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Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

Recognizing Love – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Br. Nicholas Bartoli

John 10.22-30

While working as a psychotherapist I would occasionally receive a profound gift, witnessing someone in the very moment of a miraculous transformation. I would watch, always amazed and humbled, as they seemed to physically lighten, their countenance brightening, their posture shifting to being more alive and vital and present, their tears often taking on a baptismal glisten. Sometimes, spontaneous laughter and joy sprung forth, and other times they simply rested in a lingering sense of surprise and fragility, as if just getting acquainted with a new way of being. But what I remember most is a particular look flashing briefly in their eyes, the look of recognition. It was the look you might see if you paid an unexpected visit with a friend. Imagine knocking on their door, and when they open it, in that very first instant, you catch a brief sparkle of recognition in their eyes.

I’m willing to go out on a limb here, and say that true healing always has a spiritual component, an experience of knowing something to be true, not with our minds but with our hearts. And this heart knowing is not like learning anything new, but more like remembering something forgotten, something that has always been true, and we realize that a part of us deep within always knew this. Maybe that’s the kind of knowing or healing those religious leaders were hoping for when they demanded Jesus tell them if he were the Christ or not. Like most of us, they may have felt a nagging, perhaps unarticulated suspicion that something very important was missing in their lives. They knew the law, they kept all the commandments, they were successful, but still something didn’t feel quite right. Their minds tried to articulate what they wanted, but their hearts weren’t ready to accept it, to recognize who Jesus was by accepting who they themselves were.

It must have been frustrating to hear Jesus’ answer, even though he spoke only the truth. He had been testifying to who he was by being who he was, but they simply couldn’t believe it. They wanted some sort of rational proof, a belief based on intellectual assent, when what they really needed was just a little faith helping them reach one small moment of recognition.

Nicodemus once found himself in a similar position. He came to Jesus in a dark place of ignorance, not ignorance of mind, but of his heart. He sought Jesus’s help, hoping Jesus would give him what he most longed for, God’s eternal kingdom. And I wonder if Nicodemus’ own woundedness fueled this desire. Perhaps he intuited that the path of Eternal Life was also the path of healing. Nicodemus didn’t need more proof of God’s Kingdom; what he needed was to be born again, from above, a moment of profound transformation, allowing him to recognize the truth of God’s Kingdom, a truth buried within him all along.

This reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Contact, a wonderful blending of science fiction with mystical theology. Jodie Foster plays Ellie, a radio astronomer making a career of listening for evidence of alien intelligence, hoping to prove that we aren’t alone in the universe. She lost her father at a young age, a wound she never quite recovered from, leaving her divorced from any kind of knowing other than through rational, empirical fact. Perhaps, though, Ellie believed that if she just looked hard enough, she might find proof that she wasn’t as broken and alone as she thought she was.

Along the way, she meets Palmer Joss, a man of faith, and at one point she challenges him both on the existence of God, and how Palmer can base his faith not on empirical proof, but on what she sees as a subjective, un-scientific kind of knowing.

“How do you know you’re not deluding yourself?” Ellie asks. “I mean, for me… I’d need proof.”

Palmer pauses for a moment. “Did you love your father?”

At her puzzled, guarded look, he asks again, “Your dad, did you love him?”

“Yes. Very much,” she answers, sounding a bit insulted.

To which he simply responds, “Prove it.”

As it happens, five days ago marked the seven-year anniversary of my own father’s passing. To say I love him seems like a vast understatement, and I miss him dearly. Through God’s great mercy, though, my dad does sometimes come for visit. One day he might take the form of a leaf falling gently from a tree, or a snowflake melting on a pane of glass. Another time a fluttering butterfly, the song of a bird, a rainstorm, or he even might visit as nothing in particular at all. I have no empirical evidence for any of this, I simply recognize all of it as true, a truth living deeper than anything accessible to only my mind. The love for my father, and the awareness of his presence live in my heart as part of God’s Kingdom. All of this is true, because it starts with remembering God’s Truth.

When Jesus told those questioning him that they did not belong to his sheep he wasn’t suggesting a kind of exclusive club. Jesus does not exclude anyone from the gift of Eternal Life, and the only requirement to being a member of Jesus’ flock is an act of recognition. One day, perhaps, those seeking answers from Jesus will remember what has always been true, that they are, already, being guided by the good shepherd; that they are, already, dwelling in the pasture we call God’s Kingdom. God’s Truth is not so much hidden or difficult to attain, but merely forgotten. It’s always been true in a way that surpasses our understanding, and all we need do is remember. It was that way for Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and for Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus. Knowing Jesus becomes synonymous with being able to recognize him.

Eventually, Ellie realizes her greatest hope, and comes face to face with an alien. The scene unfolds in a mysterious, dreamlike way, and she seems to have been magically transported to a beach she imagined as a young child. At first, all she can make out is a far-off figure, blurry and unclear, approaching from the distance. As the figure reaches Ellie, its visage finally resolves, and a look of surprise, awe, and recognition flashes in Ellie’s eyes. Her shepherd, the one guiding her on her journey, takes the form of her father, offering her tender and compassionate reassurance that she is not so alone after all.

Later, in front of a congressional committee, Ellie defends her version of events, of traveling a very, very long way to meet another consciousness, even though for everyone else watching she didn’t appear to go anywhere. She claims she witnessed something profound and transforming, an experience for which she has absolutely no empirical proof.

When asked by one of the committee members if they were supposed to take her story on faith, she admits, with great scientific integrity, that on the surface it’s possible none of it happened. But then she continues, saying:

“I can’t prove it. I can’t even explain it. But everything I know as a human being, everything I am… tells me it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision… of the universe… that tells us undeniably… how tiny and insignificant… and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something… that is greater than ourselves, that none of us are alone.”

We could say that Ellie was born again from above, moving from darkness to faith, to a form of knowing less about empirical evidence, and more like a recognition of love, through love. She came to know the love of her father in heaven, which is precisely Jesus’ invitation for us. It’s an invitation bearing fruit when we come to a small moment of recognition, when we realize that Jesus has always been with us, and that we have never truly been separated from God’s love.

So, asking for proof of Jesus as Christ just isn’t very helpful. Instead, Jesus asks us to repent, because the Kingdom of ineffable peace and joy, of transformation and healing, is so much closer than we can imagine. Repenting means to just let ourselves rest in that place beyond the reach of rational proof, that deep place within us where we remember our Oneness with Christ.

When we say “yes” to the good shepherd we discover something about ourselves. We learn that we’re one with the shepherd, and with our Father in heaven. We learn that that we have always been within his flock, because everything belongs. We find rest, finally, for our souls, and we come to recognize God’s truth already dwelling within our heart. From that wondrous place, God’s truth can become clear for us even in a leaf, a snowflake, a butterfly, birdsong, a rainstorm, or even nothing at all. All we need is to remember who we are, and that we have always belonged to the good shepherd… we just might have forgotten, and gotten a bit lost along the way.

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