Beloved ones, now we are children of God, and what we shall be has not yet become apparent. We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him makes himself pure, just as that one is pure.1 John 3:2-3
John also testified by saying: “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove from the sky, and he rested on him. And I did not recognize him; rather he who sent me to baptize in water, that one said to me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit descending, and resting upon him, this is he who baptizes in a Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this man is the Son of God.”John 1:32-34
In today’s gospel from John, John the Baptist twice asserts that he was testifying to one whom he did not know. As many times in the course of life that I have heard this description of the life and work of John the Baptist, I don’t think I ever before realized the power of this very mysterious aspect of John’s ministry. “And I myself did not recognize him, although I came baptizing in water so that he might be made manifest to Israel.” One of the more discomfiting manifestations for me of some forms of Christian belief is the assertion by some that they know Jesus so well. I don’t really know if my unease is rooted more in their certainty or my uncertainty. In all likelihood it is a combination of both. The gospel passage today gives me some consolation concerning my own experience. John’s life call and mission was to baptize in water in order to serve the manifesting of Jesus as Christ to Israel — and yet he does not know him adequately to recognize him when he first appears.
We who have been formed in the Christian faith tradition readily speak of living to serve God in Christ. Yet, we serve One whom we do not really know, in the conventional and sensory way, and even may fail to recognize when God’s presence is made manifest. What does it mean to center one’s life on and to devote one’s work to the Mystery, to one whom we can love but not know as we know the material world? And, as the first letter of John points out, how do “we” do this when our own end, our own life in its fullness, is also unknown to us?
In The Spiritual Espousals, Jan van Ruusbroec speaks of three ways of living out our faith in Christ. The first is the way of every believer, which he calls “the active life.” The second way, “the interior life,” is that which many “attain through the practice of virtue and the grace of God.” The third which, according to Ruusbroec few “are able to attain or savor,” is “the contemplative life.” In actual practice, these are not so much various stages through which we pass as they are aspects of our “common and ordinary” experience. One of the problems we often face in thinking about a teaching such as this is that we bring our own presuppositions and understandings to what we term “the active life.” Especially in our functionally-oriented cultures, we fail to distinguish the very different levels at which we function and work. We fail to see what the quality of our work indicates about the depth and significance of our activity.
As a young person in school, and even including undergraduate school, I related to my studies as tasks to be accomplished. I would adequately complete the assignments which were given to me in such a way as to achieve, at least much of the time, the desired result, which meant a decent grade. At some point in graduate school, I began to experience my own desire to learn and understand. At that point, the quality of my presence to my studies changed. I did not read, think, and write merely to attain a good-enough grade. I desired to gain insight and understanding so that I could live more intentionally and purposefully. I longed to really understand my own life and experience, and so its purpose and end, not only for myself but so that I could in any small way bring that knowledge to the service of the human and spiritual unfolding of others. Although I was active throughout the years of schooling, the quality, purpose, and even origin of my activity was very different from this point on.
So, “the active life” in its distinctively human manifestation is not mere functioning. It is rather acting out of our own deepest desires. Although, as John the Baptist, we do not and cannot “know” God, the deepest desire and intention of our own heart is our way to God and God’s way to earth through us. We are serving God and Christ’s mission in the world when we do our work by loving “with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.” When we do this, every common and ordinary work and task becomes our “desirous and loving immersion into the abyss of the Godhead.”
One of the capital sins that the tradition identified quite early on was the sin of acedia, that is “not caring” or spiritual laziness. There is something in us that resists giving all we have to what we do. We all realize that learning to do this requires of us serious practice and resolute discipline. As I reflect on my own life and how slowly I have learned and continued to learn that to function without desire and love is a refusal to really live the life I have been given, I think often about why I resist so strongly spending the love I have to give through my work in the world. The unknowing of which John the Baptist speaks in today’s gospel, how he actually gives and risks his life for someone he does not yet know or recognize, sheds light on my own resistance and withholding.
To be lazy, to just do the minimum or what one needs to do to get by, is to save up some of oneself for oneself rather than spending it all in love. It is to resist and repress the deepest desire we have to lose ourselves in the beloved, to know a love so great that we want to give our whole life for its sake. To our minds, however, that looks a lot like death. What if we give all we have and it is not nearly enough? What if we spend ourselves and get nothing in return? What if we love with all we have and discover that our love is an illusion?
Often we speak of faith, hope, and love as if they are totally distinct virtues or dispositions. Yet, our fear of loving, which means acting and working out of love and desire, reminds us that love is inseparable from faith and hope. Van Ruusbroec says that when our soul ascends with desire above the created order, the activity of the senses and all natural light, then “it meets Christ in the light of faith; it becomes enlightened and confesses that God is unknowable and incomprehensible.” When we speak of serving God in our work, we are speaking, as does John the Baptist, of giving all we have and are for one who is unknowable and incomprehensible. It is only our intention and desire that can “know” God. When we work from anything less than the fullness of our heart’s desire, we cannot be serving God. When we do what we do for any “reason” other than to spend all we have and are for the unknowable and incomprehensible in faith, hope, and love, “all is not well with us,” as Meister Eckhart says.
Human cultures, which include our religious traditions, are wary of the power of the heart’s and soul’s desire that burns within each person. We have perhaps not yet begun to explore the significance and power of what Jesus utters in Luke 12:48-49: “And to everyone to whom much was given, from him much will be demanded, and from the one to whom much has been entrusted they will request far more. I came to fling fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” All we have been given is “demanded” of us. We are not capable of giving that, however, except when we live and act out of our own deepest desire. There is the fire in each human being that was present in John the Baptist, and in Jesus himself. So much of that power and fire, however, is lost and wasted when we settle for comfort and security.
The true and final object of our love is always incomprehensible and unknowable to us. And yet, to dare to know the strength and insatiability of our desire, and, in that desire, to give all of ourselves in faith and hope and love to our work, is, as van Ruusbroec says, to have “the highest knowledge of God that a person can acquire in the active life.” Jesus says he has come that the fire that we contain may be flung upon the earth. True community is the space in which we “mutually help, encourage, and edify one another” to live and work out of our heart’s desire. It is that community that strengthens and en-courages us to give ourselves away, despite the unknowability and incomprehensibility of that which we serve. We fear that we have and are too little, and that when we give what we desire to give away, we shall be left empty. Van Ruusbroec reminds us, however, that when we give all our love away, we then discover Christ and are filled with his gifts.
John the Baptist gave himself and risked his life unto death for one whom, for much of his ministry, he did not know or recognize. He, as we, could only love in faith and in hope. If we fearfully hold back our “love and intent” we shall never abide in God, because we have withheld ourselves from the only way we can know God, in faith, hope, and love.
Here comes Jesus, who sees this person and speaks to him in the light of glory, saying that according to his divinity he is infinite, incomprehensible, inaccessible, and fathomless, transcending all created light and every finite concept. This is the highest knowledge of God that a person can acquire in the active life, namely, that he acknowledge in the light of faith that God is incomprehensible and unknowable. In this light Christ says to this person’s desire, “Come down quickly, for I must stay at your house today” (Lk 19:5). This quick descent is nothing other than a desirous and loving immersion into the abyss of the Godhead, where no understanding which requires created light can reach. But where understanding remains without, desire and love enter within.Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, I,iv,D
When the soul thus inclines toward God with love and intent above all that it understands, then it abides in God and God in it. When the soul ascends with desire above the multiplicity of the created order, above the activity of the senses and above all natural light, then it meets Christ in the light of faith; it becomes enlightened and confesses that God is unknowable and incomprehensible. When the soul inclines with desire toward this incomprehensible God, then it meets Christ and is filled with his gifts. When it loves and is at rest above all gifts, above itself, and above all creatures, then it abides in God and God in it. This is how we are to meet Christ at the highest level of the active life.