“The prophecy of Balaam son of Beor, the prophecy of one whose eye sees clearly, the prophecy of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened. . . .”Numbers 24:3-4
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.Matthew 21:25-27
Reading today in Matthew of yet another lack of communication between the chief priests and the elders and Jesus is a reminder of how difficult true communication and connection is for us. The longer we live out our experience of life the more we savor the moments of true communication and communion and the more we suffer so often when we remain at a distance and disconnected from others, even those we most desire to know and be known by.
At all levels of our personalities, the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual, we desire above all else to be recognized (that is known and understood) and to know the other. It is precisely because we are spirit that even our physical and sexual desire for contact is an expression of this transcendent aspiration. Our failure to appreciate and understand this will lead ultimately to a sense of frustration and inauthenticity in our physical and sexual expressions of intimacy.
The power of the prophecy of Balaam lies in his own integrity. He “hears the words of God, sees a vision from the almighty,” and as he “falls prostrate,” his “eyes are opened.” Meister Eckhart speaks of “the birth of the Word in our soul.” The power of Balaam’s expression, of the words of his prophecy, come from his awareness of and presence to the word that is always coming to birth within him. In Matthew’s description of the conflict between Jesus and the chief priests and elders, we see clearly laid out in his description of the inner process of the antagonists of Jesus the great obstacle we also experience in truly communicating and connecting.
Jesus asks the chief priests and elders a straightforward question about what they believe about the origin of John’s baptism. Was it divine or human in origin? They do not, however, seek their own true answer to his question. This is because they fear the response to their honest self-expression. And so they calculate and manipulate. Instead of speaking in service to an entering into the uncontrollable mystery of true encounter and potential love, they attempt to use their speech in order to manipulate their desired outcome. Because this is their habitual mode of being and speaking, they would be unable to recognize the “authority” by which Jesus speaks, even if he tried to tell them. So, Jesus is not playing games with them. Rather he is seeking to discern their capacity to recognize the truth of his answer.
Very often we too use our speech as an attempted means of controlling relationships and their outcomes. We speak in order to achieve the end that we have in mind. And so, the measure of our words is not “authenticity,” that is the incarnation in language of the word that is being born in our souls and the openness and vulnerability required for potential communion with the other. Rather, it is an attempted manipulation of the other to take the place in our lives we think we want them to take. In the gospel this is represented by the continual attempts of the religious leaders of the time to entrap Jesus in speech.
Any therapist or spiritual director can tell us that the “holiday season” is among the most difficult times of the year for many. One reason for this is that many of us suffer the great gap between our largely culturally-enforced expectations and the reality of our celebration. As clichéd as the description has become, it is the case that so often we find ourselves among family and friends and experience the differences and distances between us. Spiritually speaking, the life and possibility for us lies in our recognition and growing understanding of this painful and lonely experience.
As with the chief priests and the elders, our experience of distance from others is a reflection of our distance from ourselves, from the unique word of God that is always being given form in us. So dissociated from themselves are these religious leaders that they cannot even hear the direct and simple question of Jesus. They are so busy calculating what to say and even think in light of their culturally imposed position that the invitation of Jesus cannot touch their hearts. So too with us. So much of the nature of our relationship to each other is constituted by cultural norms and expectations that our deep desire for connection and communion is often suppressed. Yet, it is not totally repressed, and so while we are all behaving, at one level, as determined by cultural expectations, at the deepest level we are suffering the pains of our distance from each other.
Last Saturday, I was fortunate enough to be part of a group that willingly shared openly and honestly about the call of God to us to be joyful. One key to understanding joy, as a spiritual disposition, is to recognize that we do not come to know joy by dissociating from the painful desires of our hearts. The frantic nature of the holidays, on which our capitalist culture depends, comes out of our attempt to manufacture a joyful celebration. What we celebrate, however, is the coming of God, the birth of the word, in us, which comes in the depths of a silence that bears the totality of our own human experience.
We are made for communion, with God, with ourselves, and with each other. This is why our desire for true connection and communication is so deep. We long to know another and to be known by them. And yet, as humans, we shall always experience the lack in that desire. Our longing will always exceed its realization in this life. But this is not a reason not to allow our lives to be increasingly formed by it. If only the chief priests and elders could have honestly opened their hearts to Jesus, they would have known the one to whom they were speaking. So often in our lives, we find ourselves in their place. If only we could overcome all that keeps us from opening our hearts in faith, hope, and love, we would realize so much more fully that connection and communion which is our own deepest longing.
I’d tried talking aloud to my father a few times in the hours since he’d lost consciousness, telling him all the things that, I’d read, you were supposed to tell a dying parent. There was never any trace of a response. No twitch of an eye or a cheek, no ghost of a tender or rueful smile. I wanted to believe that he’d heard me, heard that I loved him, that I forgave him, that I was thankful to him for having taught me to love so many of the things I loved most, “Star Trek” among them, but it felt like throwing a wish and a penny into a dry fountain. My father and I had already done all the talking we were ever going to do.Michael Chabon, “The Final Frontier,” in The New Yorker, November 18, 2019, p. 24