“Now I know, brothers and sisters, that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did; but God has thus brought to fulfillment what he had announced beforehand through the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer. Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away, and that the Lord may grant you times of refreshment and send you the Christ already appointed for you, Jesus. . . .”
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
In the words of Peter that we are offered in today’s reading from Acts, there is a contrast between ignorance, on the one hand, and repentance and conversion on the other. It was “out of ignorance” that the people killed Jesus, so it is not only of the one action but of their ignorance that they are called to repent. In Luke we read of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples during which “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” It is their closed-mindedness that inhibits their understanding of the deeper meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures that revealed the Divine meaning of the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
A teacher of ours used to frequently remind us that “ignorance is the passion to ignore.” Of course, we are limited and thus we shall always suffer the ignorance of our physical, cognitive, affective, and spiritual limitations. Yet, it is not this ignorance that brings evil into the world and that does harm. Rather it is the ignorance that is born from our passion to ignore realities that we fear and reject.
Recently we were speaking with a member of the community from an area that has undergone some very difficult experiences of late. As he spoke to us, he began to differentiate between the “official” story and the “unofficial” one. Because the cause of what the group was suffering had not yet “officially” been announced, everything was “officially” okay. On the other hand there were many “unofficial” rumors of the problem, rumors that expressed the fear, agitation, and sadness of the members. So, while things were “officially” okay, “unofficially” there was great turmoil, anxiety, and sadness.
As we listened to this person, we were led to reflect about how accurate a description of life this is for all of us. We have “official” versions of our lives, those we present to the world and very often even to ourselves, and then we have the “unofficial” version which keeps creeping into our consciousness despite our attempts to ignore it. The speech of Peter that we read in Acts today reminds us that often, when God comes to us in “the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life,” we passionately ignore and so often even sometimes kill off the message and the messenger. We do this because the truth is often a disturbance to us and to the comfortable and secure life we are trying to build.
As a graduate student, I wrote a thesis on the experience of “formative self-presence.” Over the almost 40 years since, the significance of that topic for me has only grown more evident. Strangely enough, it is often our own deeper life that we are prone to ignore. Especially as a younger person, but even to today, I know well the experience of passionately working to ignore, to distance from, those aspects of myself that I fear would disturb my life and my apparent form in the world. The truth is I ignore or dissociate from the experience of what I am actually “going through” because I fear that I will not be able to bear it, or that I will experience myself as one beyond my own control. So, I domesticate my life and experience into something that can become routinized and contained. The cost of this ignorance of myself is too often ignorance of my call. It is the passionate ignoring, to paraphrase Rainer Maria Rilke, of the life of God being lived in me.
This is the very reason that the disciples so often fail to recognize Jesus in the Resurrection Narratives. The Risen Jesus now lives that “hidden life” of mystery that we, as spirit, are always sharing in but avoiding. Life, in the scriptural and spiritual sense, is so much more than we, in our ignorance, take life to be. This is why Jesus must first open the minds of the disciples if they are to hear the deeper significance of the Scriptures. The Scriptures often do not speak to us because of our closed minds. In the same way, far too often, the words of others seem surface and insignificant to us because our minds have closed them down to a single preconceived meaning. So, in the same way, we fear our own lives and experience because our minds are not open to its multiple meanings and significance. We have past painful experiences of loneliness, so we refuse to let our loneliness speak to us. We have made mistakes with our experiences of desire, and so we stifle the urgent longings that are always moving within us. Far too often we live our own lives in the “official” version of our being just “okay” rather in the more turbulent but more authentic and life-filled “unofficial” version.
As within, so without. We not only ignore the depths of our own experience, but we ignore all in the world that does not fit our own limited preconceptions. Every human misuse of power and the violence that supports it is due to our attempt to impose our preconceptions on the world. When Pope Francis says, “Who am I to judge?” he is practicing the humility that is in contact with the truth of things beyond what he can know or even conceive of. He asserts the possibility of being present to the experience of the other without judging him or her on the basis of his own limited knowledge and experience. This is the practice of the open-mindedness that Jesus is teaching the disciples. It is the refusal to ignore what does not fit our own limits of experience and knowledge. Each person, as each moment, is always far more than we can comprehend or understand. There is a life being lived in each person and in the world that is the life of God into which we are being invited. That life, however, is always Mystery to us.
This is why we are most of service to others when we are present to them mindful of our own ignorance. To truly encounter another, and to encounter life, requires first of us to let that life speak to us. To accompany and to serve others, then, means to serve the emergence of their life and of the life of God in them. It is to be with another and to wait upon his or her unique life call. This is what we mean when we say that the Holy Spirit is the only spiritual director.
So, to repent of the ignorance by which we kill off the Spirit in ourselves, others, and the world is first to recognize our ignorance and to discipline our passion to ignore. It is to open our minds in such a way that we have more space for reality to enter, from ourselves, the others, and the world. Because this is always somewhat terrifying for us, Jesus’ first words as he appears are “Peace be with you.” He tells us, as the disciples, not to be afraid because what we are fearing is just human life, as human as he shows himself to be. We shrink from the deeper dimensions of life because they seem beyond us, like ghosts. We sense that life is so much larger than we, in our ignorance, make it, but we stifle that intuition out of fear. That all seems far too much for us to handle. And so it is, because it is not for us to handle life but to abandon ourselves to it by serving it, in ourselves and others. Jesus asserts to us that we can trust him and all the ways that the life he brings comes to us. It is not a specter to be feared but human life to be touched.
In today’s gospel peace comes to the disciples by recognizing the wounds of Jesus and then touching him. Our passion to ignore leads us to distance from life, from the passion, the joys and the wounds of our humanity. When I was an initiate to religious life, I used to think that the way to God and heaven was to ignore the desire, the pain, and the conflicts inherent in my actual life. It was to find my own preconceptions of the good life, where there was no conflict, struggle, fear, and resentment. The motto of our Congregation is “In harmony small things grow.” Yet, nothing grows in a false harmony of our own creation. True harmony requires of us that we keep listening, open-mindedly, to the harmony that lies beneath the surface dissonance. There is a life being lived in our world and a harmony that resounds beneath all the difference and apparent disharmony that we would like to ignore. In Jesus the life of God was manifest, but that came to the people of his time as disruption. To receive him required their opening their minds beyond the preconceived truths that they were sure came from God. This is the pattern that we keep repeating through history. Yet, when we repent of our arrogance, our passion to ignore what doesn’t fit into our own idealized and idolized representation of life, and open our minds anew, God will, as Peter tells the crowd, “send [us] the Christ already appointed for [us].”
And yet, though we strain
against the deadening grip
of daily necessity,
I sense there is this mystery:
All life is being lived.
Who is living it, then?
Is it the things themselves,
or something waiting inside them,
like an unplayed melody in a flute?
Is it the winds blowing over the waters?
Is it the branches that signal to each other?
Is it flowers
interweaving their fragrances,
or streets, as they wind through time?
Is it animals, warmly moving,
or the birds, that suddenly rise up?
Who lives it, then? God, are you the one
who is living life?
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours, II, 12