The Spirit said to Philip, “Go and join up with that chariot.” Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “how can I, unless someone instructs me?” So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him.
Jesus said to the crowds: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.”
Sometimes the most unlikely of teachers emerge in our daily experience. At times one of the most irritating technological innovations in my daily experience is the “auto-correct” function of my word processing program. Yet, this morning, this irritation became for me a call to deeper reflection. As I was typing the above passage from John, the auto-correct function changed my attempt to type “Father” to “Other.” So, it had Jesus saying, “No one can come to me unless the Other who sent me draw him” and “Everyone who listens to my Other and learns from him comes to me.”
As we observed yesterday, there is a certain “universalism” in the Gospel of John. The only requirement for coming to Jesus, he says, is that of listening to and learning from his Father. And this invitation is explicitly open to “everyone.” Unfortunately, we are left with the question of “how,” that is “How do we in fact listen to the Father?” We know that the very heart of the call is to live in such a way that in all we do we try to serve the coming of God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” The lived problem for us is knowing how to do this in the very “common, ordinary, and unspectacular flow of everyday life.”
Jan van Ruusbroec says that it is “by means of the renunciation of one’s own will regarding things to be done or left undone or endured” that we become humble enough to allow God to become “the master of . . . [our] entire will.” So to listen to and learn from God, which is according to Jesus the one requirement for knowing Jesus, who is the Way for us, we must begin by renouncing our own will regarding what is “to be done or left undone or endured.” And it is here that the lesson of the auto-correct comes in. Martin Buber taught that it is our encounter with the “Thou” which teaches us how to live and which can give from to our life in the truth. The requirement for encountering the “Thou,” however, is to realize that it comes to us in the guise of the “Other.” Unless and until we come to live from that life in us that is capable to renouncing our own will concerning what is “to be done or left undone or endured” in favor of the life of the “Other” we cannot truly listen to the Father. We are encapsulated in our own story about the world, a story that is bounded by our own pain and fears and insecurities. We are listening to the Father when we are able to hear the “Other” as other and not a mere projection of some aspect of our own limitations and deformations.
The story from Acts we read today is one of my favorite passages in the Christian Scriptures. The two characters in the story are models of the listening of which Jesus speaks. Philip hears the angel’s call to head to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, and so he immediately gets up and sets out. He embodies the call of the Fundamental Principles 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.” He then heeds the Spirit’s call to join up with the chariot carrying the court official of the Queen of Ethiopia. Philip then enters into the world of the official, asking him if he understands the depth of what he is reading in Isaiah. What makes this a true encounter, however, is that the court official then says to Philip: “How can I unless someone instructs me.” He opens himself to Philip by a renunciation of his arrogance, which is the presumption to know. He is willing to be taught by the “other” who is sent to him.
Pope Francis often speaks of what he terms “the spirituality of encounter.” Adrian van Kaam says that “encounter” is an experience of both “in-being” and “counter-being.” That is, to encounter another is both to be at one and also other than. Out meetings so often fail to be encounters because we fail to truly recognize, embrace, and listen to that which is truly “other” in the one we are meeting. In today’s story from Acts, Philip clearly does not see his life as his own to manage. He is “at the beck and call” of the angel, the Spirit, and then the court official. On the other side, the court official spontaneously voices his ignorance and need of a teacher, if he is to understand. In a real sense, the story is a parable for the moral teaching: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The readiness involved is a turn or conversion from the pride and arrogance of autonomy and independence to a recognition of the truth of one’s need for the other.
It is in our practice of relating to the other as other that we learn to “listen to the Father.” Otherwise any call to greater life is muffled by the sound of our own voice and our own thoughts. It is often said these days that the breakdown in creative and civil discourse in the United States is due to the fact that many citizens are living in “echo chambers.” By this is meant that people are only listening to voices that agree with themselves. The spiritual tradition has always spoken of this danger for human beings. We are very prone to live in the world in such a way that all we hear and see are echoes and reflections of our own voices and images. When we meet other persons, and even sometimes when we live with them, we do not encounter them as “other” but only as reflections of our view of them, as echoes of our judgments of them. Generally, we do not live in the world as it is, but rather within our own model or map of the world. The result is that true encounter is rare for us because it is difficult.
The court official from Ethiopia in today’s story from Acts is baptized, that is he comes to Jesus, because he has listened to the Father. The baptism is not the miracle; the listening is. The baptism is but a sign of what has already happened, which is that he has made the most profound of human conversions, from self-preoccupation to openness to the “otherness” of reality. Today’s readings offer a powerful directive to deep listening. It is, at least for me, a most difficult practice. There is more than a little of Narcissus in me. I am too in love with my own image, which comes to mean often my own thoughts and the sound of my own voice. The great paradox is that the source of this is not love but depreciation. I live in my own echo chamber because I forget, that is lose touch with, my capacity to listen and respond. I spend too much energy defending myself rather than forgetting myself, so that I can receive what is totally other and mysterious about the person I am with and the world I inhabit. And this latter is not merely “selfless service,” for, as we learn today, the one we welcome as other is the only one who can teach us.
Sometimes Pope Francis is criticized by certain members of his own flock because he dares to suggest that he, as all of us, can learn from those who are other than us. They sometimes claim that he harms “the Church” by behaving as if it has something to learn from the others. Yet, the insularity and arrogance they would embrace would have meant that Philip never set out on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza and that the Ethiopian official would never come to know the one whom Isaiah foretold. Such an attitude is what has led to the horror of the religious wars through the centuries. And, closer to home, it is the reason for national and communal disunity. We are told that “faith comes through hearing” (Romans 10:17). In order to hear, however, we must first become humble enough to begin to really listen by renouncing our “own will regarding things to be done or left undone or endured.”
By means of the renunciation of one’s own will regarding things to be done or left undone or endured, all matter and occasion for pride are entirely driven out and humility is perfected to the highest degree. God becomes the master of a person’e entire will, which becomes so united with God’s that the person can neither will nor desire anything else. Such persons have put off the old self and put on the new, which is made and renewed according to the most beloved will of God. Of such as these Christ, says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (that is, those who have renounced their own will) “for this kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Mt. 5:3).
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, I, iii, A