“When you lift up the Son of Man, then you know that I AM, and I do nothing from myself; but, just as the Father taught me, I speak these things.  And the one who has sent me is with me; he did not leave me alone, because I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”

John 8: 28-9

As, in a liturgical and scriptural sense, we move inexorably toward the mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are drawn into the profound paradox of human experience that it is only in ceasing to flee from suffering and sadness that we come to recognize and realize the joy that is beyond telling. We know from psychoanalysis that it is the nature of our unconscious to crave and seek pleasure and to avoid pain. Yet, as pleasure and joy are not at all the same thing, to live unconsciously, as the Pharisees do, is to never know the joy of a life that is a life in communion with One who loves us.

The eighth chapter of John’s gospel is not always easy for us to grasp. Today Jesus says that “I AM and I do nothing from myself; but just as the Father taught me, I speak these things.” Most of us learned quite early in our religious education that when Jesus says “I AM” in the gospel of John he is quite deliberately echoing God’s self-description to Moses out of the burning bush. “I AM sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:14) Jesus also, however, speaks to another possible self-identity, “I do nothing from myself.” Thus we can live, speak, and act out of the Self that is “I Am,” or out of “myself.” God himself testifies to Jesus because what he does and says is only what the Father has taught him, that is, has done and spoken through him.

Recently I watched a mini-series on PBS entitled Mrs. Wilson. It is based on the true story of a woman who discovers, after the death of her husband of 20 years, that he had multiple other families. As his contorted life story unfolds, one is almost overwhelmed at the layer upon layer of lies that constituted his identity. As I watched, I couldn’t help but feel challenged concerning the truth of my own life. While at the surface level my life would appear to have at least a modicum of integrity, I could not help but feel troubled about the deeper authenticity of my own life. By public profession, I proclaim to the world that I give all in poverty, celibate chastity, and obedience in abandonment to God and God’s life in me. Yet, in honesty, I must admit that I am far from being able to say that “I do nothing from myself,” from my craving for pleasure and aversion to pain. There are countless moments in a single day when I am not loving God alone with all my heart and soul and mind and strength. Far too often my speaking and doing is not from who I AM, but rather from “myself.” from the one I am intent on being who is separate from God.

The inner conflict we experience is due to the fact that it is the nature of our soul to suffer. There is a basic and foundational principle of the distinctively human life and that is that we must be willing to suffer our own life and experience. Thus, paradoxically, although we call life in pursuit of the pleasure principle narcissism, it is really flight from the Self. It is the stubborn refusal to bear with our own human experience and the suffering of the world. It is the rejection of the cross. it is the failure to truly understand that sadness and joy are not incompatible. As the poet W. S. Merwin writes:

sadness can rise in us
in the midst of happiness
and joy can take us by surprise
in the midst of great sadness
  both of them know us
from before we were here

There is a certain psychology of the “self” that seems to believe that to strengthen one’s sense of self one must deny all that would challenge it. One must beware of sadness, lest one fall inexorably into depression. One must overcome fallibility and weakness, and if unable to do so then must public deny it. In its religious manifestations, especially in American religion, it can mean that fear, sadness, and doubt are signs of disbelief, and that the believer, if saved, must always perceive positively. The great virtues of the “self” are power and control; absent these one’s very existence is threatened. 

The openness and availability to sadness and joy of which Merwin speaks feels very dangerous to the isolated self, to what our culture considers the healthy ego. Yet, “both of them know us / from before we were here.” Our suffering of soul, in both happiness and joy, is our participation in a life which knows us as far beyond our ego encapsulation. It is this openness of heart and soul from which the words and acts of God spring in and through us. 

As a child, I had a basically very good and loving upbringing. Yet, there was also much unspoken pain, conflict, and fear in my world. My father, as good a human being as I have ever known, was also an alcoholic. At a time when addiction was little understood for the illness of body and soul that it is, his struggle was a constant source of tension between my parents and so in our family environment. Without realizing it, at almost every moment I was being taught that an acceptable life in the world required secrets and lies. These secrets and lies were not only external in nature, a way of relating to the world by keeping hidden those things that were shameful, but they also became in time a default way of relating to myself.

Those needs, feelings, desires, and hurts that seemed so powerful had to be denied. To me, my parents seemed to be dealing with far too much to be able to bear my own deep insecurities and fears, my loneliness and self-loathing. And the only way I could avoid bringing what seemed to be these too powerful and overwhelming feelings into their lives and into the world was by denying and refusing them. The experiences I was fleeing, however, were really my access to the truth, to the deeper life which is at once both broken and lovable. Theodore Ryken used to say that “the ways of God are often inscrutable but always adorable.” The manufactured self wants the adorability without the inscrutability. 

Adrian van Kaam says that two characteristics of the human heart are sensibility and responsibility. These are complements. To act responsibly, that is in response to the truth of situations, requires that our hearts can sense that truth. The passion of Jesus is not only the physical suffering of the cross. It is also the deep pathos and sadness he experiences as “he came to his own and his own did not receive him.” it is his desiring only to love the world and yet to be rejected by it. It is longing to share the passover with his disciples, yet to have it interrupted by the betrayal of one of them. It is to die abandoned by all except the very few.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “What does not kill us makes us stronger.” Perhaps differently from what he intended, there is a profound spiritual truth here. Our life of craving and aversion tells us that we are unable to bear our own life and experience. But this is a great lie. The reasons of our heart are too much for the limits of those defenses that we have developed to keep sadness and joy at a manageable distance. Our hearts can be open to life and experience, but not selectively. If we insist on repressing or dissociating from the sadness, we shall never know the joy. For these come from the same place, that knew us before we were here. When we live from this place, we can then assert, with Jesus, that we do nothing of ourselves but only what the Father gives us to do. 

From Our Shadows

There are so many words for sadness
and for joy so few
maybe none
that can tell
the sound of that secret spring
welling up from before words
though when its voice rises
within us
we want to be able to tell
someone about it
if they will stay to hear
talk about
what is beyond words
sadness can rise in us
in the midst of happiness
and joy can take us by surprise
in the midst of great sadness
both of them know us
from before we were here
but if we speak to them
only sadness lingers
to hear us out
joy disappears
to wait for us it may be
where we least expect it

W.S. Merwin

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