[This post has been sitting in my drafts for years. Ite, missa est...]
The Eucharist, the sacrament involving the poignant necessity of sitting down at a table to eat every day, involves the taking into our mortal bodies the transfigured and immortal body of Jesus as Christ, and a being reminded of and comforted by a most physical and literal sense of his companionship.
To these and other sacraments I would like to add the sacrament of words. I would like to talk about my experience of Jesus’s words in the same way I have spoken about the ingestion of his body. I believe that when we take these words in with full attention, ingest them with our eyes and ears, we are taking in not the body but the mind of Christ and the creative will of God, as Christ is called the Word through which the universe was uttered into being; we are taking in the very thinking of Christ, its meaning and presence which never goes away though we may choose to turn away from it; and we are taking in the ultimate mystery—that Christ came not to abolish suffering (clearly!) but to take part in it. — Franz Wright
I will share today a very personal grace. I usually avoid doing that because one’s experience of God is so unique, and trying to compare oneself to another can be dangerous. I share it only because I believe it contains some universal themes that are not simply about me, but about being human before God. I very rarely have unusual experiences like this, though when I do they usually are harbingers of a great trial approaching. And so it was in this case. And when unique graces are given to me, they are always given to me for others. And that’s the simplest definition of God: for others. Father for Son, Son for Father, Spirit of Father and Son.
Back in 2011, I was praying in St. Cecilia’s Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska, before the icon above. I had been walking around the Cathedral that morning as a spectator, admiring the art and architecture, when I happened on this 5′ tall icon of Christ the Teacher. Somehow, in a way I can’t explain, it gripped me, seized me, drew me in. So I stopped and began to pray. Here’s what I wrote later that night in my journal:
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Those eyes. I could not stop looking at those eyes. How can I explain it? Soft, severe. Inviting, penetrating my inscape. As I looked, I fell into prayer. I got lost in those eyes. I really can find no better way to say it.
Then the center of my focus shifted. I ceased to look at His eyes and they began to look at me. No, into me. It was as if He were searching in me for something. Exploring my soul. Yet it was neither intrusive nor frightening. And for whatever reason, the words of a prayer by Pope Pius XII kept playing in my mind over and over: “Lord, make me your other self.”
And so it was.
He was thinking of me, in me, with me. Not as an outsider, but as an insider. Like St. Augustine’s, Interior intimo meo, “more intimate to me than I am to myself.” Utterly astonishing.
And what did He think? Mostly I could not say. Inchoate things, to me more like intuition than concepts. But near the end of the time — nearly 35 minutes — there were some distinctive thoughts that pressed with lasting force.
A flood of memories from childhood came. Voices belittling me for my ignorance, my learning deficits. Though somehow they came without pain. Just remembering, painless tears. And the voice, the thoughts, the words that arose in the eyes of Christ: “I know all things.” I knew with absolute certitude in that moment, He did. “In my gaze, is there shame?” I answered, “No, no shame.” Tears. Silence. Awe. “Then never should you feel shame in what you do not know or who you are not. Knowledge is for love, it is not a weapon.”
Apodictic truth in that moment.
All was silent. The Cathedral around me reappeared.
More tortuous than all else is the human heart,
beyond remedy; who can understand it?
I, the Lord, alone probe the mind
and test the heart — Jer. 17:9-10
Knowledge is for love. Not a weapon. No distress in those memories, no wincing as there usually is. As if God had somehow entered them. As it happened: On the Cross, transgressing time and space in those minutes, Jesus remembered my dark memories as His own. As my memories came, they were His. John Paul II: “If one becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ, this happens because Christ has opened his suffering to humanity [as] a sharer in all human sufferings.”
In remembering, knowing and loving with Him, I knew I was being remembered, being known, being loved (Gal. 4:9). There in those moments, love and knowledge fused. And let me say, to recall loveless memories with someone who loves you reinvests them with an entirely different meaning. With hope.
A mission to never use knowledge to tear others down, inflate myself. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Amor ipse notitia est, “Love is itself a kind of knowledge.”
Or Aquinas: Maius est illuminare quam lucere solum, “It is greater to illuminate than merely to shine.”
My grandfather’s letter: “A smart man leaves others thinking the smart man is smart. But a wise man leaves others believing they are themselves wiser for having spoken with him.” Yes!
Love displaces the center of gravity away from self to the other.
Jesus’ omniscience left me enlightened, encouraged, confident, built up. I said to Him not, “How brilliant you are, Lord, and how stupid am I!” Rather, “How full of light I am! How beautiful is your knowledge, Lord!” God, so humble, self-emptying, loving to give all away; joying when His recipients do the same! Hot potato: no one keeps the gift long. Bonum est diffusivum sui, “Goodness is self-diffusive.”
No miraculous healing in this experience, if healing means freedom from struggle and pain. The cross-etched memories all remain. But I am newly aware my struggle is His, He is my Emmanuel, my God-with.
Faith in love gives hope.
“Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering” (Ratzinger).
“Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'” (2 Cor. 12:8-9).
That power is love, and love alone makes weakness not a deficit but a capacity. A capacity for God the Most Low.
High above all nations is the Lord,
above the heavens his glory.
Who is like the Lord, our God,
who has risen on high to his throne
yet stoops from the heights to look down,
to look down upon heaven and earth?
From the dust he lifts up the lowly,
from the dungheap he raises the poor (Psalm 113:4-7).
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This rendition of the Woman at the Well captures my insight beautifully: