“If I give myself glory, my glory is nothing. It is my Father—of whom you say, ‘He is our God’—who gives me glory; and you have not known him, but I know him. And if I say I do not know him, I shall be a liar like you; rather, I know him and keep his word.”John 8: 54-55
Throughout the “argument” of John 8, we are confronted with the claim of Jesus that he and God are one. The life and work he incarnates is the life of God in him. It is the glory of God that Jesus manifests, not his own glory.
In today’s gospel reading we are also told by Jesus that this life of God, that is his own truest life, is eternal, and so anyone who shares it with him “will never see death.” Now we know, of course, that Jesus himself is to die a cruel, painful, and shameful death. And we certainly know that we, as everyone who has and will ever lived, will also experience death. So, like those antagonists who are challenging Jesus, we too must admit to a sense of bafflement.
To begin to break through into a deeper comprehension of what Jesus is teaching, we need to acknowledge the truth that we are at once living eternal life and a life unto death. Perhaps more succinctly put, our lives are a continual dying and a continual being reborn into eternal life. From our very beginning we are dying, but it is in that very dying that we are being reformed and transformed into a life that “will never see death.” The death and resurrection of Jesus that we are soon to remember and celebrate constitute a single process of human dying and becoming, the process that is at work in us at every moment of our lives.
“If I give myself glory, my glory is nothing.” From the beginning of our own self-consciousness we are always at one level of our being seeking to glorify ourselves. The psychoanalyst Karen Horney points out that the neurotic solution is “the search for glory.” Ernest Becker wrote that it is not so much death we fear as insignificance. Just this morning I heard a story of President Trump visiting Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, and saying that Washington should have put his name on the place because if we don’t put our name up someplace we shall be forgotten. In many subtle and not so subtle ways we develop life projects that will somehow or other put our names on something so that our lives will not be insignificant.
The search for glory is the drive and energy behind much of our motivation and action on a daily basis. It is, however, a drive and a fuel that is always burning itself out. What Jean Paul Sartre termed “counterfinality” is always at work despite our efforts. However hard we work to accomplish our goals, something will always seem to impede our efforts. Our successes always seem to have about them “unintended consequences.” In our time, which features an inequality of wealth and prosperity not known since before the Great Depression, we often find ourselves mystified by how those few who have so much seem never to have enough. How can one have billions of dollars and still be fighting with all his or her might for more? How is what they have not enough? Those of us with far less do know the answer to the question experientially. For, we also, no matter what success we have or whatever status we have achieved, experience, even in the success, lack and want. Our pride form is a hungry beast that is never satiated. Thus, it devours not only any gratification, pleasure, or recognition it can attain, it is at the same time also devouring our very selves.
So Jesus describes an experience we know well when he says that “if I give myself glory, that glory is nothing.” He is describing a mode of striving, what we might call our unconscious mode of living, that while it may seem to be attaining something is actually dying, burning itself out. But Jesus then goes on to describe another life in us, the life that he lives. This is our life that “knows” its life in God and so “knows” God and keeps God’s word. It keeps the word in the sense of pondering and cherishing it but then giving it away in the spending of one’s life for others. When St. Paul says that “Christ is our life,” he is speaking of not a goal or aspiration but of a reality of a life that is going on, being lived in us all the time. The nature and dispositions of this life, however, are contrary to those of the search for glory in us. Where our willful search for significance and glory are compulsive and urgent, our “ordinary life” (as Jan van Ruusbroec terms it) is subtle and gentle, like the seed in the ground and the yeast in the dough. Where our search for glory is the work of our unconscious needs and frantic exertions, our ordinary life is a gift not to be manipulated but rather tended and nurtured. While we are, at one level, dying as we burn ourselves out, on the other we are gently and slowly giving birth to eternal life in us.
So, when St. Irenaeus says that “the glory of God is the human person fully alive,” he is speaking of the fullness of life of the Christ form in us, of our share in the eternal life of God. Adrian van Kaam says that the primordial act of violence in the world is the “refusal of our spiritual awareness.” That is, it is the refusal to recognize, to foster, and to abandon ourselves to our own “ordinary” lives. What makes this life in us that does not know death ordinary is two-fold. First, it is ordinal in the sense of primary. It is our true life. For many it lives only in disguise, covered over by an insatiable search for glory. To know this life, even to some degree, in ourselves, however, will make it impossible for us to see any human being as irredeemable. For, as Rusbroec says, this life in us knows a love that is common to all.
Our ordinary life is also, however, ordinary in the sense that it is that in us which is counter to all of the compulsions of our search for glory that often dominate our character. This is well captured by the words of Brother Reginald Cruz in his paper on Xaverian Spirituality (p. 22).
Grounded in the ordinary, a Xaverian Brother is further invited to dispose himself to a life of attentiveness, simplicity and openness to the unspectacular flow of daily life. His way is the ‘ordinary way.’ He is invited to live in gratitude and in awe of all that which typically escapes attention or notice because of its smallness, difference, foreignness, unimportance, brokenness or insignificance. To do so, he must willingly eschew any attitude, behavior or involvement that exalts or promotes superiority, privilege, exclusivity or entitlement. He must be open and hospitable to the unknown and the unexpected, ready to listen, appraise and respond with a spirit of faith, hope and love.
In practice growth in the ordinary requires, then, a constant dying to all that distinguishes our attempts to give glory to ourselves. It is to recognize the truth of the teaching of Jesus that we hear today, that “if I give myself glory, that glory is nothing.” In truth, this is no small life task. If Ernest Becker is right that our greatest fear is that of insignificance, then it is going against the grain of our unconscious to spend our lives attending to “that which typically escapes attention or notice because of its smallness, difference, foreignness, unimportance, brokenness or insignificance.” This is to make real the injunction of Jesus to take the last place and not the first, to prefer those who are left out of the banquet rather than the important people who are inside. And then the call becomes even more difficult and interior. We are willingly and continually in practice to “eschew any attitude, behavior or involvement that exalts or promotes superiority, privilege, exclusivity or entitlement.”
To know eternal life we must reject all the trappings of the search for glory. We must become poor in every sense of the world. We are not just to serve the poor from a privileged position, we are to become poor, in the world’s eyes, that we might begin to know the glory that comes not from ourselves and our world but from God. This is only possible when we reorient our lives and the ways we use our time. For most of us, we spend the bulk of our waking hours in the search for glory, on a life that is always dying. While, within us, we share a life in God that is eternal. If a resolution is to emerge from this year’s lenten practice, perhaps it could be to spend more of our time glorifying God that God may glorify us. May we, in very concrete and particular ways, eschew the compulsions of the search for glory and cultivate appreciation of, gratitude for, and a simple dwelling in our ordinary lives.
The simplest persons are those who are the most satisfied and most at peace with themselves. They are also the most deeply immersed in God, the most enlightened in their understanding, the most diversified in their good works, and the most wide-ranging in the way their love flows out to all in common. They also meet with the fewest obstacles, for they are the most like God, who is himself simplicity in his inmost being, resplendent clarity in his understanding, and love flowing out to all in common in his union with him. For this reason we should abide simply in the ground of our being, observe all things with an enlightened power of reason, and flow through all things with a love common to all, just as the sun in the heavens remains simple and unchanged in itself while its resplendent light and heat are to be found universally in all parts of the world.Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, IV, B