Jesus said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
Today’s gospel from Matthew on this Feast of Saints Peter and Paul is the familiar recounting of a profound encounter. Jesus turns a discussion into an encounter by not settling for the small talk about what others think of him and rather calls on the disciples to express who he is for them. When Peter does so, speaking out of a place that he did not even himself know existed, he is expressing and confirming not only who Jesus is but also his own call, the true meaning and purpose of his own life.
In Catholic apologetics, much is made of Jesus’ privileging of Peter with the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Scripture scholarship, however, is pretty much agreed on the fact that an accurate reading of the text does not support such an interpretation. Yet, this makes no less miraculous what is occurring, for it is no less than a revelation of how we come to know and to incarnate our own unique life call and mission. That call that we are comes from a depth of our own originality, the depth that Peter expresses in his response to Jesus’ question. It is only from the depths of our origin and original calling that we are able to recognize who Jesus is, and it is in the expression of that truth that we express our own truth.
The Fundamental Principles state:
If you allow yourself
to be formed by God
through the common,
flow of everyday life,
you will experience a liberation and a freedom
never before imagined.
As we live in the world of commonsense, in the habitual and repetitive world of our everyday lives, we are not even able to imagine our own identity. We live an identity that is the product of our society. When Jesus asks first of the disciples “Who do people say that I am?”, he is asking them to speak out of what sociologist Peter Berger called “the social construction of reality.” Their answers to this question bear no uniqueness about them. They are merely repeating what “people” say. The words they utter come not at all from them, but rather from the crowd and collective.
In the United States these days we speak often of the need to find common ground between opposing points of view. As well-intentioned as this may be, it is inherently doomed to failure. For in our society we have ceased to be individuals, to be original and unique. So socially conditioned are most of us, at this point, that we cannot even imagine what the life spoken of by the Fundamental Principles could be in our regard. Recently someone wrote to me expressing, I am imagining, that there was an unbridgeable gap between us because “we have different theologies.” Similarly we could speak of different politics, or different interests, or different personality types. Yet we cannot, in truth, be reduced to any of these things.
If my “theology” separates me from others, it also separates me from myself. For my very image of God, as image, is constantly changing. I only begin to approach the ever-receding horizon of God when I leave my theologies and philosophies in favor of the kind of “learned ignorance” of which Nicholas of Cusa speaks. That ignorance is actually illumination. It is the willingness to allow ourselves “to be formed by God through the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.” It is an openness to having the truth shown to me by refusing to grasp it on my own terms. This humility and openness is the expression of my own originality and of our common life. It is knowing, without being able to identity in words, the one I am who is loved and called by God with a love that, as Ruusbroec says, is “common to all.”
The truth of the matter is that all real ground is common ground. Where I am at once a unique call of God, there I am at one with all others and all creation. Because our life is at its foundation a “common” life, we can only come to recognize and realize that life through encounter. At the core of much of the teaching of Pope Francis is his call to all the world to create “a culture of encounter.” True encounter, however, requires that we move, as Jesus moves the disciples, from the socially-constructed world to the truly inter-personal world.
So, Jesus challenges the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” This may the the core question at the heart of the gospels, perhaps followed by the question to Peter in John’s gospel, “Do you love me?” At least for me, at this advanced age of life, the answer remains quite tentative and confused. If, as Jesus demands, I am to let go of all of those answers of education, tradition, early life formation, and social indoctrination, I stand before him in fear and trembling. As long as I can rationalize an identity for Jesus and then apportion him the place in my constructed identity that I can comfortably give him, I can somehow live with positioning him outside of the center of my life. I can carry on as I wish to, while imagining a relationship to him on my terms. But, if I realize that Jesus is looking at me and asking me who he is for me, then I understand that he is also asking who I am. And then, I experience the place of fear and trembling of which Kierkegaard speaks.
When I experience truly loving a person, it evokes in me an insatiable longing to be known by that person. I experience every common, ordinary, everyday lie with which I live as an obstacle to the union I desire. I want to tell this person the truth about me, which is in large part the secrets I have kept throughout my life. I somehow intuit that their acceptance and love for me, which I see as a mirror of mine for them, has the power to make me whole, at one, liberated and free. I crave to encounter them without falsehood, pretense, or shame. I experience by analogy the opposite of Adam and Eve hiding from God in the garden.
Where secrecy, falseness, shame, and fear prevail, there can be no true encounter. Peter’s call, which is the Church’s call, is revealed in its honest declaration of Jesus’ identity as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This declaration, however, must go far beyond the social, institutional, and theological. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” When we find ourselves totally surprised by our answer to Jesus’ question, we shall have some intimation of its authenticity. When we touch that place in us, beyond all the limitations of our needs for acceptance and conformity, we shall hear an answer to Jesus that is also the expression of our original calling.
Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation, and who was ultimately killed at the age of 29 in Auschwitz. In her journals she writes the following prayer:
Oh God, I thank you for having created me as I am. I thank you for the sense of fulfillment I sometimes have: that fulfillment is after all nothing but being filled with You. I promise You to strive my whole life long for beauty and harmony and also humility and true love, whispers of which I hear inside me during my best moments.
As young as she was, Etty Hillesum knew experientially the “whispers” of her true call. As long as we attempt to live a life and to work in the world without encountering the Lord out of our own original call, we shall, to varying degrees, be living in illusion. We shall work on a world of our creation, rather than of God’s. We shall waste our limited human energy and resources on silencing the whisper of the truth. It is not easy to hear the question, but if we are to truly live, we must dare to face it: “Who do you say that I am?”
. . . to work at ourselves becomes not only the prime moral obligation, but at the same time, in a very real sense, the prime moral privilege. To the extent that we take our growth seriously, it will be because of our own desire to do so. And . . . as we become free to grow ourselves, we also free ourselves to love and to feel concern for other people. We will then want to give them the opportunity for unhampered growth when they are young, and to help them in whatever way possible to find and realize themselves when they are blocked in their development. . . . Whether for ourselves or for others, the ideal is the liberation and the cultivation of the forces which lead to self-realization.
Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth