what are you looking for?
(2nd Sunday Ordinary Time Year B)
At the beginning of Chapter 3 of the first book of Samuel, from which the 1st reading for today was drawn,[i] we read the words ‘The Word of God was rare in the land in those days.’ Samuel of course is going to grow up to be one of the great prophets of Israel. It is he who will anoint Saul as the first king of Israel, and then later the great king David as well. But in those days the Word of God was rare in the land…
I was reminded of the call of that other great prophet, Elijah, in the first book of Kings, just a few generations later. He was sitting in front of the cave waiting for the Lord to pass by, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, nor in the firestorm, nor in the thundering wind, but the Lord was in the still small breeze or, some translations say, in the sound of sheer silence. The Word of the Lord doesn’t always come on billboards and banners, earthquakes and firestorms, with loudspeakers and spotlights. The Word of God comes out of the sheer silence. Maybe we could say it doesn’t always come from above like a trumpet blast; sometimes it comes from within.
One wonders if the Word of the Lord really was rare in the land in those days, or was it that there were so few with the purity of heart or the presence of mind (which may be the same thing) to really hear it, to catch the sound of the still small voice, coming out of the sheer silence. But Samuel, we are led to believe, has such a pure heart, such presence of mind. This is a beautiful image of him, sleeping right next to the Ark of the Covenant, where the Word was stored, like a monk keeping vigil. His teacher Eli doesn’t even hear it (again, maybe because the voice is coming from within?), but he understands that Samuel has the gift, has the presence of mind, the purity of heart, to hear the subtle and quiet voice of the Lord.
And so in our day and age and for us, it may seem as if the Word of the Lord is rare in our days, maybe even rarer in our land, but it is not rare in our hearts. St. Paul says The Word is near us on our lips and in our hearts.[ii] It just takes a rare purity of heart, clarity of mind to hear it, and maybe we don’t have that.
It all depends on that same question that Jesus asks of Andrew and the other disciple of John the Baptist who are following Jesus.[iii] ‘What are you looking for?’ This is similar to what happens between Jesus and the blind man.[iv] Jesus says to him, “What do you want?” It’s pretty obvious––I want to see!––, but somehow the man and these disciples need to own it. How often do we hear in the Gospels during one of the miracle stories, “Your faith has saved you!” We get the impression that it is as much about our faith as it is about Jesus’ power. Faith seems to be desire, desire wedded with hope and expectation. What are you looking for? What do you want? What do you really want?
Some of us have been reading Ronald Rolheiser’s book The Holy Longing again recently, and I am again struck by how many times he mentions that spirituality is all about what we do with our desire. He even goes so far as to use the word eros, the love that is a longing, a longing that draws us out of ourselves. “Desire can show itself as aching pain or delicious hope,” he writes, and “Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with that desire.”[v] What is your deepest desire? What do you want? The other day Isaiah mentioned in a homily that if you’re stuck with someone in spiritual direction, you could pose one of two questions to get the conversation started: either “Where does it hurt?” or “What do you want?” Same thing: aching pain or delicious hope. I think he reversed the order, but I like to start with where it hurts, the aching pain, because I think it is often our hurt, our wounds that mask or circumvent or misdirect our desires. The famous expression that comes from Joseph Campbell, “Follow your bliss,” only works so far. What I thought was my bliss at 25 is a whole lot different from what I thought was my bliss at 40, and different yet from what I’ve learned about real bliss as I approach 60. We may not even be able to discover our deepest desire until we get past the layers of conditioning, scar tissue and undigested assumptions.
But when we do discover it, our deepest desire, what we really want… The little novel “The Alchemist” by Paolo Coehlo has a recurring theme: When you really want something the Universe conspires to help you achieve it. Coehlo says that’s because when we really want something we are close to the Soul of the World. I would say because our deepest desire is for God; or rather, or deepest desire is from God; or maybe even better to say that our deepest desire is God!
Jesus asks them “What do you want?” and the two disciples answer the question with a question; they simply ask him, “Where do you live?” It would be rude in another circumstance, but this question is really a statement, isn’t it? “Where do you live?” really means, “We want to be where you are.” They want to be where Jesus is and live like Jesus lived; they wanted what Jesus had and suspected that in order to get that they would have to live as Jesus lived. Jesus is the Way (and the Truth and the Life) because he embodies the message that he preaches.
‘Master, where are you staying?’ Couldn’t Jesus have answered that time, too, ‘The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’[vi] “I’m hanging out with the poor and the lepers, the tax collectors and prostitutes. Are you sure you want to be where I am?” There’s a famous saying that Saint Gregory the Great uses of Saint Benedict in his Dialogues: habitare secum––to live with oneself. It could also be translated “to be self-contained.” Our Br. Alberto, the vice-prior of the Holy Hermitage in Camaldoli, offered us a meditation on an image of St. Romuald holding the cell (or a chapel) in one hand and a walking stick in the other hand. And he explains that the cell (or the chapel) evokes staying still; the walking stick refers to the journey. When monks remain in the cell they fulfill the inner journey to meet the Lord who dwells in the heart. But even when they walk they still must habitare secum–live with their whole self in the presence of the Lord. Why those two go together is because if we really make that interior journey and are self-contained, it doesn’t matter where we are, because this is the cell, or as Paul would say, this is the Temple, the chapel. This is a beautiful image of Jesus: no matter where he was or with whom he was, whether on the lonely mountain in a night of prayer or surrounded by the dregs of society or the hierarchy of the Temple he habita secum, he lived with his whole self in the presence of the Lord, never not in conscious contact with the will of the One he called his Abba-Father. Where do you live? I live here––in my body, in the cave of the heart.
Like the disciples here, the Gospels, and spirituality in general, ask us the same question: What are you looking for? Like the disciples, we too want to know where God is, where God dwells. But Jesus is not going to lead us to a room in Bethany across the Jordan. He is going to lead us where Paul is explaining to us in the reading from 1st Corinthians that we heard today.[vii] Do you not know that you are where God dwells? Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit living within you? Jesus will lead us to this room, this inner chamber where he dwells, through the Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts. The Word of God may be rare in our land, but it is ever near us, on our lips and especially in our hearts. That’s the Ark of the Covenant now, that’s where the Word is stored. If we want to rest and keep vigil near that Holy of Holies like Samuel, we need to keep our ears very close to our hearts where the Holy Spirit is ever humming the Word of God, where the Spirit is sighing in us in sighs to deep for words, in the sound of a small breeze, in the sound of sheer silence, if only we have the purity of heart and the presence of mind to hear.
And we will hear it, if that’s what we really want.
cyprian 14 jan 18
[i] 1 Sam 3:3b-10, 19.
[ii] Rom 10:8.
[iii] Jn 1:35-42.
[iv] Mk 10:51.
[v] The Holy Longing, 5.
[vi] Mt 8:20.
[vii] 1 Cor 6:13-20.