“Even if I myself testify concerning myself, my testimony is valid; because I know where I come from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You pass judgment according to the flesh; I pass judgment on no one. But, even if I judge, my judgment is valid because it is not only I, but rather I and the one who has sent me. . . . I am the one testifying concerning myself, and the Father, who has sent me, testifies concerning me.”John 8: 14-18
One thing we can say, without hesitation, about the Jesus of the gospels is that he is, above all, a witness to the truth. His testimony is true and valid because he knows where he comes from and where he is going. There is but one judge of the truth and validity of the path he is walking, and that judge is God, Jesus’ Father.
The call to recognize the truth, to know the truth in order to become truly free, as Jesus says in John 8:32, is a call to suffering in this life. It is a suffering at many levels. It means suffering the reality of who we are, as opposed to the idealized and glorified self that we create, and it means suffering the truth of human weakness, failure, and sinfulness. The human world, which includes ourselves, is broken. Because human sinfulness is a reality, the only way to wholeness, redemption, and “at-one-ment” is through suffering the truth of that brokenness. Yet, if we dare to suffer it, we discover a light that shines in that darkness — a freedom that comes only in acknowledging and living from the truth.
One characteristic of the truth, as Jesus speaks of it, is that it lacks the arrogance of human absolutes and certainties. This is precisely why the truth of Jesus is so threatening to some around him. It is clear in his very person that his word, which is his life, is truth. Yet, those who must continue to hold on to their absolutes and certainties are unable to receive the truth from him, for they fear the truth of who they are without the illusion of those certainties.
In his text written after the events of September 11, 2001, Rowan Williams tells the story of receiving a phone call from a news program in Wales. He writes:
The caller started speaking to me in Welsh, which I understand without difficulty, but don’t always find it easy to use in an unscripted and possibly rather complex discussion. I had to decide: if I answered in Welsh, the conversation would go on in Welsh, and I had some misgivings about coping with it.Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust, pp. 15-16
I am spoken to; I have some choices about how to answer. It seemed a telling metaphor at that particular moment. Violence is a communication, after all, of hatred, fear, or contempt, and I have a choice about the language I am going to use to respond. If I decide to answer in the same terms, that is how the conversation will continue. . . . And perhaps, we should at least ask, before we reply, the kind of question we might ask if we’re addressed in a language we’re not quite sure about: can I continue this conversation, have I the will and resource for it?
Clearly, the plea of Williams to the United States, that it pause before answering in kind the violent language it has just heard, went unheeded to disastrous and long enduring effect. His example, however, applies as well to our own daily life. In our very life, the truth from God addresses us in a language that is largely foreign to us, a language we are capable of speaking in return but only by suffering the limits of our absolutes and certainties. We confuse the truth with what conforms to those absolutes and certainties in us, but the truth is of a totally different and even foreign nature to us.
All of these thoughts spring from my experience at mass yesterday evening. During Lent, the local parish I attend has had members of the congregation offer a brief personal reflection after communion on the scriptures of the day. Last evening a woman offered her personal response to the reading from John 8 of the woman taken in adultery. She spoke with a truthfulness and authority that is rare not only in church but in any setting. She began by saying that as she read the gospel, she prayed to God to tell her whom she needed to forgive that she was not aware of. She then stayed quietly in prayer waiting for her answer. As she did so, she recalled an episode from when she was eight years old. Her mother had died, and her father was now bringing up four children on his own. One day, when at Sunday mass with her father and three siblings, she hears a woman behind her saying, “Four children! Who is going to take care of them?” As she remembered this incident, she was able to remember the humiliation and anger that she felt, and she realized that she had spent her entire life proving that in her intellectual life she didn’t need any help. She had achieved mightily in school and in her professional life, and she was certain that she had done all that on her own and without any help, including God’s. God had a place in much of her life, but not in this very central one which was her intellectual life and accomplishment.
With this memory, God had answered her question in a life changing way. God had shown her the place in her heart that had become proud and hardened. To open what had been closed to God, she needed to forgive both that unknown woman from so many years ago, and then herself: the woman who had been so superior and arrogant; and herself who had become so hardened, resentful, and proud. We hear lots of words in church, some of which are eloquent and even beautiful and inspiring. Yet seldom do we hear any that are so powerfully and resonantly true as these. Not often is there such an honest and personal witness to the opening of the heart and spirit to God’s life and direction in life, and such willingness to abandon even that which is most tightly held in response to God’s word. This woman was expressing aloud the willingness to suffer her life in a whole new way, while relinquishing control and certainty in that one area that had given her life its strength and meaning.
What we think of as our very character and personality, as Freud pointed out, is but a hard shell that shields us from our pain and our losses. A young eight year old had felt demeaned and humiliated by the judgment and pity of a stranger, and she resolved that she would never again have to suffer that pain. In so doing, she had sealed off a part of her heart to the love and mercy of God. To allow God into the place from which she had excluded God, she had to choose to suffer that which she had devoted her life to denying by the creation of the absolute certainty of her own power. To forgive where she had been unable to forgive, she needed to suffer the pain that her whole personality had been designed to avoid.
What made her witness so powerful was her ability to share the vulnerability she had experienced in becoming so open-hearted with God and herself. Her words spoke not to some abstract certainty or absolute. They rather expressed that truth that comes from knowing, in a new and deeper way, where she came from and where she was going. Her words were a vehicle for the expression of her real life and of God’s work in her. Thus, in her speaking to us, she was doing the work that God had given her to do, to show us God’s life and work in the world in her.
God’s judgment and testimony are the same thing. God judges us in the truth of who we are called to be and testifies at that very moment to who we are in God. This action of love on God’s part always includes suffering for us, for we are invested in our own illusions, the illusions that have protected us from the suffering of our own being. But we are able to bear the truth of our own lives. In fact, it is only in that truth the we then know God’s testifying on our behalf. As we enter this year’s commemoration of Jesus’ passion, we are challenged once again with the strange truth that what looks like suffering to us is actually the ultimate expression of love. Last evening I heard testimony to the truth that in suffering what she had felt unbearable, one young woman realized love and forgiveness, of herself and others. Her question of God is one well worth asking ourselves these final days of Lent: “Who do I need to forgive that I am not even aware of?”
While most individuals remain in the stage of proficiency for years and even decades, the reverse seems true for both John of the Cross and Etty [Hillesum]. Why did they progress so swiftly through this night? The writings of the great Carmelite mystic Ruth Burrows offer some insight into this question. Like John of the Cross, Burrows believed that few individuals would obtain a state of divine union in this life, not because God was not beckoning them forward, but rather because of the soul’s resistance. Burrows asserted that individuals are “weak, shrinking from trouble, unwilling to endure the least discomfort or mortification.” For St. John of the Cross, suffering seemed to provide the trajectory toward transcendence, whereas evading suffering impeded the soul’s advancement. . . . Though separated by the vast chasm of time and religious tradition, Etty’s words echo those of St. John of the Cross: “If all this suffering does not help us to broaden our horizon, to attain greater humanity by shedding all trifling and irrelevant issues, then it will all have been for nothing.” The degree of suffering experienced by both John of the Cross and Etty Hillesum brought each of them to the threshold of death and propelled them beyond absolutes and certainties.Theresa Galan-Bruce, “An Unlikely Mystic: Etty Hillesum and the Dark Night,” in Offerings, Oblate School of Theology, Vol. 11, p. 60.