It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, / to raise up the tribes of Jacob, / and restore the survivors of Israel; / I will make you a light to the nations, / that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.Isaiah 49: 6
When he had left Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and he will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. You will look for me, and as I told the Jews, ‘Where I go you cannot come,’ so now I say it to you.”John 13:31-33
As a child, and no doubt well into adulthood and even to the present time, I lived with and tried to evade one great fear among all others: that I would finally be left all alone. From the beginnings of consciousness through all of my most formative years, a disturbing anxiety that I couldn’t be accepted and wouldn’t be welcomed pervaded all of my actions and choices. Some of this is attributable to the fact of being an only child and so never being quite confident who I was and how I was to act around my peers. In time, however, I have learned that in its own unique way in each of us this fear is at the heart of daring to become who we are.
Finally, like Jesus says in today’s gospel, we must all go to a place where no one else can come. This is not merely dying our own death but at some point it is the choice to live our own life and to fulfill our own call and life task. Peter cannot go with Jesus, although he needn’t have betrayed him, because this is now the time for Jesus to glorify God as only he can. He tells us that it is in doing so that he is glorified.
Isaiah tells us that the desire of God is that God’s “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” For that to happen, however, requires that each of us, God’s servants, becomes God’s light for the nations. To be this light requires of us that we come to know and to be in action that unique light that we are called to be. This is difficult for us because we are receiving calls to conform ourselves to the demands of the world from multiple directions. Etty Hillesum, who as a young woman chooses at some point to submit to “relocation” to a concentration camp by the Nazis in solidarity with her people, speaks of how others tell her that she has too much to offer with her life to allow this to happen. This is one of the great temptations to being the light that we are: the arrogance, as she terms it, of being special, “to think oneself too good to share the fate of the masses.”
As we read the narratives of Jesus’ impending death this week, the words of Philippians 2:5-8 reverberate in our consciousness:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
We radiate the light that we are called to bring into the world as we discover how we are, at once, unique and common. To be ordinary, in the sense of which the mystic Jan van Ruusbroec speaks of it, is to share the common life and love in our own unique way. This spiritual disposition is one that requires a real reformation of our socially conforming way of seeing things. At least in our own western culture, we see ourselves as becoming unique through comparison and competition with others. We need to be special, to somehow be better than others. For this to be true, we must eschew “commonness.” As the Pharisee says in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican: ‘Lord, I thank you that I am not like the rest of human beings.” (Luke 18:11) Interestingly enough, what happens to us in this stance is that the loneliness we so deeply fear, because we fear we are not good enough, we create for ourselves by coming to feel superior to others.
The Rule of my religious institute describes the unique vision of our Founder with his own words. He speaks of the community he seeks to establish as: “A band of brothers who mutually help, encourage, and edify one another and who work together.” In our everyday attempts to live out his vision in our lives, it seems we are discovering that the most difficult aspect of that vision to incarnate is that we are to “work together.” What makes this working together so difficult? It is, I believe, the fact that to do so we must come to recognize that we come to be the light we are meant to be only in common with others. It is not by outshining them that we truly exist, but rather it is by sharing our light with that of others that we witness to God’s light, that together we bring the news of his salvation to the ends of the earth.
The way on which we learn the love of God that is common to all, however, is paradoxically a way that at times we shall have to walk alone. Jesus tells Peter that where he is going Peter cannot come, and yet that place to which he must go alone is the way we must all go. In order to truly live, Jesus teaches, we must die to ourselves. In order to know that the fate we share is a common fate, and the love we know is a love for all in common, we must walk the way of dispossession of our very selves. The fear of aloneness that is so deep in us is a fear of being “nobody” as the world measures it. At some point, we must die to all we thought we had to become in order to be somebody. No one can come with us through this passage. Yet, once we have died to those demands and expectations that have constituted our identity, we discover that to be the “nobody” we feared being is actually to live in the light of that love that is common to all. By dying to our and others’ expectations of ourselves, we become the ordinary one, that is the unique and primal one, we have been in God’s eyes from eternity.
Now in life I am less and less fearful of being all alone and more fearful of failing to be faithful to God’s call. Whether we are to be alone or with others, whether we are to be sick or well, whether we are called to rejoice or to suffer, whether we are appreciated or despised doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we glorify God, as Jesus does, by living out God’s love for us to the end. The world’s great values of wealth, power, success, and prestige mean nothing, but only the glory of God. For us to begin to understand and realize this truth, we must make a space in our lives to do nothing. When we stop trying and straining, we may begin to “notice” in our mind’s and soul’s eye the pervasive glory of God. In doing nothing, and so feeling to our functionally oriented selves as if we are nothing, the true someone that we are in God’s sight may begin to emerge. As with every meaningful experience in life, we overcome our fear of aloneness by facing it, entering it, and going through it. This is not the avoiding of doing good; it is the discovery of the good that only “we” can do.
People often get worked up when I say it doesn’t really matter whether I go or somebody else does, the main thing is that so many thousands have to go. It is not as if I want to fall into the arms of destruction with a resigned smile—far from it. I am only bowing to the inevitable and even as I do so I am sustained by the certain knowledge that ultimately they cannot rob us of anything that matters. But I don’t think I would feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer. They keep telling me that someone like me has a duty to go into hiding, because I have so many things to do in life, so much to give. But I know that whatever I may have to give to others, I can give it no matter where I am, here in the circle of my friends or over there, in a concentration camp. And it is sheer arrogance to think oneself too good to share the fate of the masses.Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life and Letters From Westerbork, p. 177