“When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.”John 15: 26-27
Adrian van Kaam would say that “we are tradition through and through.” By this he meant that as persons we are always formed in various formation traditions, those of our faith, those of our culture, those of our tribe and family. Human formation requires tradition, otherwise, without the wisdom of the ages as transmitted to us in some form, every human person would be beginning from scratch, from uninterpreted experience alone.
This came to my mind as I read the opening words of Jesus in today’s gospel concerning the gift of the “Spirit of truth” that he would give his disciples. From the very beginning of our human and spiritual formation, we learned that God was Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The qualification of the Spirit, that at least I often missed, was that it was “the Spirit of truth.” So, my mind and even my heart are somewhat asleep when I hear words like today’s gospel, because I have heard them so many times. Ah yes, Jesus will go but he will send us the Spirit at Pentecost. It is this Spirit that is the very life of the church. The danger is that these religious constructs become so matter of fact that we stop truth testing them.
In other words, the word/concept “Spirit” can trip off our tongues and pass through our minds with nary a thought about it. We who live and move in religious circles can speak of living in the Spirit, or seeking the Spirit, or trusting the Spirit as if these are attainable unrelated to our own dispositions. But Jesus makes clear that seeking the Spirit, and so certainly living in the Spirit requires seeking and living ‘in truth.” This seems to imply two things about truth: the first is that there is such a thing as truth (no easy sell in our relativistic times), and, secondly, that access to the truth does not come easily to us.
We are well aware by now of how in our social and political sphere truth becomes more and more difficult to ascertain. For a very long time now, in our consumerist and capitalist society, we have come to see what works, what convinces others, and what sells as “truth.” It is very rare in political reporting and commentary for the questioner to seek from the interviewee responsibility to the truth. Instead the questions asked will be formed as what “works better” politically. Should there be any wonder that we now have leaders who have no responsibility for the truth of what they do or say, but rather are concerned only with their powers of persuasion?
There is nothing new in this, for as individuals we experience the same constant temptation. As I reflect back on my childhood, I am well aware that I was far more concerned with conforming in appearance, word, and even thought to what was asked or desired of me rather than to the truth of who I was. As a young person, I quite readily confused identity with performance. And there was little to disabuse me of that view, in culture or, sadly, even in religion. The past couple of days I watched a documentary on Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It is interesting to note that at a point he was severely criticized for, it was claimed, creating a generation that felt entitled. The claim was that his basic teaching, that each child is special just by being her or himself, was forming young people who didn’t realize adequately the need to work to make something of themselves.
There is a valid argument to be made that there is some danger in an overemphasis of “being” over “doing,” but I suspect this is not highly likely in a society like ours in which everyone and everything is merely a commodity to be bought, sold, and used. As I watched the documentary, I could actually experience my own “inner child” being touched. I knew the truth of what Fred Rogers was saying when he pointed out that the adult world often forgets that children have the same feelings as adults, and that, as a result, there is not space given for them to express their feelings as they are. Rather, they receive the message that some feelings are acceptable and others not, that they have a place in the adult world when they conform to those demands, but that they have no place otherwise. That is, they are to be adult long before they have the capacity to do so. They need first to be children and to be received, as Jesus says, as children. “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them. For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)
So, we, as Christians, receive from our faith tradition, that God is Spirit, a Spirit to be sought after in truth, while, at the same time, receiving from our cultural formation tradition that only certain truths are acceptable. As a result, even as educated and somewhat sophisticated adults, we seek the Spirit while ignoring, or at least evading, the truth. I know that I am, in large part, quite opaque to myself. I think I have “self-understanding” but then, moments, thoughts, feelings, and events in life will show me that I am really still a stranger to myself. Even when I am trying my utmost to be honest, to live in the truth, I find myself on a Way that is “hazy and impossibly vague,” as the Tao Te Ching puts it.
If this is true of us as individuals, how much more so as groups. Thus, I find myself very uneasy in a group that claims it has discovered the way of the Spirit for it, or that this or that is the “work of the Spirit.” Faith is, in fact, a leap because it is to continue to follow Way even as the essence is hidden beneath the hazy and impossibly vague entities and experiences of life. So, what does this mean for living discerningly in a practical sense?
First of all, it means that we live in a humility that is a mode of “asking, seeking, and knocking” throughout the entire journey of our lives. We dispose ourselves to receive always more of the truth of self, world, and God, knowing that every current comprehension is partial. Secondly, this requisite humility impels us to keep opening to more of the truth of ourselves and of the world, especially to those self-contradictions that we most want to ignore and evade. For all of us, there are things in our lives and created identities that “don’t fit together.” So, we tend to dissolve the tension this creates in us through developing the most cherished illusions about ourselves. To truly seek the Spirit we must face those illusions and delusions, about ourselves, our families, our communities, our nations, and our churches. In recent years, Roman Catholicism is being brought to such a place. The truth is not pretty, but then it never is with any of us. For “pretty” is what we seek to create out of our own illusions, be they about ourselves, about the church, or about anything else.
There is, however, great life and energy in the truth. This is the creative energy of the Spirit. It cannot be fully grasped by us; but it can fully grasp us. We can be drawn into that life and energy and be made new by it. This can only happen, however, when we cease to domesticate the Spirit to our own truths and our own ends. The conversion of Theodore James Ryken begins when he experiences a deep humiliation, when he is “brought low” and “put in his place.” This is the work of the Spirit. For a new consciousness to emerge and for our true mission to be manifest, we must first suffer our own contradictions. We must be willing to discover that after a lifetime of work, we are not who we take ourselves to be. For “the mind of Christ” cannot be contained by our mind. It is our consciousness that the Spirit would transform by initially bringing our illusions crashing to earth.
Fred Rogers continually communicated to children not to be afraid of who they really were and of the conflictual feelings they had about themselves. In this he was very much the minister of Jesus, who asked that the disruptive children be allowed to come to him. Jesus said that such as this disruption was the kingdom of heaven. It is the disruption of the self-created and self-perfected one that is the work of the Spirit of truth in us.
The nature of great Integrity
is to follow Way absolutely.
Becoming things, Way appears
vague and hazy.
All hazy and impossibly vague
it harbors the mind’s images.
All vague and impossibly hazy
it harbors the world’s things.
All hidden and impossibly dark
it harbors the subtle essence,
and being an essence so real
it harbors the sincerity of facts.
Never, not since the beginning—
its renown has never been far off.
Through it we witness all origins.
And how can we ever know the form of all origins?
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, #21, trans. David Hinton