Mystery and Tradition

They took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father, for which of these do you stone me?” They answered, “It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”

John 10: 31-3

 

It is the conflict between Jesus and those who refused to believe in him that has pervaded the gospel readings from John these days immediately preceding Holy Week. John’s gospel comes out of a community of believers in Jesus who find themselves struggling with their sense of identity in the midst of the far greater number who did not believe. For those of us raised in a faith tradition from our youth, a tradition that for many of us was shared by the majority, it may be difficult to learn from and appropriate the great inner as well as outer conflict that the presence of Jesus in their midst provoked in the people of his time and place. Were God to manifest in a radically new way today, how would I respond?

Francis J. Moloney, SDB, writes in his commentary on John 10:

The tragedy of “the Jews” in the Johannine Gospel lies in their decision that Jesus, the Son of God, is a blasphemer, and that he must die. In their inability to move beyond their “closed system” they reject the incarnate Word of God and thus frustrate God’s saving purpose. The remaining part of the narrative will devote its attention to the enigma of a God who reveals his own glory and glorifies his Son through his death. (The Gospel of John, p. 319)

How do I know that my “system” is not as or more closed than that of the people who found Jesus just too at odds with their beliefs and their tradition? Do the works of God continue, in our time, to be manifest in ways that are enigmatic to us? Is the gospel and the reality of Jesus essentially anti-traditional? How does our practice of our tradition threaten to encapsulate us in a “closed system”?

A great foundational faith tradition must not be, and is not, a “closed system.” It is not the answer to our unanswerable questions but rather a context within which to ask them. It does not tell us what to think but informs the way that we are to think about things. It offers a foundation of faith, hope, and love within which we dare to face our lives in their enigmatic and often difficult reality. Yet, we often experience the mystery and what feels like the chaos of reality as too much for us. We unconsciously are always attempting to dissolve the painful tensions of life and to create on our own a sense of security born of false certitudes. Thus, as we create accretions on the foundations of our great traditions they become increasingly “closed systems.” This is what Moloney terms “the tragedy” of those who cannot recognize God in Jesus.

The increasing dominance of secularism in human society would, it was believed, increase the human race’s sense of tolerance and inclusion of the differences in each other. Yet, it seems, at least so far, rather to have produced a reaction of increasingly virulent fundamentalism. In religion and in politics we seem to be retreating more and more into our secure and closed systems. Our beliefs, our churches, our political parties become the truth rather than ways toward the truth. They become gods rather than ways to God. When we suffer the tragedy of being enclosed in the comfortable and familiar, in the rectitude of our own beliefs, we are unable to see any truth, to recognize any manifestation of God that is present in what is other to us.

In the American Civil War, each side claimed its cause to be God’s. The motto of the Confederacy was Deo Vindice, “with God as our vindicator.” The words of The Battle Hymn of the Republic declared that God’s truth was marching on in the advance of the Union Army. Yet, Abraham Lincoln spoke in quite a different way in his Second Inaugural Address:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

In Lincoln’s view, God’s will is unknown to us. The proof is that those in mortal conflict each invoke God’s aid against the other. No one has a right to claim that his or her cause is God’s. “The Almighty has his own purposes” which will never be fully known to any of us.

Adrian van Kaam says that the “foundational formative triad” at the heart of a truly human life is “faith, hope, and love.” These deepen in us to the degree that we increasingly come to trust, to hope in, and to love the Mystery. Our traditions are meant to be ways that teach us how to become increasingly open to Mystery in our lives. Jesus is always pointing out that he has come not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. The view of the author of John’s gospel is that the tradition of Israel created the space into which the Word would become flesh and would come to dwell among his people. Our traditions, our beliefs, our ideas and thoughts, our convictions are open when they become a space for the Mystery to enter.

Our tragedy, as that of those who were unable to recognize Jesus for who he was, lies in our fearful and arrogant creation of closed systems. There is no human monopoly on the truth. We must always be open to change, to reformation and to transformation because we shall always over time begin to close our minds and hearts. We shall forever be building “closed systems,” which will then inevitably begin to atrophy and die. Yet, the reality of life in its “common, ordinary, unspectacular” aspects will always contain seeds of the Mystery, what Thomas Merton called “seeds of contemplation.” The most mundane of experiences will always be, in some way, summoning us to awaken. Sometimes it will be the very experience of boredom or sadness in that ordinariness. Even though it can often enough seem to be the case, life is not too much for us. The Mystery is, finally, beneficent. We can abandon ourselves appreciatively to that Mystery, rather than “hunkering down” depreciatively into our own illusions and false certitudes. It is the great wisdom traditions of humanity that offer us a way to do this, if we do not diminish them by making them “closed systems” of our own creation.

Easter Eve: dyeing eggs and stuffing the turkey, all pleasant. Easter morning sunny and cool. To church with Susie and Ben. The church for once is full. I am delighted to hear that Christ is risen. I think that it is not against God’s will to have my generative powers refreshed by the face of a pretty woman in a forward pew or to wonder about the hairy and somehow limpid young man on my left. It is the combination of hairiness and wistful grace that seems to mark him. When I hear that Mary found at the tomb a man in white raiment I am incredulous. It is hard for me to believe that God expressed his will, His intent in such a specific image. But when I go to the altar I am deeply moved. The chancel is full of lilies and their fragrance seems as fresh as it is heavy; a sign of good cheer. And that this message should have been revealed to us and that we should cherish it seems to be our finest triumph. Here in the chancel we glimpse some vision of transcendent love, some willing triumph over death and all of its lewd guises. And if it is no more than willingness, how wonderful that is in itself. Walk with my youngest son in the sun. How my whole love of life seems to gather around his form; how he fills me with the finest ambitions. Birds sing. There is a little shimmer of heat. The moment of darkness is gone. He throws sticks into the water, which is a perfectly clear, shallow, and rippled scarf of light. He shuffles through the old leaves.

Later we go to the B.s’ for the Easter-egg hunt; but I am smitten suddenly with shyness, my smile is strained, my sensibilities are inflamed, I am round-shouldered and bent-necked and dreary and nothing but a pint of bourbon will straighten me out. I count on painkillers until ten, when I retire and, half asleep—courage, lustiness, cleanliness, love, charity, strength, industry, intelligence, vision—I recount to myself a dozen times those virtues I admire.

The Journals of John Cheever, p. 106

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