Sunday, February 3, 2008

"This teaching is difficult..."

There are many teachings that seem difficult -- just as difficult for us as the idea of eating someone's flesh and drinking his blood must have seemed to the disciples who left Jesus after he told them that he is the Bread of Life. On the face of it, the disciples who left him were being reasonable, seeing by the little light they had to go by. If anyone were to say the same thing to us today, we'd think he was a crack pot. I mean, just choose the most morally consistent, wisest, most charitable person you know and imagine that person telling you that you have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It's outrageous and it makes no sense. Particularly if you can really imagine that you've never heard of the Eucharist, never ever. What else could they think but that he was either expecting them to come at him with knives and forks -- or that he was playing around with them?

But Jesus wasn't the most morally consistent, wisest, most charitable person anyone's ever met -- at least, he wasn't only these things...he was more. No one at all would have stayed with him after his enigmatic words about eating him if they were only following him on the basis of his moral stature, wisdom, or charity.

The disciples who did stay with Jesus didn't understand him any better than the others. Did Peter say, "Oh, yeah, of course I got that -- Bread of Life? Yeah, we eat human flesh all the time..."? No, Peter didn't understand -- no one understood. So then why did he and the others stick with Jesus? Why didn't they just dismiss him as a nut job or someone who was toying with them?

Peter's answer is so simple and so brave and so remarkable: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

That question -- "To whom can we go?" -- haunts me. It is so full of humanity and helplessness. Nothing else, no one else, can give us what we need. It is the question of someone who has walked down other avenues, placed vain hopes in people or things that have failed him. Morality, wisdom, charity -- all these things fail us in the end. Peter didn't say, "Well, Lord, we haven't met anyone who is as upright as you, as wise as you, or as loving as you, so we'll stick with you." Because a person can be all those things, but when he starts talking crazy talk, you pick up and move on. Peter's answer is that Jesus is "the Holy One of God." And this makes all the difference. If someone really is the Holy One of God, he can even follow a course of action that you consider madness -- like willingly walking into a trap set by men who want to torture and kill him -- and when you quite reasonably counsel him against this insanity, he can call you Satan and tell you to take a long walk off a short pier -- and you'll be unable to tear yourself away from him.

What is this holiness of God that turns everything on its ear? It is this quality that I'm looking for and cannot live without. My life, with all its sadness, complexity, and confusion is there, in front of me, but this other quality runs through it, too. Like a thread of light, sometimes pulled so thin that it's barely perceptible and other times swelling so thick that it overpowers everything, this perplexing holiness will not be denied.

What are the words of everlasting Life? They are not primarily moral words, wise words, even words of love...they are the evidence of a Life that throbs beneath the surfaces of things and that generates the reasons for, the meaning of, all the inexplicable things we face. They are the words that knit us together in our mothers' wombs. They are the words that we repeat to one another, even when we make no sounds, when we live as one thing.

But I can't pretend to understand them. I'm at a loss, just like Peter was. I can't explain them to you. I can only invite you to come and see.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."