Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Are you discussing with one another what I said, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again little while and you will see me’? Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.”John 16: 19-20
It does not take much imagination to sense what the disciples are going through at the moment of this interchange with Jesus. It is an experience that is repeated quite often in the life of each of us. Jesus is speaking to our experience of saying goodbye and of letting go of someone or something that we love. The disciples have just been confounded by Jesus’ telling them: “A little while and you see me no longer and a little while again and you will see me.” They wonder, “What is this little while” and what is meant by “I am going to the Father”? Somehow, mysteriously, Jesus is describing the deeper meaning of the grief we experience in the loss of one we love, and the possibility of that grief turning into joy as the beloved’s presence returns to us in a new way.
Many (many) years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, the Beetles released a song entitled “All You Need Is Love.” In truth there is little question that love is the greatest human need and desire, and at the same time aspiration. We long to receive and to give love. Much of our difficulty in loving and in being loved is our fear of loss. For, there is no real love that does not carry with it the necessity of loss and grief. To give ourselves in love will always mean to come upon the limits of our capacity and the capacity of the beloved other to give and receive love. In short, we shall always be, to some degree or other, dissatisfied. And all of these disappointments are but preludes to the ultimate disappointment of loss. So, are the Beetles right to say that all we need is love?
Jesus’ answer to that question might be paraphrased as, “Yes, finally the source and goal of all human life is love, but we must each be formed in love through grief and mourning.” The mystery of Jesus’ returning to the Father is indeed inscrutable to the disciples, as it is to us. Jesus tells them that he is leaving, and so they will see him no longer, but in a little while they will see him again. They will mourn while they do not see him, but that mourning will turn into joy when they do see him again.
I speak often of the power in my life of the death of my paternal grandmother when I was 6 years of age. It is only as I write this morning, however, that I understand how another experience at the same time is so much an expression of my grief at losing her. It is not unusual for a child to be sad at the first day of school. But, as my mother left me at school and looked in the door at me as she left, my heart was broken. I fought with all the strength I had to keep from crying aloud in the midst of all these strangers. Now my mother had gone back to work when I was very young, and so as I looked back on this experience I was often surprised at how painful it was for me. Yet, as I reflect today, I realize that it was at this moment that I cried for my grandmother’s loss as I could not at her death. It was not merely my mother’s temporary leaving that so disturbed me, but the rather permanent loss of my grandmother some months before. My grief was an expression of a mistaken belief (not at all conscious in a 6 year old) that for some reason or other, I would always be abandoned, that what I would hope for and need in the love of another could never be realized. It was only many, many years later that I became somewhat able to experience gratitude for the gift of my grandmother to me rather than only sorrow, anger, and even resentment at my loss of her.
What we take, in large part, to be love is our attempt to find in another the one who will heal our pain and end the longing of some core aspect of our false and illusory selves. Those who mourn are blessed, as the Beatitudes teach, because it is our mourning that teaches us about and forms us in love. As Jesus teaches: “you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.” It is inescapable for us, given our very human nature, to experience what we call love for another as not significantly driven by own own needs and desires. We are, at least in part, first drawn to another by attraction, by those conscious and unconscious drives in us to be made whole, to be fulfilled and happy, especially in those places where we are most unhappy and unfulfilled. Our passion for the other is in no small part a craving that the other fill in us what seems so empty. In large part, the other does not initially exist for us as other but only as related to us and our needs and desires. I remember how difficult it was for me to begin to really take in the truth that my parents were persons with needs, desires, strengths and weaknesses beyond their relationship to me. As children we love our parents because of who they are for us, and, as a result, much of what we continue to call love at least begins in the same way.
The psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg wrote that “Love is the revelation of the other person’s freedom.” Jesus’ coming and going is a manifestation of his freedom, and that freedom is difficult for the disciples to bear. Jesus says they will learn to bear the truth by grieving and mourning, which, if they allow themselves to be taught by it, will become joy. Our sense of love is reformed and transformed to the degree that we practice loving and keep loving so that the other’s freedom can be revealed to us. My childhood psyche had a very hard time allowing my parents’ freedom to be revealed to me. Of course, developmentally, we shouldn’t expect ourselves as children to be up to such a task. We can only judge them in light of our needs for them to be with us and for us as we demand. Yet, my psychic resistance even in adulthood to begin to recognize their freedom, including freedom from me, taught me about how difficult it is to love as revelation of the other person’s freedom.
So, Jesus must absent himself for a while, otherwise the disciples will never begin to truly recognize him as he is and to love him as free. He will always remain “theirs”. As believers, we are always struggling, if we are honest, with a rhythm of the felt presence and absence of God. Yet, as true relationship, this must be a part of the experience of faith. Our “god” is always, to some degree or other, a projection of our needs and fears. It is only slowly, and through the rhythm of absence and presence, that we come to love God as God’s freedom is revealed to us. Although as believers we speak of God as “Creator,” in truth, our god is often our own creation. As John of the Cross teaches, it is only in darkness and stillness that we can begin to receive from God the mystery of God’s freedom and the nature of God’s love. God’s love of us, as we come to know it in truth, is a revelation of our own freedom. We can experience this freedom as more of a threat, but it teaches us, more than any other experience, of the responsibility that comes with being loved in freedom. The gods we create, and that we might say we love, are often creations of our own that are intended to save us from our own responsibility. It is in the darkness of faith and in the experience of the loss of our own idols that we come to learn, as Dostoevsky put it, that “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing.”
Jesus promises, however, that our grieving is not the end, but rather that our grief “will become joy.” In The Sayings of Light and Love, John of the Cross writes: “If you purify your soul of attachments and desires, you will understand things spiritually. If you deny your appetite for them, you will enjoy their truth, understanding what is certain in them.” (#49) This teaching of John is comparable to the Third Noble Truth of the Buddha which states that the way to eliminate suffering which is the result of craving or misplaced desire is through liberation from attachment to those desires. The presence of Jesus, for the disciples, is an experience of his coming, and going, and coming again. And Jesus tells them that they are to “go through” what they experience in each case. We mourn the absence of whom and what we love. We grieve that we must “go on” in that absence.
If, however, we grieve attentively, we shall be taught by that grief what it is in us that desires and attaches to the other in a way that would violate the other’s freedom. This is the human way of learning to love. One of the great dangers of our time, at least in our own culture, is that we seem to have developed as taken-for -granted that pain and suffering are to be denied and avoided. The truth of the others’ and the Other’s freedom is painful to our drives and needs that are born of our wounded eros. We need each other in this neediness. Yet, the love that has the power to transform our own lives and the life of the world is a love that transcends the limits and the griefs of our wounds. It is a love that is “the revelation of the other person’s freedom.” This is a revelation to them as well as to us and others. When our love does not bind the other to our needs but reveals to them their own freedom, then they and we are able to “enjoy their truth, understanding what is certain in them.”
To pray for such such a purifying of our attachments and desires is, in fact, to become more acutely aware of them. The teachings, at least in my experience, are more about pointing us to what is possible than they are expeditious roadmaps to the journey’s end. It is in living out the truth of our attachments and desires in every occurrence and grieving when they are unmet and unfulfilled that we are slowly being “formed by God through the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.” It is often in the darkness of faith alone that we trust the words of Jesus to his disciples: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.”
“Love,” wrote Otto Kernberg, who has devoted the better part of his long career to the study of intimate human relations, “is the revelation of the other person’s freedom.”Mark Epstein, MD, Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught, pp. 87, 89
The implication of Kernberg’s statement is that there is a spiritual dimension to this residue of loneliness. In the revelation of another person’s freedom is a window into a state of non-clinging. This is the state that the Buddha proclaimed as the “good news” of his Third Noble Truth. While desire yearns for completion, and seeks it most commonly in love, it can find the freedom it is looking for only by not clinging. . . .
By observing his mind so closely, Jack zeroed in on a central self-image that was unconsciously ruling him. “There is something wrong with me and I will always be rejected,” he found himself thinking. This core belief about himself was structuring much of his experience of the world. It was his own self that felt flawed, and much of his eroticized desire was prompted by a wish to make this imperfect self disappear. Once he could see that there was nothing ultimately real about this particular view of himself, it began to lose its central dominance in his psyche. The experience of such a core belief dissolving into clear space freed him of a burden that he had been carrying since childhood. The Buddha taught that all self-images are empty in this way and that the residual loneliness that we feel even in the midst of love is caused by attachment to these self-representations.