When a man first comes to the monastery to test his vocation, you may be surprised to know that he does not get a large ‘how to’ manual on being a monk. Nor does he receive a week-long orientation in the essentials of monastic living. Much of what a postulant and novice learns is by observation, trial and error, and asking questions when they arise. When he sings the Offices with the Community, (regardless of his proficiency in music fundamentals) he learns a strange musical script with a four-line staff and peculiar square notes that when stacked on top of each other means they ascend and when written in progression means they descend. He learns that the bell rings ten minutes prior to each service although he may find himself sitting in chapel alone and confused for fifteen to twenty minutes when the Angelus bell rings at noon and no one shows up. There is often that awkward moment when learning to acolyte that he lights the candles on the altar at noonday prayer only to have them extinguished with an explanation that candles are not lit at the noon office. I sometimes joke that I’ve been here over five years and I’m still learning new things each week, although now they are more often epiphanies that dawn on me mysteriously, out of the blue. For me, our lesson this evening from John’s gospel illustrates how the experience of novice monks is not dissimilar from that of Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus has gathered with them in an upper room a short time before the Passover and He knows that his betrayal and death are imminent. Before they have a meal together, Jesus spends these last precious hours teaching and preparing them for what is about happen. He demonstrates humility and service by washing their feet, an act that makes Peter a little anxious. He predicts his betrayal, Peter’s denial, and His upcoming death and resurrection. And then Jesus explains that He is going ahead to prepare a place for them saying: ‘I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’
Yet we who are reading the story perceive that the disciples do not have a clear understanding of what Jesus is teaching. The Messiah that they had been hoping for was one who would lead an uprising to overthrow Rome and return Jerusalem to the people that God had destined to occupy it. While all the things they had witnessed thus far with Jesus were amazing, these acts were supposed to be the prelude to the final act of which would restore the Kingdom of God, which they knew to be Jerusalem. When Jesus says, ‘I’m going ahead to prepare a place for you and I will come again and you will know the way,’ this throws them. Thomas asks: ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus answers him: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Philip, perhaps noticing the quizzical look on Thomas’ face and everyone’s need for clarification, adds: ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus’ tone suggests that He is a little disheartened and enervated at Philips request. Even though they have all been with him for the duration of his ministry: traveling, teaching, healing, and sharing the gospel message, that is, the good news, still they do not realize that Jesus is the icon, the image of God made visible for all to see, the Kingdom of God has already arrived, and that the Father is abiding in their midst. Jesus says to Philip: ‘Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.’
I have to admit that my own experience of relationship with Jesus is not dissimilar to that of the disciples. Perceiving a call from God to the monastic life was altogether scary, exciting, and not at all what I had envisioned for myself. Feeling certain that this was what I was called to do, I was disappointed and discouraged when it did not pull together right away. As a matter of fact, from the moment I found SSJE on the web to my first day here as a postulant, eight-and-a-half years had passed. I remember confiding in my parish priest at the time about my growing doubts about my vocational call and how I felt lost. She replied, ‘Jim, if you know where you are going, God’s probably not in the call. But if you feel lost and have no idea where this is leading, then be encouraged, because that is where Jesus is waiting to meet you and guide you.’ Those of us who choose to follow Jesus have to have patience and trust that God is giving us the tools we need in order to take the next step. In the language of 12-step programs our prayer to God needs to be: ‘What is the next right thing?”
In his book Hope: Moments of inspiration in a challenging world, Tim Costello tells the story of a coalminer that took his son with him into a mine shaft where he worked. He writes: The father told his son, ‘Wait here in this lit space, as I need to go along this tunnel.’ While the son was waiting, the light in the mine failed and he was in pitch darkness. He screamed out for his father. Down the tunnel he heard his father’s voice tell him to start walking toward him. The boy cried that he couldn’t see anything. His father asked him if the light on his helmet was on and the boy replied yes, but he could only see one step ahead. His father said, “Well take that step.” This happened over and over again, and the boy followed the soothing advice of his father until he finally reached the safety of his father’s strong arms.[i]
Our faith journey with Jesus is similar. The disciples did not fully understand what Jesus was teaching them yet Jesus advised them: Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.’ God is with us on our faith journey and while we may not fully understand all we have to do is follow him by word and example and we will come to know more fully the abundant life God wants to share with us. Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus says: ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’[ii]
I said earlier that even after five years of living this monastic life, I still have moments of epiphany where I come to understand something that had often escaped me. While an epiphany seems like a sudden and random event, the truth is epiphanies happen after a significant period of time when a final tidbit of information gathered brings something into focus and makes us say “Eureka! I got it!” While the ‘Eureka effect,’ (the sudden elation one experiences when having an epiphany) makes this event appear to be random, in actuality it is the end of a long process. While the disciples had spent three years with Jesus, witnessing and assisting in His ministry, they did not have all the information they needed to fully understand and perceive just what it is that He was trying to do. They would not fully understand and comprehend until after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and then reappearing to them, showing them His wounds and breaking bread with them. It is then they can utter like Thomas with confidence and recognition: “My Lord and my God!”[iii]
Perhaps at this moment in your journey with Jesus you find yourself in a similar place, not seeing or perceiving how God is working in your life, how He is present with you amidst the worlds bewildering confusion and suffering. If so, take Jesus at His word: We will come to know God’s presence with us by following the example of Jesus: by teaching and healing, listening to our neighbors, both known and unknown to us; by doing acts of love and mercy even in the face of those who wish us ill. It is in articulating in our prayer our desire to know the Father and reaching out to receive a piece of bread that we will take a step closer to the One who knows us by name and will not let us perish but give us life abundant. Amen
[i]Costello, Tim. Hope: Moments of Inspiration in a Challenging World. Richmond, Vic.: Hardie Grant, 2012. Print.