The Lord God is my help, / therefore I am not disgraced; / I have set my face like flint, / knowing that I shall not be put to shame. / He is near who upholds my right; / if anyone wishes to oppose me, / let us appear together. / Who disputes my right? / Let him confront me. / See, the Lord God is my help; / who will prove me wrong?Isaiah 50:7-9
Many times in life, I have read the narrative of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus as a distant historical truth. Judas was a bit of a cartoon character, the object whose role in the Jesus story was to initiate Jesus’ trial, passion, and death. Yet this morning I read a reflection on the day’s readings in the Give Us This Day booklet by Hosffman Ospino of Boston College. His theme is the possibility of enduring friendship. And so, my perspective on the readings changed, from one where the characters were merely drivers of the story’s plot to one in which they represented the various aspects of the reality of my own relational life and friendships.
A few years ago a person, whom I was coming to know and appreciate more deeply by the day, said to me: “We’ll be friends for our whole lives.” This moment was one of those rare moments in life where the words and presence of another stir that in us which is far deeper than the “mind” from which we typically live. Somehow I heard in the words both a desire and aspiration and, at the same time, a commitment and a truth. I was able to hear and receive these words and this offer, I think, because many years ago another friend had taught me the truth of their possibility.
In my early adulthood, I lived, unconsciously for the most part, resigned to what I thought was the truth of relationship, that it was of their nature to come and go. I knew plenty well, both on my and the others’ side, that in time one or both of us would betray the trust of the other, or that circumstances would distance us from each other and that, in both these cases, the bond of the relationship would be weakened if not broken. I took far too much for granted that relationships were fragile and tenuous and that they came and went, as I came and went in the lives of others. In my very early 30’s, however, a friend came into my life who challenged my assumptions. He courageously spoke to me of my unconscious withholding in friendship and showed me that there was a different way. For him, real friendship involved a commitment to stay with, to “abide” as Søren Kierkegaard says, in such a way as to keep alive a friendship’s possibility and reality through all that would weaken it.
On this Spy Wednesday we read of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus’ friendship. Yet, for me this year, Judas is not merely a caricature of the “bad guy.” He is a living reminder of the experience of betrayal in life and friendship: my betrayal of others and their betrayal of me. When the betrayal cuts deeply enough, one spontaneously feels as if the interpersonal bonds are irrevocably broken. To break trust or to have trust broken so significantly seems to make continuing relationship impossible. For Judas, once he realizes his bad faith, there is left only desperation and despair. In contrast the gospels will present Peter to us, who denies Jesus but who suffers and abides in relationship rather than despairs.
If we are, all at once, Judas, Peter, and Jesus, what is required of us if we are ever to be “friends for our whole lives”? Kierkegaard’s description of relationship is that of a “conversation.” To definitively break a friendship is to cease and to refuse a continuing conversation. To maintain the relationship, however, even in the silence that the betrayal has evoked one remains open and available to the ongoing conversation. As Kierkegaard says, “We shall yet speak with one another, because silence also belongs to conversation at times.” As we see with Judas, however, remaining available to the conversation, both when we have betrayed the other and when we have been betrayed, is very difficult for us. For the ongoing conversation can seem as if it can only be a source of greater humiliation and shame.
At those moments where we experience betrayal on our own part or that of others, we feel as if friendship and love have ended. In one sense this is true, because the conversation has now changed. There is a kind of cheap forgiveness and reconciliation that would make believe that the betrayal has never happened. We offer or are offered a superficial forgiveness and reconciliation without engaging in a more truthful conversation. This is not reconciliation but appeasement. It is yet another way of ending the friendship by ending the conversation. It is an agreement to make believe we are reconciled, to settle for a polite co-existence while pretending but ceasing to be friends.
Yet, the ending we feel in a moment of betrayal can be an ending of an old form of relating and a possibility of a new and more authentic form. In the betrayal a truth about who we are, individually and together, has been revealed. If, when it becomes emotionally possible, we actively return to the conversation in the truth of what has happened, our friendship will actually become deeper and more authentic. In the scriptures this is what we see with Jesus and Peter after the resurrection. Peter has become a symbol of the rock of true faith in the truth of his humbled presence. There is ground, now, for Jesus to call Peter into the relationship with him that has been Peter’s original calling from eternity. “Do you love me?” When Peter declares to Jesus that Jesus knows that Peter loves him, he is saying this out of the deep truth of his own known weakness. “You know I love you as best I can and will continue to do so despite every failure and betrayal of that love. I will never leave the conversation with you.”
In recent months, I have felt at times that the conversation with certain others has ended. In my hurt and rage, I have imagined living whatever few years are left without continuing the conversation, the friendship, with some who have been seen as friends. Yet, I slowly come to realize that it is not for me to end a conversation once begun. It is Judas’ mistaken notion of doing so that leads to his despair. What I must learn is how to abide in love, how to remain open to the speaking and the dance (as Kierkegaard puts it) in truth. Even in the darkest of moments in a friendship there is possibility. But that possibility requires being rooted in reality. It is a possibility of deepening, if the conversation can deepen. So, at the shore of the sea Jesus and Peter engage together in speaking about the one real question before them: “Do you love me?” For Judas, the moment of betrayal recounted today is the end. He cannot realize the truth that Jesus is there abiding, waiting on him to resume the conversation. It is not easy to abide. There is a suffering in the waiting and the openness, a suffering of the potential disappointment if the other never returns. Yet, it well may be that in such moments we glimpse the very nature of the God who is, as Simone Weil says, “waiting like a beggar for our love.”
Perhaps it is disharmony, a cooling-off, or indifference that separates the two. One makes the break saying, “I no longer speak to that person. I never see him anymore.” But the one who loves says: “I abide. We shall yet speak with one another, because silence also belongs to conversation at times.” Is this not so? Even if it is three years since they last spoke together, it doesn’t make any difference. If you saw two people sitting silently together and you knew nothing more, would you thereby conclude that it was three years since they spoke to each other? Can anyone determine how long a silence must be in order to say, now there is no more conversation? Does the dance cease because one dancer has gone away? In a certain sense, yes. But if the other still remains standing in the posture that expresses a turning towards the one who has left, and if you know nothing about the past, then you will say, “Now the dance will begin just as soon as the other comes.” Put the past out of the way; drown it in the forgiveness of the eternal by abiding in love. Then the end is the beginning and there is no break!Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love