breathing together fiercely
We’ve been hearing from the “Book of Glory” (from chapter 13 on in the Gospel of John) for weeks now, from the washing of the feet through Jesus’ last discourse, until chapter 17, the beginning of which we heard today. Up to this point it’s almost a kind of Upanishad-ic moment; Jesus is summarizing his teaching in its most mystical, esoteric, subtle points, things that can almost only be conveyed directly from master to disciple, the soft parts, the meaning of his relationship with God, who he calls “Father,” and how his disciples share in this relationship. You’ve heard all these marvelous things, so I won’t repeat them again.
But now here in chapter 17, after all that, the tone changes a little. John has Jesus looking up to heaven and praying, no longer addressing his disciples but addressing God in the presence of his disciples. Today we are hearing just the beginning of that prayer.[i] It’s sometimes called Jesus’ “Priestly Prayer.” This is eternal life, he says, to know you God and to know me, the Christ. In some way Jesus has introduced––or re-introduced––God to us. As he said earlier to Philip, ‘If you have seen me you have seen the Father.’
But what’s odd and a little disappointing to me in this particular passage in our lectionary is that it ends halfway through verse 11. In my humble uneducated opinion, I respectfully submit that if you leave the second part of that verse out, you miss the point, so I am going to add it in. The other name for this prayer is “The Prayer for the Unity of Christians,” because the rest of verse 11 says, ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.’ A prayer for unity among themselves…
What automatically happens is that when we meet God as Jesus introduces––or re-introduces––God to us, it has a double effect, not unlike the two fold greatest commandment. The union that we experience with God manifests itself as our unity with one another and––I always want to add in––with all creation. Why? Because God is the ground of our being… No, that’s not enough: God is being itself and so to know this God is to know the ultimate unity in whom all things live and move and have their being. But it’s not enough to say God is the ground of being either. Too philosophical! Too metaphysical! God is love––that’s what the apostle John, who laid his head on the chest of Jesus at the Last Supper, comes away from this whole experience of Jesus saying––God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.[ii]
Sure, God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being; God is the ground of being and consciousness. But what Jesus has shown us is that the Ground of Being is Love. And the ground of consciousness is Love, unimpeachable, prodigal love without an opposite. That’s why John says that since God loved us so much (as to give his only Son) we also ought to love one another. … If we love one another, God lives in us and if we love one another God’s love is perfected in us.
That ties right in with this reading from the Acts of the Apostles.[iii] What Luke is giving us here is our first description of the Christian community after the Ascension. And it’s a marvelous collegial image, as if Jesus’ prayer has been the immediate cause of a wonderful community. In this section we heard today there’s a list of the apostles that is unique to Luke, but also mention of Mary and other women. It is significant that the women are mentioned (even though they are not named), a special area of concern for Luke as we have seen. This is also, by the way, the only time that Mary is actually listed in the company of the twelve apostles. (She might have been with them at other times, but this is the only time she is actually listed there.) This is also the last time that she is going to be mentioned in the flesh in the New Testament. After this we only have the iconic images of her in the Book of Revelation.
It’s also like a snapshot of the Christian community at prayer, here in this first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, almost as if it is redundant: to be a Christian community means to be constantly at prayer. There’s a word that Luke uses often in the Acts of the Apostles (10 out of 12 times it occurs in the New Testament it’s in Acts, as a matter of fact) specifically when it comes to prayer. He’s always saying that they are homothymadon. It’s usually translated they were of “one mind” or “one heart” or “of one accord.” But the Greek word is stronger than that. Homos meaning “same”; thymadon is from the word thymos, which is something like passionate breathing, spiritedness, used even for anger. It’s more like “they were breathing fiercely together.” That’s what their prayer was like, breathing together, fiercely.
So we have this tender postcard of the post-resurrection community, the first followers of Jesus, women and men in the presence of the mother of Jesus and Jesus’ blood relations, constantly at prayer, breathing fiercely together. (That sounds like the description of a Christian monastic community.)
In his letter convoking our General Chapter this year, Alessandro quoted that famous phrase of Karl Rahner, that “the believer of tomorrow will be a mystic, one who has experienced something, or will not be,” and Alessandro says that the same insight also applies to monkhood: the monk of tomorrow will be a mystic, one who has experienced something, or will not be.” And the long final discourse from the Gospel of John reminds us of the mystical aspect of Jesus’ transmission to us, those beautiful almost gnostic teachings at the Last Supper just before he dies about his union with God and our union with him and the indwelling presence of Christ and the Father. But even there, it’s not just about the individual and God dwelling within. This is also the prayer of unity. What we learn from the Acts of the Apostles that I want to add to the Rahner quote is something that the late artist Corita Kent quoted in one of her famous posters: “We are either going to become a community or we are going to die.” And that same insight, too, also applies to monkhood, something we are keenly aware of in these days of our total dependency on the kindness and generosity of our friends and supporters. Christian mysticism is never a blind experience of God devoted exclusively to one’s own interiority. When we find out that God is love and that love is the ground of being and consciousness, then we begin to breathe fiercely with others and with all creation that is groaning and in agony. As Johannes Metz says, the mysticism of the Gospel of Jesus is a “spirituality with open eyes.” (That reminds me that in the Zen tradition, you always meditate with your eyes open; we’re not trying put the world behind us so much as recognize that everything else is the rest of us, the whole Body––and we are breathing fiercely together.)
This is the God we proclaim and this is who we are in the world, and this is our twofold message: “in the future we will be mystics, those who have experienced something, or we will not be,” and “we are either going to become a community or we are going to die.” This is the church’s message to Iraq and Iran, to the European Union, to the president and congress, to Jews and Muslims, to Christians of other denominations, as well as Jesus’ message to us, and my message to you: We will be mystics or we will not be; and we will be community or we will die.” Our mysticism teaches us the God is love and that we can be in union with that love who is the ground of being and consciousness. Our mysticism also teaches us that that union with the love of God poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us is a disruptive experience that breaks us out of our impermeable membranes and our illusions of self-sufficiency and autonomy, and causes us, in prayer and otherwise, to breathe fiercely with all creation, our prayer giving voice to the groaning of creation, and our prayer joined to the sighs issuing from suffering human hearts the world over, our prayer united to the voice of the Spirit who prays in us in sighs too deep for words, who sings Jesus own mantra in our hearts––Abba, Father––, and with whom we sing, the Spirit and the Bride, ‘Maranatha, come Lord Jesus,’ until, as Paul says in the Letter to the Ephesians all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ, until we become the church, his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.[iv]
Come, Holy Spirit! Fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle within us the fire of God’s love! And let us breathe together fiercely!
[i] Jn 17:1-11.
[ii] 1 Jn 4:11-6, second reading this Sunday in Year B.
[iii] Acts 1:12-14.
[iv] Eph 4:13; 1:22-23.