Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us, / he sets himself against our doings, / Reproaches us for transgressions of the law / and charges us with violations of our training. / He professes to have knowledge of God / and styles himself a child of the Lord. / To us he is the censure of our thoughts; / merely to see him is a hardship for us, / Because his life is not like that of others, / and different are his ways.
Wisdom 2: 12-15
Could the authorities have realized that he is the Christ? But we know where he is from. When the Christ comes no one will know where he is from.” So Jesus cried out in the temple area as he was teaching and said, “You know me and also know where I am from. Yet I did not come on my own, but the one who sent me, whom you do not know, is true. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.”
John 7: 26-9
As we draw closer to Holy Week and the commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus, the scripture readings increasingly focus our attention on an aspect of the mystery of Jesus’ life that we all experience daily. Simply put, it is why do we have such a violent reaction to what is good? What are we so afraid of that we want to deny or even eliminate that which calls us to realize more the truth of who we are and where we come from and to change in the way that truth and love summon us?
As we read in Wisdom today, the just one can be obnoxious to us. That is the case because in her or his fidelity to their call they are a reproach to all the ways that we are failing to be faithful. While we certainly do not experience on a daily basis the level of violence in ourselves that Jesus evokes in many of those around him, we can begin to understand them more when we see lesser manifestations of those same propensities to violence in ourselves. Be it in our diminishing or dismissing those who are strange to us, who provoke question and challenge to us by their way of living and behavior, or by our own resistance to anyone or anything that challenges us to change our lives in any significant way, we realize that our lives and personalities are complex. We both aspire and strive to be honest and authentic in our lives, while at the same time powerfully resisting what challenges our own falsehoods.
Last night I was reading a review by Robert Gottlieb in the latest issue of “The New York Review of Books” of the works of Sebastian Barry. Barry’s most recent book is entitled Days Without End. Barry says that the central relationship in this universally acclaimed novel was inspired partly by his son Toby. In an interview that Gottlieb quotes, given by Barry to The Guardian, Barry speaks of the experience of his son at age 16 coming out as gay to him and his wife. Observing his son’s relationship with his boyfriend, Barry says: “There’s an area of wonderment that I didn’t expect. They were kids but they knew something I didn’t know. It was the beginning of thinking, well, we’re being asked as straight people to be tolerant towards gay people but maybe that’s wrong, maybe what we should be is envious.”
What Adrian van Kaam calls “the downward pull” in us seeks the familiar and flees or attempts to destroy the unfamiliar or mysterious. In today’s gospel, those who are opposed to Jesus declare that “We know where he is from. When the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from.” Certainly at one level, they do know where Jesus is from. Yet, they do not realize that what they are reacting to in him is precisely the mystery of who he really is and so where he ultimately comes from. The truth is that when we say a person is from a physical locality, we have really said nothing about him or her. It is the “difference” in Jesus that is precisely the problem and that is evoking the resistance and violence in many of those who encounter him. Even without preaching, he is a summons to change, to become more sincere and honest in the life they are living. Sebastian Barry has a very different reaction to the mystery of his very own son. He observes him and his living out of his love and recognizes that his own young son “knew something I didn’t know.” And he then provides for us the answer to what sources in us our violent reactions to the authenticity (which often first comes across as strangeness) of the other: envy. When Barry says that we are asked to be tolerant of the differences in others, but perhaps we should really be envious, he is identifying precisely what keeps us from being not only tolerant but open and receptive. As Adrian van Kaam teaches, When others are truly living out their uniqueness, they evoke envy in us. The strength of the envy they evoke is commensurate with the degree to which we are alienated from our own truth and originality — the “ordinary” in us. #brjohn https://xavb.ro/2pgxlt2
Having spent most of my life in community, I have come to realize that a great unconscious force in community life is the form of envy that demands conformity and so tends to strive to eliminate or at least minimize difference. I believe this happens because we lack faith in the truth of community. Because the distinctiveness and so distinction of others evokes envy in us, we believe that community and communion are very fragile and tenuous. We think that it can only be held together if no one stands out, if we find some common denominator or other. Because the realization of our own unique call carries with it a sense of loneliness and solitude, we find it hard to believe that at its depth the ordinary is also the common. It is in our uniqueness that we experience God’s unique love for us, yet to know that is to know that this love with which God so loves me is the same love of God for all. It is a love that is held “in common.”
Perhaps because he is his son, Sebastian Barry does not fear the difference in Toby, rather he appreciates and reverences the mystery in him. Barry then, however, produces art which raises this appreciation and reverence of the mystery to the level of the universal. In his memoir Our Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman writes of his experience of receiving a diagnosis of what is likely a fatal form of cancer. He relates how as he seemed to be walking under the cloud of this diagnosis, he and his wife attended a new church for them, a United Church of Christ in New York City where they live. After attending the service, he exchanged emails and then had an encounter with the minister of the Church. In this encounter, the parting from which is described below, there is a response to difference, uniqueness, and mystery quite similar to that of Sebastian Barry. Wiman says that after he had spoken with the minister, there was a moment when “the severity of my situation and our unfamiliarity with each other left us with no words.” For most of us this would be a moment of fear, embarrassment, and probably some form of flight. We all know of avoiding significant life situations because we fear we won’t know what to do or say. Yet, here the minister merely placed “his hand over his heart for just a second as a flicker of empathetic anguish crossed his face.” Not infrequently in life, we can only stand in awe and reverence before its mystery. Instead of fear, that is, finding the moment awful, we can abandon and open to it, that is finding it awe-full. At such moments, however, we shall find ourselves open to change and transformation. If we abandon to the mystery, as it comes to us in the differences and even envy-provoking or fearful circumstances of the everyday, we are also abandoning ourselves to the work of God in us.
The gesture of the minister had this effect in Wiman: “It cut through the cloud I was living in and let the plain day pour its balm upon me.” It is our defensiveness and reactivity to the world and its insistent call to change that makes us fearful and envious. When someone or something breaks through that for a moment, we discover, as Wiman, that “the plain day” is always pouring “its balm upon me.” The truth is that everything passes, or, as Adrian van Kaam says, “We are always and everywhere in formation.” It should not frighten us that we are always changing and always needful of doing so. We need not resist or diminish and destroy that which summons us to such change; we should rather welcome it with “awe.”
In his review, Robert Gottlieb asks the question of how, in the midst of so much horror and violence that is 19th century America, “Days Without End achieves its buoyancy, its air of hope, its joyousness?” It is, he says, “Partly through Sebastian Barry’s response to the beauty of the natural world and, most important, to the beauty of life itself.” The love that God has for each of us uniquely (in our “ordinary” lives) is manifest in all of life and creation, if we have the eyes to see it. Gottlieb quotes from the reflection of the main character Thomas McNulty:
I was sore in love with all my laboring in Tennessee. Liked well that life. Up with the cockcrow, bed with the dark. Going along like that could never end. And when ending it would be felt to be just. You had your term. All that stint of daily life we sometimes spit on like it was something waste. But it [is] all there is and in it is enough.
And I remember when we parted there was an awkward moment when the severity of my situation and our unfamiliarity with each other left us with no words, and in a gesture that I’m sure was completely unconscious, he placed his hand over his heart for just a second as a flicker of empathetic anguish crossed his face. It sliced right through me. It cut through the cloud I was living in and let the plain day pour its balm upon me. It was, I am sure, one of those moments when we enact and reflect a mercy and mastery that are greater than we are, when the void of God and the love of God, incomprehensible pain and the peace that passeth understanding, come together in a simple human act. We stood for a minute in the aftermath, not talking, and then went our suddenly less separate ways.
Christian Wiman, Our Bright Abyss, p. 69