“I do not accept human praise; moreover, I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I came in the name of my Father, but you do not accept me; yet if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God?”
John 5: 41-44
In today’s gospel from John 5, Jesus asserts that it is his works that give testimony to him. The reason for this is that the motivation for his work is singular; it is the fruit of what the tradition will come to call “purity of heart.” Earlier in John 5, Jesus has said, “I do only what I see the Father doing.” It is thus fair to say that our lives are for the sake of the work that is ours to do. It is the quality and nature of our work that attests to our own authenticity and integrity.
For those of us who are members of and have been formed in a consumer/capitalist culture, it might even seem “unspiritual” to assert the primacy of work in this way. This is because our concept of work has become degraded to that which produces things to be consumed and is, for the worker, merely a means of survival and financial gain. The depression and illness that often overtake people when they can no longer “do their jobs” reflects our limited and impoverished sense of work. We need not go to the office, or make a good salary, or possess a title in order to do our work. In short, work in the scriptural and spiritual sense is not merely a product of our vital and functional dimensions. It is an incarnation of our spiritual call, of our spirit, of our ordinary, original, or foundational life form. As Jesus’ work gives testimony to who he is, so too does our own.
We take for granted that our work lives are in large part determined by the values and norms of our culture. Of course, to live and provide for ourselves and our families, we must, to some degree or other, conform to these values and norms. Many, if not most of us, must do a work that, in itself, is not highly reflective of our inner call. In such cases, our true work might lie more in how we do our work than in what we do. Although we may have had little freedom to choose the circumstances of our work lives, we always have the freedom to choose how we do our work, how careful and present we are in it, how we relate to and work with our colleagues, how honesty and justice inform our tasks.
Today’s gospel challenges us, however, to examine how we appraise and discern that how. At a given moment in a day, in the presence of a particular situation and specific persons, what is my work to be? The conflict in the gospel today between Jesus and those who challenge him gives us insight into one of the tensions that we always experience in such appraisal. “How can you believe when you accept praise from one another and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God?” What moves us to act and to behave as we do? We know that often, and especially when we act without reflection, we are acting in reaction to the demands of those around us or the compulsions of our own unconscious. It is our need to be recognized, accepted or honored that motivates our behavior. At such moments our work, our way of being, is a performance for the others, whether those others are outside of us or within us. Jesus says that as long as we are working in this way, we are not yet living in faith. We are not doing the work that God has given us to do. Rather we are doing what “the world” in all its forms is demanding of us.
Jesus, on the other hand, does only what he sees his Father doing. That is, he works contemplatively. The tradition tells us that we develop this capacity for working in obedience to God’s will by practicing presence. St. John of the Cross says that we are to withdraw our “appetites, strength, and faculties” from all that is not God and direct them toward “paying homage” to God. In today’s first reading from Exodus, we see how the Israelites, unhappy with their state, turn their appetites and attention to a false idol. St. John of the Cross reminds us that we are always doing this. In the initial years of our formation in religious life, we heard often of “dissipation.” In fact, it is true that our attention, our care, our capacity for love and compassion, is often dissipated in our lack of focus and attention, or our attention to that which affords us distraction or temporary relief and gratification.
If we are to complete our “mission” on earth, if we are to do what our lives have been given to us to do, we must learn how to be present and attentive to the One who gives us that life and that mission. We must learn how, in our own unique way, we are to withdraw minds, hearts, and passions from those sources of distraction and dissipation and more completely pay attention to God and God’s work. In facing a particular challenge in our day, we contemplate the reality before us so that we can begin to appraise what God is doing there, and so how we are called to serve. What is asked of us is to be a servant of God’s work in that person or situation.
Such reflection and contemplation requires of us that we learn, as John says, to withdraw our appetites, strength, and faculties from all that is distracting us. This requires of us that we learn how to move against that in us that would make our life inauthentic, less than we are called to be. By temperament and by personality, I tend to be a very impulsive person. As a result, my tendency is to react to a task or demand immediately. I find it anxiety provoking not to respond immediately to a request or demand, be it a phone call, or message, or email, or invitation, or task. My unconscious or default way of appraisal is not to appraise at all but rather to take the outer request or demand as my call. To act in “reaction” to the perceived demand of others is not contemplative action. It is to do the work the other asks of me, not necessarily the work God has given me to do.
It is in relationship to a close friend for many years that I have come to recognize this particular temperamental obstacle to contemplative action. In the years we worked and lived together, whenever a request would come to us he would always insist on “giving it time.” That space which “giving it time” provided exemplified the withdrawing of appetites, strength, and faculties of which John of the Cross speaks. The giving of time cleared a space in which my own needs, desire, and appetites could become at least a bit quieted, and so I could begin to appraise the request differently, not as a demand for my reaction but truly as a request to be considered in light of the greater work to be done.
Some years ago I made an obvious, but what was for me startling, discovery. Often in life, the way to saying a deeper “Yes” to life and work is to say “No.” An important part of appraisal of our call in a given situation is awareness of our own limits. We cannot do everything that the world asks of us. If we try, then we live reactively. We are so busy seeking praise from one another, as Jesus points out, that we are not really believers, believers in God and in God’s unique call in our life and in our work. To say “No” in a serious and considered way is to allow a space for a different and hopefully deeper “Yes.” If we examine our lives, we shall, for certain, see the dissipating effects of acting without appraising, of not knowing what we are working for and why we are acting. Our saying “No” when we need to is what makes possible our deeper “Yes” to the work that is ours alone.
For one like me who is impulsive and appeasing, it is very difficult to say “No.” It is that difficulty, and what the mystics might call darkness, that is the way for me to awaken to my actual true life. To really believe, Jesus says, to live and work in accord with the person God has created us to be, requires that the praise of others becomes less important to us over time. If such praise comes or if it doesn’t becomes, in time, a matter of indifference to us. What is important is our authenticity, our fidelity to the “work of God” as it summons us in the “ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.”
There is another no less efficacious reason to help us understand clearly that this soul’s journey is in darkness, and secure, that is, the fortitude this obscure, painful, and dark water of God bestows on the soul from the beginning. After all, even though it is dark, it is water, and thereby refreshes and fortifies the soul in what most suits it—although in darkness, and painfully.
From the outset individuals are conscious of a true determination and power to do nothing they recognize as an offense against God and to omit nothing that seems to be for God’s service. That dark love enkindles in the soul a remarkably vigilant care and interior solicitude about what to do or omit in order to please God. They will ponder whether they may have angered God and go over this in their minds a thousand times. They do this with much greater care and solicitude than before, as we mentioned in discussing the longings of love. In this dark contemplation the soul’s appetites, strength, and faculties are withdrawn from all other things, and its efforts and strength are expended only in paying homage to God. This is the way it goes out from itself and from all created things to the sweet and delightful union with God through love:
In darkness, and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised.
St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, II,17,14.