“Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”John 10: 8-10
Several years ago now I had developed a blood platelet disorder that required hospitalization and treatment for several days. I then had a period of recuperation at home that included taking daily doses of prednisone for some weeks and then slowly diminishing the dosage for several more. One of the side effects of the medication for me was a sense of increased energy and mental focus. Waking up so early each morning allowed extra time each day for reading and meditation, which over the course of those weeks increased in me a feeling of attunement and wakefulness.
In the course of that time I had a regular physical with my primary care doctor. He asked how I was doing, and I told him of my experience which I described to him as having a much greater clarity of mind. He responded with a question I have never since ceased to ponder: “Do you have greater clarity of mind, or do you just feel as if you have greater clarity of mind.” Now this is not the kind of penetrating insight one necessarily expects from one’s primary care doctor. Yet, it remains to this day a call and a challenge.
As I remember that time of my life, I am aware, as I was then, that I felt during that time a steadiness and concentrated sense of purpose and direction that exceeded by far my ordinary experience. My heart and my mind were focused in a way that afforded me an affective and intellectual equilibrium that I have seldom known. I experienced throughout the day, admittedly slower and quieter days than usual, a felt sense of purity of heart, of living in every respect for God and God alone. In that light, my feelings for others and for the world were not more remote but rather more tender, but without any need for more from them than what they had already and were presently giving me. I was “experiencing” the abundant life that Jesus promises when he tells us that he is the “the gate” through which we enter the fullness of life.
Most of the time, my thoughts and feelings are quite dispersed, and so my mood is, therefore, extremely variable. If I awake with thoughts of gratitude or positive anticipation, I feel good and peaceful. If, as is not infrequently the case, I awaken with thoughts of unfinished work, or held resentments, or hurtful memories, then I feel anxious or depressed or discouraged. What I see in such times is that I am looking to something or someone other than Jesus as the gate to happiness. It could be successful completion of a project, or relief from anxiety, or a victory of some kind over my enemies. It could be an imagined recognition, or an unexpected love. In every one of these cases, I am looking to have what I take to be “myself” built up by another person or a fortuitous circumstance. At these times I am living out precisely what van Ruusbroec cautions against: “. . . you are his and not your own and that you live for him and not for yourself, just as he became yours and lives for you and remains yours for all eternity. You must therefore live for, praise, love, serve, and intend his eternal glory rather than any reward, comfort, savor, consolation, or anything else which could accrue to you from such behavior, for genuine love does not seek its own advantage.”
Those many years ago, for a few months time, I was living as I thought and felt I was meant to live. My activities, although as dispersed as ever on the surface, felt as if they were all of a piece, that everything, however small, was immersed in the meaning that came from an awareness of God’s love, both for and through me. Prayer and spiritual reading were not a duty but a delight, a source of the intimacy that I have so craved throughout my life. Because of this presence and intimacy, I found myself feeling a freedom to which I was unaccustomed. I seemed able to say yes to what was to be done and what was asked of me when it seemed right, and equally to say no when I was unable to do something. The limits of my strength and energy at this time actually seemed a great gift, for they were teaching me that I was able to say no to what others asked of me when necessary. I learned anew, at this time, that often being able to say “yes” to what is most important requires first the capacity to say “no” to what isn’t.
“To give to Christ your Bridegroom all that you are and all that you have and are capable of, and do so with a free and generous heart,” as van Russbroec says, is to discover, as our Fundamental Principles say, “a freedom and a liberation never before imagined.” Of course, a part of my freedom was that because I was not physically able to meet the demands that were part of my typical day before the illness, I was free to take time for the added prayer and to be mindful, as my physical state necessitated, of my moment to moment pace. I had to slow down, but I discovered there was a real sense of peace and joy that came with being faithful to my own pace.
There are many aspects of our everyday lives that serve the agenda of “the thief who comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy.” While Jesus is the gate of fullness of life and joy, we are constantly barraged with other forces that would strangle our life and diminish our joy. These forces come to us through the deformative pulsations and demands of our culture. These are at the service of the false form which we develop to conform to and so be valued by our society and culture. When Jesus says that he alone is the gate, he is speaking of the Christ form in each of us, and reminding us that fullness of life and joy can only be known by our living in fidelity to the life that we have been given by God.
As I mentioned, my experience of my physical limitations during these weeks was a source of greatly increased awareness for me. My body would not allow me to move too fast, or to do what it was unable to do. I was physically unable to maintain my habitual way of reacting and of moving. At a very early age I developed the habit of doing at first whatever I was told, and secondly, whatever was even just requested of me. Because I often felt as if I had to accommodate to the demands of the adults around me, I would make sure to conform myself to their demands, whether explicit or as inferred by myself. Because I so often felt displaced, the only way for the world to seem safe and steady was for me to appease the demands of the adults around me. I felt I, as a stranger, would be received into their space if I was no problem and did what they wanted.
By adulthood my judgment, through this habit of mind, had become sufficiently impaired that I could readily confuse the good and the right with the demands of others. Virtue consisted in responding to those demands, and the way to elicit love from others was to appease them. This became, for me, the definition of generosity. And so, I not only worked to keep others happy with me, but I also hurried to do so. It was only slowly over time and through the love of a friend who would point out to me my behavior that I began to awaken to my compulsion to act immediately on any request made of me. So, to experience a time even later in life when I was physically unable to move quickly and to respond to every request was a moment of grace. It was my own real life in Jesus that was the gate to fullness of life and joy, not my ability to appease the others in my environment.
For most of the weeks of my recuperation, I felt as if I were able to see life and world through a new lens, the lens of a single love, with love being a fullness of attention I had not known before. It seemed to me as if my life had irrevocably changed and that I had finally, for real and in practice, discovered the meaning of the vowed commitment I had made decades before. Yet, as my strength improved and as I was weaned off of the medication, many of my lifelong habits of mind and being began to return. The clarity with which I saw the world became more and more opaque. At this point, the question of my wise physician began to re-assert itself.
Now, I am no psychopharmacologist, but I do think that my feelings of clarity of mind may well have exceeded my actual experience. I think that one of the experiences that I always so long for is clear vision, is being able to see with the eye with which God sees us, as Meister Eckhart says. But more subtly, perhaps what I often actually desire is the feeling that would come with such perspicacity. It is easy to desire the feeling of love more than love, the sense of God more than God, the peace and comfort of Jesus more than Jesus. One of the most insidious of temptations in the spiritual life is to mistake the feeling of relationship with Jesus for the gate that is Jesus alone. When van Russbroec says that we are to give all that we have and all that we are capable of to Jesus alone, he means also our lifelong desires, including the deep impulses of those from our infancy and childhood. For us, it is far too easy to settle for the feeling of union rather than true union, the feeling of love rather than love, the feeling of clarity of mind rather than true vision.
Van Ruusbroec tells us: “You must therefore live for, praise, love, serve, and intend God’s eternal glory rather than any reward, comfort, savor, consolation, or anything else which could accrue to you from such behavior, for genuine love does not seek its own advantage.” I am grateful for what those feelings of clarity and awareness brought me, but those feelings are not the end. My frailty at that time bounded my life in ways that I could handle, and so spared me some of what makes life so unclear and ambiguous for me. More often than not, the way to and through the gate that is Jesus will be filled with the ambiguity and complexity of daily life. To be human is to seek the peace and joy that come from living for our own reward, comfort, savor, and consolation, for our own good feelings. Life keeps teaching us that there are moments of clarity that bring no good and comfortable feelings with them, and there are moments of distortion that do. In the depth of peace and relaxation I felt at the time of my recuperation, I could quite readily “praise, love, serve, and intend God’s eternal glory.” Up to now I am still struggling to learn how to do so when there is little or no “reward, comfort, savor, [or] consolation.”
This is precisely the order and way of eternal life: that you are his and not your own and that you live for him and not for yourself, just as he became yours and lives for you and remains yours for all eternity. You must therefore live for, praise, love, serve, and intend his eternal glory rather than any reward, comfort, savor, consolation, or anything else which could accrue to you from such behavior, for genuine love does not seek its own advantage; it thereby possesses both God and everything else, since it overcomes nature through grace. Therefore give to Christ your Bridegroom all that you are and all that you have and are capable of, and do so with a free and generous heart. He will then give you in return all that he is and all that lies in his power. Never will you have seen a more joyful day than that. He will open for you his glorious and loving heart, and the inmost part of his soul, all full of glory, grace, joy, and faithfulness. There you will find your joy and will grow and increase in heartfelt affection.Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, Introduction.