So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will ask nothing of me.
Amen, amen I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father he will give it to you in my name. Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
John 16: 22-4
Today’s gospel speaks of the “in-between time” in which we live. On the one hand, we have been give the Spirit and an intimation of the joy that no one can take from us, and on the other, we live with the anxiety and suffering of the woman in the throes of labor. On the one hand, we anticipate a day when our joy is complete and there is nothing we need to ask, and on the other, we are told by Jesus that we have not yet even begun to ask in such a way that we may receive the joy that God would give us.
As confusing as this passage may seem, at first glance, it describes the experience we know on a daily basis. We have been touched by the life of Jesus and by His Spirit which dwells in our hearts, but we live the alienation and incompleteness of a life that is so often disconnected from that reality. As it is often theologically articulated, we live in a time of both “now and not yet.”
One of my greatest teachers is my godson Keith, who died some years ago of the effects of a brain tumor with which he lived for almost five years. I was going to say from which he suffered for five years, which is also true, but it does not capture the quality and effect of his life during that time. He suffered at every level, as did his parents and family who cared for him, and yet, he and they also lived a joy and fullness of life during that time that far exceeded our ordinary experience of being alive.
On the way to the hospice facility where he would spend his last days, Keith, shortly before losing consciousness, sang the words of a hymn he had learned in Church: “All is love; all is peace.” There was in him a fearlessness and, I think it is safe to say, a joy that no one or nothing could take away from him. I was privileged to be with him and his parents at the moment in the hospital where he made the decision to forego any further treatment, and as he spoke to us, it was clearly from a place of understanding, peace, and joy that I knew to be real but had not and still have not touched. All he had been through and his faithful response to it had brought him to a place where I knew we would all follow but which I was still very unable to enter and understand.
“In that day you will ask nothing of me.” After Keith decided not to have further treatment, he asked forgiveness of his family for making them sad, but he asked nothing more of God. From our side, however, we continued to ask, to beseech God for his safe passage, for we still lived the terror and anxiety of the “not yet.” In the gospel today, Jesus tells us that from where we stand we are to continue to ask in his name that we may be given the joy and peace that we crave. But Jesus also speaks of the day, which Keith seemed to know even briefly on this side, when our hearts will rejoice with a joy no one can take from us, where “All is love; all is peace.”
The mystical tradition speaks of this place as “resting in God.” In our everyday lives, we mistakenly perceive the entire world as dependent on our own agency. The fears and anxieties that overwhelm us do so because of our lurking suspicion that we are not up to the false demands and responsibilities that we place on ourselves. “You shall be as gods knowing what is good and what is evil.” (Gen. 3:5) Those years ago, as I stood at Keith’s beside, the question I wanted to ask him was “What do you see and what are you experiencing?”. That question remains with me, not so much at the cognitive level but at the level of heart and spirit. I think Keith’s answer to me is the answer of Jesus to the disciples of John: “Come and see.” (Jn. 1:39)
Jesus tells the disciples: “You know the way to the place where I am going.” (Jn 14:4) I still seek an answer to my question of Keith in hopes that someone else can tell me the way. The answer, however, is not one that another has. In truth, I know the way; I merely lack the will and the love to practice and to follow it.
We will therefore feel ourselves as being entirely in God and entirely in ourselves. Between these two feelings there is nothing but God’s grace and the exercise of our love, for at the highest level of our experience God’s resplendence shines upon us, teaching us the truth and moving us to every virtue and to an eternal love of God. We ceaselessly pursue this resplendence right into the ground from which it arises, where we experience nothing but the expiration of our spirit and the immersion of ourselves in a simple, groundless love from which we will never emerge.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, I,C