the others not to manipulate them to agreement with my perspective, but rather to be together in an openness and trust that welcomes the new, the unthought of, the unbidden. What often happens in such a way of truly “discerning” together is an outcome different from the preconceptions of every participant. As Isaiah says: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19).
When we become empty enough, then, as Tauler says, “Here a person becomes so divinized that everything that person is and does God does and is in him or her.” In our repetitions of the Our Father, we may often lose touch with the radical nature of what we are asking. In asking that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, we are acknowledging our need to abandon our own way that we might become agents of God’s will in our life and world. We are expressing a willingness to live out the paschal mystery in our very own lives, to die to ourselves that we might know the eternal life that is our own “ordinary” life. As Tauler says, we are praying to lose ourselves as we know ourselves that we may become “aware of nothing but one simple Being.”
In this stage the Lord leads a person out of himself into himself. He makes him forget all his former loneliness and heals all his wounds. God thus draws the person out of his human mode into a divine mode, out of all misery into divine security. Here a person becomes so divinized that everything he is and does God does and is in him. And he is lifted up so far above his natural state that he becomes through grace what Go in his essence is by nature. In this state a person feels and is aware that he has lost himself and does not at all feel himself or is he aware of himself. He is aware of nothing but one simple Being.
Johannes Tauler, Sermon 39, Part 2