Thus says the Lord God: / Lo, I am sending my messenger / to prepare the way before me.Malachi 3:1
Yesterday I spent the afternoon and evening with my cousin and his wife. To be with them is always an extraordinarily enriching experience, and one filled with significant, and so enjoyable, conversation. They have traveled and lived widely, as my cousin is a member of the United States Foreign Service. So, to be with them is to be inserted in a much wider world than the small world of my ordinary preoccupations. Yet, besides breadth there is also depth, as both of them are daily practitioners of meditation. Lisa is the director of the John Main Center for Meditation at Georgetown University.
In the course of our conversation about meditation John the Baptist came up. My cousin Glen commented on how “egoless” John is. His whole reason for existing is to point to the One who is to come. Interestingly enough, we learn that even as he is imprisoned prior to being killed, he is still not certain that Jesus is the one. We hear that he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah or should they be looking for another. John points to the one for whom his people have waited, trusting in faith that he is coming, but not being at all certain who he is. John knows that he lives to announce one who is greater than he is, but he knows not exactly who that is.
Many years ago I traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo with our then General Superior. It was the first visit for both of us. In Likasi, where many of our brothers live and work, we were struck by how many people one sees walking up and down the streets throughout the day. As pragmatic Americans we walk only to get to a specific destination. But here it seemed that people, as my confrere put it, were always “walking and walking but never arriving.” As I’ve now lived through my 73rd Advent, I can at times feel at bit like his description of the people of Likasi. One difference, however, is that the way for them was very familiar and well known. For me, the way feels as if it is constantly changing. The terrain to be navigated is always a different one. And both the way I am walking and the “I” that is walking are always different.
The experience is quite counter to the expectations of my younger self. I suppose it well may be a grace of God that we have youthful expectations that we will, at some point in our process of maturity, gain focus and clarity on our destination and our path to that destination. I’m not quite sure how I would have taken it at 25 or 30 years of age to realize that I would seem to be certain of far less rather than more at the age of 73. While as younger, I expected that by this age I would be able to point to those objective accomplishments and contributions that attested to my worth and identity, I discover that, as Shunryu Suzuki says, I can’t project myself “as some objective thing to think about.” What I thought would constitute my life and its meaning is but a story I have created in order to attempt to give myself an existence that I want to be recognized by others.
There is then, for me, great consolation in the person of John the Baptist. He gives his whole life in service to the coming of one whom, even near the end of his life, he is not certain he knows. Yet, John is not embarrassed to send his disciples to ask Jesus the question. He is not ashamed of his unknowing. He has done what he has been called to do and has no need to project an identity for others to see and accept. It is in this sense that he is “egoless.” As he sits in prison, the result of his speaking the words to power that he was given to speak, he is not addressing his questions to himself, but rather to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for someone else.” (Matthew 11:3) John has spent his life pointing the way, and as his life nears its end, he is still uncertain about the one to whom he has been pointing. In his egolessness, however, John knows that he has served the one who is to come, who is beyond any narrative or explanation. He wants to know, of course, if it is Jesus, but nothing changes for him if it is not.
It is easy to feel frustrated at times as we age when the desired certainty of our youth never quite materializes. As a teacher or ours would say, however, “the ego in its essence is frustration.” When I feel frightened or frustrated, it is only because I have mistaken my ideas about myself, my own narrative about my life, for my real life, as I well may have mistaken my idea of the “one who is to come” for the true one who is always coming into our life and world. John is egoless in that he lives toward and witnesses to the Mystery of God, even as it remains a mystery to him.
For me, frustration can readily give rise to discouragement. There is always that in me that is tempted, in one way or another, to give up. While to become disillusioned is ultimately a gift of grace, it often does not feel like that in the moment. We cherish our illusions, most of all, as Thomas Merton says, the ones we have about ourselves. The way, however, is the way of disillusionment and purification. Life will teach us that every idol we build has feet of clay, be that idol person, thing, thought, or idea. As Jesus says, “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” (Matthew 24:26) Yet, I want to know and I want to see. Unlike the people of Likasi, I have a very hard time to keep walking without arriving. Yet, this is, perhaps, the great lesson of Advent. When waiting for a bus in Rome, a common experience, I am fine for a certain amount of time. But, after a while, I tend to fear that the bus will never arrive, and so I become anxious and discouraged.
So it is with God’s coming. Our looking for Jesus is limited by our own ideas, projects, and goals. The truth, however, is that the one for whom we are waiting is already here. But our point of arrival, our goal, can only be known when we too learn to just live, uncontrolled by our ego and its frustrations. John the Baptist’s life is only to do what he is called to do, to live what he is given to live. And so, his uncertainties do not discourage him. The walking of the road is the arrival point. What we may measure as nothing and nowhere, if it is what is, is the place of encounter with the one who is to come.
The big mind in which we must have confidence is not something which you can experience objectively. It is something which is always with you, always on your side. Your eyes are on your side, for you cannot see your eyes, and your eyes cannot see themselves. Eyes only see things outside, objective things. If you reflect on yourself, that self is not your true self any more. You can’t project yourself as some objective thing to think about. The mind which which is always on your side is not just your mind, it is universal mind, always the same, not different from another’s mind. It is Zen mind. It is big, big mind. This mind is whatever you see. Your true mind is always with whatever you see. Although you do not know your own mind, it is there—at the very moment you see something, it is there. This is very interesting. Your mind is always with the things you observe. So you see, this mind is at the same time everything.Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, p. 134