“I pray not only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”
Many years ago a friend from my boyhood whom I had not seen in years came to see me in a moment in his life where everything seemed to be falling apart. He had two doctoral degrees in psychology and an apparently full life with his wife and daughters in an affluent suburban neighborhood. Yet, after over 20 years of marriage he and his wife were on the verge of divorce, and the depression which he had struggled to manage all of his life was becoming disabling. Over time, as we spoke more to each other, it became evident that there was much in his life, for example his children whom he dearly loved, that could have been a source of joy. Yet, it was impossible to sense in him any joy, even as he spoke of them and of other persons and situations that would have seemed, on their face, to be inherently enjoyable. Even, ever so slowly, as the sense of crisis passed in him, when he would reflect on his life as a whole, any real personal experience of joy seemed absent.
We in the developed world live in cultures that seem to be in frantic pursuit of personal gratification. We crave experiences of satisfaction and that give us a sense of personal potency. We are driven by the impulses of our cultures, the pulsations of our drives, and the ambitions of our functional capacities. Yet, we seem, in large part, to have suppressed or repressed that place deep within us that so deeply desires joy. From the point of view of the great spiritual traditions, human beings are created for enjoyment. This deep joy, however, is markedly different from its phantom substitutes: gratification and functional potency. It is not dependent on the satisfaction of a vital drive or the sense of power that comes with the fulfillment of a functional ambition. It is rather the experience of a deep resting in the love that pulsates at the very core of our being.
Ruusbroec writes: “But when we are embraced and enveloped by the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit above all exercises of love, then we are all one, just as Christ, both God and a human being, is one with the Father in their fathomless mutual love. In this same love we are all brought to perfection in a single state of eternal enjoyment, that is, in a blessed and empty being which is incomprehensible to all creatures.” The spiritual experience of joy comes not from anything we do, but rather when we know the truth of being “embraced and enveloped by the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.” Ruusbroec says that our more ordinary experience of the love of God, of living in God, is due to the dialectic of God’s grace in us and our good works in return. In this way we are united with God. Yet, this is not our deepest spiritual capacity; it is not yet the “end” of our lives. We are made, ultimately, to be “embraced and enveloped by the Father and the Son.” It is in this, he says, that we fulfill the prayer of Jesus in today’s gospel, “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us.”
A good friend, who is much younger than me and so in the earlier stages of his life’s journey of love and work, speaks often of what seems to him to be a serious and dehumanizing problem with our culture and its values. Since money seems to be the primary focus of our attention, work, in its least significant sense as that which is done merely to increase income, has become at once both degraded and a person’s only purpose. We even speak of education as if it is merely job training, “the way to success,” which for us almost always means financial success. So pervasive is this cultural sense that there is almost no sector of society that questions it. Yet, from the perspective of the gospels and the mystics, it is profoundly anthropologically and spiritually mistaken. We are made not “to work,” but for enjoyment!
In the United States we are coming to recognize that the population at large is experiencing a deep and almost disturbing discontent. Our interpretation of that is primarily that it is economic; that is, people work harder and, in effect, receive less pay for their work. And this is undeniably true. The added work hours and even the added productivity of the American worker is accruing primarily to the financial benefit of the few. Profits are no longer shared with workers but instead only benefit owners, executives, and stockholders. The economic problem, however, is also a spiritual one. Our society has now become a world in which work is the product of “workers” and not “persons who work.” Work is done for the benefit of the wealthy, while the worker lives only to work ever harder merely to survive.
I suspect that for many in our culture, it would sound quaint or naive to say that what makes us truly human is our capacity for enjoyment, that the purpose of study and education is not primarily job training but an education for leisure and enjoyment. In the Genesis account of the the fall from grace of humanity, we see that working “by the sweat of our brow” is the effect of our losing our contact and communion with the source and end of our lives, which is God. Our true destiny is to realize once again in our lives that we have lost that connection and so to return to it.
There is such suffering in the world because over the course of centuries the greed and acquisitiveness of the few deprives the many of their rightful share of creation’s gifts. The Democratic Republic of Congo is, in terms of its natural inheritance, among the most richly endowed countries on earth. Yet, it’s people are among the most impoverished, because its wealth is drained to satisfy the greed of the few. As becomes more apparent every day, once we invert our spiritual destiny and values into material ones, our greed is insatiable. As we attempt to find security in satisfying that greed, we become only evermore discontented and depressed. It is from this that our tendencies to violence increase.
When I examine myself or share the lives of others like my friend who seem to have lost our capacity for enjoyment, I begin to discern a common pattern of living. It is flight and dissociation from our own being. When our lives are but a dispersed and frantic search to acquire things, money, security, or whatever, we are no longer able to receive life and world as they are given to us. William Wordsworth wrote:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
or let me die!
What makes us distinctively human is not our capacity to satisfy our drives and needs, or to function effectively. The latter is clearly important for the making of a life. But what is our true destiny in life? It is not to be successful or to be effective. It is to discover enjoyment by inhabiting our true place, which is a place of communion with all in God. We and much religious teaching make a terrible mistake, to the detriment of our personal and social lives, when we relegate that “end” to another world. We are made to live in and enjoy this communion even now.
In cultures where the spiritual dimension of life is repressed, all of this may well sound ethereal or even ridiculous. It is so mysterious to us that even in educational settings that have been created to evangelize and form students in the word of Jesus, the goal is often to educate to ethical values and service. For, how do we educate to enjoyment? Although Wordsworth terms his experience “natural piety,” he does point the way. Children do not need to be taught how to live in awe and in reverence of mystery. They do not need to be reminded of their connection to the physical and material world. Yet, before long, we become formed by our cultures to see ourselves not as participants in the world but as masters, if not antagonists, of it. We have lost the understanding that there are far worse things we can do than just sit still. We live and act in the world forgetting that to give form to our life and world in truth and with integrity we must first receive that form from the giver of life.
Enjoyment for us is the fruit of contemplation. Many years ago my cousin, who was then graduating from a Catholic high school, visited me at home. When he saw the many books we had from the great spiritual teachers of many traditions, he asked how he could have been in religious schools his whole life and never heard about them. He learned doctrine and morals, he even learned the history of the church and some theology, but he never heard the ways of prayer and contemplation of these spiritual teachers. Contemplation is not elitist. It is not merely for the few. It is the way to know who we really are and what our lives are for. In today’s gospel Jesus says that it is in the communion of all who come to know him with himself and his father “that the world may believe” that God sent him. It is their witnessing of the enjoyment that comes from life in communion with each other and with God that the world will come to know the truth that Jesus brings.
Even among believers, it is far too easy to act as if all we are for is to work. As Joseph Pieper pointed out decades ago, in the west, and far beyond now, we have come to think that leisure is for the sake of work rather than the other way around. We “rest” to recharge for our life that is, for the most part, work. The truth, however, is that we are meant to work for the sake of leisure, but leisure as worship, as awe, as enjoyment. In a typically ironic statement, Oscar Wilde paraphrased Socrates’ famous dictum. He said “The unlived life is not worth examining.” To live without enjoyment and without a growing capacity for enjoyment is not to live at all. But enjoyment is not something we can produce or control. It is rather the free gift of our deepest reality, which we can only know by truly living in such a way that our deepest human potentials are realized. In our society and in our time, we may well need to begin on this way by “not doing.” We perhaps must practice seeing “the rainbow in the sky” and taking the time to allow our hearts to leap up in joy at the truth that we are there to do so.
God’s work is his very self and his nature, and in his works we are empty and transformed, becoming one with him in his love. But we do not become one with him in his nature, for then we would come to nought in ourselves and be God, which is impossible. There, however, we are above reason and also without reason in a state of clear knowing, in which we feel no difference between ourselves and God, for we have been breathed forth in his love above and beyond ourselves and all orders of being. There we have no demands or desires and we neither give nor take. There is only a blessed and empty being, the crown and essential reward of all holiness and all virtues.
This is what our dear Lord Jesus Christ desired when he said: “Father, I desire that all whom you have given me may be one as we are one” (cf. Jn 17:11:24). He did not mean one in every respect, for he is one with his Father in nature, since he is God, and also one with us in our nature, since he is a human being. He lives in us and we in him though his grace and our good works, and so he is united with us and we with him. In his grace, and with him, we love and revere our heavenly Father but are not one with him, for the Father loves us and we love him in return, and in this loving and being loved we always feel a difference and a duality; this is the nature of eternal love. But when we are embraced and enveloped by the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit above all exercises of love, then we are all one, just as Christ, both God and a human being, is one with the Father in their fathomless mutual love. In this same love we are all brought to perfection in a single state of eternal enjoyment, that is, in a blessed and empty being which is incomprehensible to all creatures.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, III,D