All those who sat in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
“Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
It is not only Jesus who is different, often beyond initial recognition, after he is raised from the dead. It is also the disciples who now behave with a courage and a conviction, a “liberation and a freedom never before imagined,” that was impossible to them before. As Stephen is brought in for the trial that will culminate in his death, he acts and speaks with a courage of which we can only marvel or envy. Yet, it is made clear that this courage to be, speak, and act in the truth is not sourced merely by the power of his own will, out of the capacities of the managing or executive will. For, as we read today, Stephen’s face shines with a light that is “like the face of an angel.” Stephen has become a child born anew in the resurrection of Jesus; he has become, as Jesus promised, a “child of God.”
Our Fundamental Principles tell us that:
If you allow yourself
to be formed by God
through the common,
flow of everyday life,
you will gradually experience
a liberation and a freedom
never before imagined.
The Stephen whom we meet in the gospel today is living out of the liberation and freedom that these lines describe. As the Fundamental Principles tell us, this liberation and freedom is not attained by us through our own ascetical and stoical efforts. Rather it is bestowed on us as a life-long experience of formation, reformation, and transformation that the moments of our own lives are offering us. The condition for such reformation and transformation, however, is that “we allow ourselves to be formed by God.” This is not easy for us because change is not easy for us. Life is always fashioning us and trying us, sometimes in harmonious and pleasant ways and sometimes in dissonant and painful ways. Each and every moment of our lives, however, is asking something of us. It is calling us to greater consonance, that is a truer expression in our outer lives of the unique image of Christ within us that our life is a call to realize.
Last evening I was watching on PBS an episode of a series entitled Unforgotten. One of the characters is a woman who in her early life was a racist and neo-Nazi. As that comes to light through a police investigation, she begins to reveal that past to those who are part of her present situation. As she relates that past, she often prefaces her remarks by saying that who she was in the past was not who she really is. Of course, it is who she is, in part, yet what she is trying to express is that she is, to some degree, more than that and is trying now to be that something more. We can readily understand this experience in our own lives. Although it is usually unclear to us, we have a sense that we are at once living different lives. If these lives become totally dissociated in our experience, we may suffer from what is clinically termed borderline personality disorder. For most of us, however, we suffer a more normal and socially acceptable form of this tension. Because tension is a difficult experience, we often in life attempt to dissolve it by ignoring and forgetting the pulls to reformation and transformation of our deeper life. We tend to “lose ourselves” in the urgency and complacency of the demands of our outer selves.
So, in today’s gospel Jesus tells the people: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Jesus says we must both work for the food of eternal life, but at the same time that food will be given to us as a gift We must not, in light of our cares for our outer life, lose sight of the need for our inner life, our true life, our resurrected life to be nourished. We must work for that food, but then we must be ready to receive it from the Lord as a gift.
What radiates from the face of Stephen is the shining forth of his own inner life. It is that life that is liberated and free enough to engage those directly who are threatening him, because he knows that in this place they cannot harm him. This life is the “eternal life” of which Jesus speaks in John’s gospel.
Yesterday, several of the members of our community gathered to speak about how we can best receive into our life a person who is experiencing what he senses as a call to our Congregation. At moments in our conversation I could feel within a sense of the rightness of my own call, not merely to religious life and our Congregation, but of how my life had led me to this specific moment. As we attempted to “work together” by attempting to discern the meaning and call of this moment in our shared history, I experienced not only a confirmation of my own “vocation” but also the deep possibilities of our shared vocation and communal lives. In a dim but unmistakeable way, a spark of my true life as call burst into my consciousness. As the hours passed, however, what also began to emerge for me was how, far too seldom, I devoted my life and my time to nourishing that life, to allowing that spark to inflame my life and my work.
I experienced in myself the question of the Rich Young Man to Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” To put it another way, “What is still missing in my life if I am to be formed, reformed and transformed into that unique image of Christ that I am to be for the world?” And what I received as an answer was that to know and to live in the Lord I needed to live in a deeper silence. “Martha, Martha, you are troubled and anxious about many things, but only one thing is necessary.” Stephen does not lose his radiance in the midst of a life threatening moment because his life is the life of Christ within. I am constantly reacting to life and filled with anxiety about what I am to do because I am still distant from that deeper life that is given to us, made known to us, only in the depths of silence.
My life has been a very fortunate one. I have been filled with so many experiences, and seen so many places, and met so many people for whom I deeply care. And yet, I remain hungry and malnourished in my deepest identity, which is a share in a life that is eternal. I do many things, but only far too occasionally do I “let God speak and work in . . . [me].” The missing condition, at least the one that comes to me focally today, is the lack of a deep and abiding silence, both outer and inner. The growth in inner silence, the depth of which can only be given to us, requires on our part the consistent creation of a realm of outer silence. For me, the great obstacle to practicing this outer silence is the fear of loneliness. When I am either busy with a focused work or stimulated by sounds and images, I remain unaware of the loneliness that is ever present below the surface. The inconstancy in my work and relationships lies, perhaps in part, in my refusal to acknowledge the degree that what I do and whom I am with is being driven by my unconscious fear of being alone. So, paradoxically, I leave alone the one who is living within my own deepest life and call. By the grace of God, particles or sparks of that life emerge into the surface, but the radiance of Stephen remains blocked.
It is always true that every thought, word, and deed of ours is both who we are and not yet who we are. For “the unique image of Christ we are called to realize,” as Adrian van Kaam terms this deepest life in us, can only fully be manifest when we have become truly still and silent. As St. John of the Cross writes in The Dark Night, “I went out/my house being now all stilled.” In his body and in his speech, the light of the life of the Risen Jesus shines out from Stephen. Stephen himself has not disappeared in this, because this life of Jesus is, in a unique way, the real life of Stephen himself. We keep living a life that is not really us because our autonomous and autarchic projects continue to block the release of God’s acts and words in us. We cannot make these emerge, but we can silence those aspects of our life and world that keep them hidden from view.
Is it better to . . . imagine and think about God or should one keep still and silent in peace and quiet and let God speak and work in one, merely waiting for God to act? Now I say, as I said before, that these words and this truth are only for the good and perfected people, who have so absorbed and assimilated the essence of all virtues that these virtues emanate from them naturally, without their seeking; and above all there must dwell in them the worthy life and lofty teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. They must know that the very best and noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within. When the powers have been completely withdrawn from all their works and images, then the Word is spoken. And so it says, “In the midst of the silence the secret word was spoken unto me.” And so, the more completely you are able to draw in your powers to a unity and forget all those things and their images which you have absorbed, and the further you can get from creatures and their images, the nearer you are to this and the readier to receive it. If only you could suddenly be aware of all things, then you could pass into an oblivion of your own body, as St. Paul did, when he said: “Whether in the body I cannot tell, our out of the body I cannot tell; God knows it” (2 Cor 12:2). . . . Concerning this a master addressed the soul thus: “Withdraw from the unrest of external activities, then flee away and hide from the turmoil of inward thoughts, for they but create discord” [Anselm, Prologion I]. And so, if God is to speak his word in the soul, she must be at rest and at peace, and then God will speak his Word and himself in the soul—no image but himself!
Meister Eckhart, Sermon 101