“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way”
As children perhaps most of us at same point have a concern about our place in the family. We experience not only hurt but fear when another supplants us and seems to take our place. Perhaps one of our most persistent fears and anxieties surrounds our question: “Is there a place fo me?” Even as adults some version of this question persists in the depths of our consciousness and our unconscious. After a difficult day at work, or even in our ordinary engagement with the wider world, we look forward to coming “home” to a place where we know there is a special place for us in the hearts of those who love us.
It is not easy for us to live in the trust that we have such a place in the wider scheme of things. The world, let alone the universe, is so far beyond us and so beyond our control. This is why, the more insecure we are, the more we attempt to become big fish in small ponds. This basic human anxiety and insecurity is the cause of the danger in having power over other human persons. When one who is extremely empty, fearful and anxious rises to a position of power and control over others, it is predictable that many individuals will be hurt along the way.
So, Jesus reminds his disciples, and so us, that to have faith in God and in him is to trust in his love for us, in the significance we have in his eyes and heart. As I read this passage this morning, I was struck, even much more than usual, by the tenderness of Jesus’ words: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” The answer to the lurking and anxiety-evoking doubt of whether or not there is a place for us in the world is that our place is with Jesus who wants us to be where he is. He says that if he goes, he will then always return to take us to himself because he desires us to be with him. He even suggests that there is a place for us in his heart and that place will be empty for him until we are there, until we dwell with him.
So to be human is to have, someplace at the core of our very being, a “troubled heart.” Our greatest longing is to have a place; our greatest fear is that somehow there will not be a place for us. In this world, in this life as we know it, it will always be a matter of faith for us that ultimately we have such a place in what feels to us like a chaotic and arbitrary world. In the familiar American musical West Side Story, the lyricist Stephen Sondheim has Tony and Maria sing of the hope that somewhere and someday “There’s a place for us.” They hope for this because in their time and situation there is no such place.
Yet, Jesus not only tells us that he has a place for us with him and in him. He also says that we know the way to that place where he is going. If we do know the way to that place, how do we live out that knowledge in practice? Are we able, even here and now, not just “somewhere” else, to live in such a way that our hearts cease to be troubled with the fears about our own significance and destiny?
The 13th century German mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg tells us that there are three characteristics of the way or path of which Jesus speaks. The first lies in our submission to God, our “relinquishing all human control.” Perhaps the greatest source of our human anxiety is our realization that we cannot control life. So much of our very character structure, what we usually call personality, we have developed in reaction to the experience of loss in our life that at the pre-transcendent level of our personalities we need to feel as if we have control over our destiny. We feel we need this control because, from our ego perspective, the way of creation is not a way we can trust. The significance of the vows of religious profession is that they are an acknowledgment of and submission to the reality of our powerlessness. They are a rejection of the illusion that ultimately we are not poor, dependent, and alone. At birth we are thrust into a world that is far too much for us. And so, we cling desperately to our mothers and very slowly begin to trust enough to move out on our own. We then develop strategies and aspects of character to defend ourselves against the “terrors of the night and the arrows that fly by day.” (Psalm 91:5) Mechthild says that the courage to relinquish those illusions and to live by the faith that God and life are to be trusted is the first step on the way.
She then says that the sign of this submission, of this appreciative abandonment to God, is “in being forgiving in all things as far as is possible for a human will.” It is our fear and anxiety that keeps us from forgiving both others and ourselves. The truth that everything passes is a great affront to our ego. For, we know that it means that we too pass. And so, we tend to hold on with all our might. This is why it is difficult for us to comprehend that God is mercy and forgiveness. Time flows but we do not flow with it. Life is for us discreet and reified episodes. We don’t realize that the offense we find unforgivable is passing even as it occurs. So, the “question” is always about what we think, say, and do in the present moment. To be unforgiving is to attempt to hold onto the effects of the offense, done by us or to us. The truth, however, lies in what we do presently with that past. If I have deeply hurt someone by failing to recognize them and attend to them, do I now attend more fully and respectfully to the one before me? If I have harmed the life of another, do I now nurture the lives now given to me? To submit to God, means to keep flowing and learning to change, grow, and forgive constantly.
Mechthild’s second disposition of one on the path is that she or he “welcome all things except for sin alone.” Such acceptance of life as it comes to us is the fruit of our submission to God’s will. Recent studies have shown that children who have learned at a young age to delay gratification ultimately do better in studies and in life. To “welcome all things” requires of us that we cease appraising what is good or bad according to the law of gratification, of what Freud called “the pleasure principle.” Instinctively we move toward pleasure and away from pain. What the child is learning in delaying gratification, however, is that seeking pleasure is not our only or deepest, in a transcendent sense, desire. We long much more for a sense of meaning and significance, to know our place and to know that we are welcomed and loved in that place. So, this second disposition says that to walk the way of Jesus that he says we know is to welcome our lives as they are and as they come to us. It’s natural for us to almost always want some aspect of reality to be otherwise, including ourselves.
The third disposition is that “one do all things equally for God’s honor.” She then says something that we might find surprising at first. “Thus I think relieving my most basic need counts as much in God’s sight as if I were in the highest state of contemplation that a human being can attain.” This striking sentence contextualizes all three of her points. What is most “spiritual” is what is most totally human. By submitting to our state and our life, to reality, we are walking the way that is ours, the way of Jesus. We glorify God by living in gratitude and love the life that is ours. Mechthild’s spirituality could not be more different than the Jansenist colored teachings in which many of us were raised. Centuries before psychoanalysis, Mechthild understood that our humanity, fully accepted and lived in love and gratitude, is our way to God. We cease being anxious about our place, when we have fully accepted our place.
We tend to think that our “basic needs” are a bit of a scandal, especially in the realm of the spirit. However, these needs serve to remind us of our humanity and mortality. When we acknowledge and submit to them in love, we are loving and submitting to God as much as we might “in the highest state of contemplation.” Often we have the aspiration that when we are very sick, and even dying, we shall hand ourselves over to God by entering a state of continual prayer. Yet, as we know, when we are really weak and sick we often cannot pray, at least as we imagine prayer to be. Yet to merely go through what we are going through, in the way that we are able, is truly our path. Our suffering, our fear, our sadness and anxiety are our prayer. Jesus promises that “I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” Jesus is returning to us to take us to himself through our human life and experience. When we cease needing to be more than that, we may at last begin to know the way, to know the peace he promises.
Three things make a person worthy of this path—that one recognize it and enter upon it: first, that one submit to God relinquishing all human control, and that one piously hold on to God’s grace and willingly keep it by being forgiving in all things as far as is possible for a human will. The second thing keeping a person on this path is that one welcome all things except for sin alone. The third thing keeping a person on this path is that one do all things equally for God’s honor. Thus I think relieving my most basic need counts as much in God’s sight as if I were in the highest state of contemplation that a human being can attain. Why? If I do it out of love in order to give honor to God, it is all one and the same. But when I sin, I am not on this path.
Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, Book I, 27