Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit said to Philip, “Go and join up with that chariot.” Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him.Acts 8: 28-31
Jesus said to the crowds: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: / They shall all be taught by God. / Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.”John 6: 44-45
The story of the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian court official has long been a favorite of mine. It illustrates the truth of God’s direction of our life in every aspect of the “common, ordinary, and unspectacular flow of everyday life.” As we see often in Acts, the Spirit speaks to the disciples. It can seem as if in these earliest days of the church, the Spirit would audibly speak to the disciples. Yet, it well may be that the disciples of Jesus, following his resurrection and ascension, received direction from God in the same way that we do. In either case, Philip experiences the call to join up with the chariot, and then engages in dialogue with the court official. Yet, for me, it is always the court official who is the hero of the story, who is the one to be emulated. For, when Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading in Isaiah, the official responds: “How can I, unless someone instructs me?”
For all of the Spirit’s direction of both Philip and the official, that direction can only be realized when it is received in humility. In the entire story of this encounter we see the true life exemplification of the familiar expression: “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” Philip appears and is able to impart his teaching because the court official is ready, prepared by his reading and by his willingness to enter into unknowing concerning it. The great obstacle to being directed by God’s Spirit is our arrogance and knowingness.
Recently a group of us who have been working together for a couple of years gathered to develop a process for a community-wide discussion of topics in preparation for our upcoming General Chapter. Because of the level of trust and openness among us, we each and together entered into the conversation willingly speaking out what we had to offer but also listening to others from a place of not knowing. None of us knew where we were headed as we together entered into that “cloud of unknowing” that we trusted would eventually become a light forward. And so it was. At the end, as almost always, we all were marveling at how a direction emerged despite the fact that before and even during much of our being and speaking together all of us had little sense of a possible outcome.
One of the reasons that true collaboration is so difficult for us is the same reason that true openness to prayer and contemplation is. It is difficult for us to be vulnerable enough to enter into and to open ourselves to a dialogue, with God and/or others, when we have no idea of what will happen. There is an ancient story of a Rabbi who was heading into prayer when someone asked if they could speak with him afterwards. The Rabbi responded, “How can I know that I’ll be alive after prayer?” In his expressing his own ignorance and need of help, the court official makes possible the enlightenment and direction he receives. There is, then, an act of personal abandonment required if we are to become aware of the Spirit’s direction.
In the gospel from John we read: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him.” Jesus makes clear throughout his ministry that he does nothing of his own accord but only what the Father directs him to do. If we are honest, we have to admit the mysteriousness of this statement. Because we have lived our lives around this language, we come to take it for granted, but its truth expresses a reality that is hard, and often seemingly impossible, for us to grasp. Most of the time we, necessarily, act as if we know what we are doing. Yet, do we know that it is what the Spirit is directing us to do. Because I live in an environment permeated by “religious” language, I find myself, as I age, growing increasingly fearful about the authenticity of that language. We speak so much of the Spirit and how the Spirit is at work in us and what we are doing. But how do we know that? Isn’t it fearfully possible that we attribute our acts and thoughts to God, rather than thinking and acting in accord with God?
Søren Kierkegaard described our last state before faith as “infinite resignation.” In that state of mind and being, one gives up not only possessions but everything that is not God. Much more difficult to abandon than physical possessions, as difficult as that is, are our ideas about life and about ourselves. Yesterday in speaking with a friend, we were discussing the spiritual significance of those thoughts and actions of ours that we tend later to characterize as “not us.” We all have the experience of thinking about an unusual behavior on our part, usually one that we see as unbefitting of ourselves, and of saying of that act: “That wasn’t really me.” We say this because what we have thought or done does not conform to our idea about ourselves. It points to the other and the stranger in us. What these eruptions from the unconscious in us show us is that we are not merely the idea we have of ourselves. The identity we assume for ourselves and present to the world is, perhaps, finally the most difficult “possession” to abandon.
At a recent meeting of those brothers who will be delegates to our upcoming General Chapter, an every 6 year event that appraises and gives future direction to our Institute’s expression of our life and mission, the group was asked about what it was they were experiencing at the end of the meeting. One of the brothers said that he felt as if he had a lot of work to do between this meeting and the Chapter meeting. He spoke of his feeling of how much he didn’t know that he would like to know in order to be a more effective participant. He then said that he also would need the help of others to understand what he would be reading and studying. I think all of us present were deeply affected by the truth of his words, a truth for every one of us but which, perhaps, most of us lacked the humility and awareness to even realize, let alone speak. At that moment we were witnessing the direction of God’s Spirit of which today’s passage from Acts speaks. The brother was speaking in almost the exact words of the court officer: “How can I [understand] unless someone instructs me?”
Perhaps shortly after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, there was a finer attuning to the direction of the Spirit in the disciples’ corner of the world. Or, perhaps, we are offered examples of where, as for us, a rarer attuning occurred. To “hear” the direction of the Spirit, the background noise of our ego must be relinquished. All of the ways we know who we are and what we are to do must be bracketed, given up to the deeper truth of our own ignorance, the “learned ignorance” of which Nicholas of Cusa speaks. Despite the experiences of amazement we have when we see what can come out of our not knowing, we cling ferociously to our own certitudes. We fear that without these illusory understandings we are nothing. Yet, this nothing is precisely what we must face and acknowledge if the thoughts and ways of God are to gain supremacy over our own thoughts and ways. In Psalm 25:4-5 we pray: “Make know your ways to me, O Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me . . . .” God’s ways can become known to us, but only when we so much desire to know them that we allow nothing else to come before them.
Pope Francis, on many different occasions, showed the contemplative dimension of life as a way to enter the mystery. “Contemplation is mind, heart, and knees.” It is the “ability to wonder; the ability to listen to the silence and to hear the tiny whisper amid great silence by which God speaks to us. To enter into the mystery demands that we not be afraid of reality: that we not be locked into ourselves, that we not flee from what we fail to understand, that we not close our eyes to problems or deny them, that we not dismiss our questions [. . .], going beyond our own comfort zone, beyond the laziness and indifference which hold us back, and going out in search of truth, beauty and love. It is seeking a deeper meaning, an answer, and not an easy one, to the questions which challenge our faith, or fidelity and our very existence.”CICLSAL, Contemplate, pp. 42-43