Troubled into Life – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

John 12:20-33

The arrival of Jesus’s “hour” is a pivotal moment of transition in John’s gospel. Like road signs advertising a major attraction miles in advance, significant mention has been made of this hour throughout the gospel. In chapter 2, when the mother of Jesus urges him to change water into wine at a wedding, he initially demurs, saying, “My hour has not yet come.” In chapter 7 and again in chapter 8, Jesus is teaching in the temple and the Judean authorities try to arrest him, but “no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.” In chapter ten, we encounter a different kind of foreshadowing. Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, declaring, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Here in chapter 12, with the arrival of Greek Gentiles who wish to see Jesus, the much-anticipated hour has indeed arrived. Every word, gesture, and action of Jesus from this moment on will be charged with new meaning in light of his coming death and glorification.

But even as Jesus moves with confident purpose toward this climactic event, we receive a precious detail about his innermost experience that belies his calm exterior: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” The word translated soul is important here. It is psyche, from which we get our English word psyche. But it is the same word translated “life” a few verses prior, when we heard Jesus say, “Those who love their life [psyche] lose it, and those who hate their life [psyche] in this world keep it for eternal life.” The life that is clung to and lost is psyche. The life that is held provisionally, offered up, and thus transformed into something greater is psyche. This psyche is individual; particular; dependent; fragile; and ultimately comes to nothing without God. The greater Life which touches and transfigures it is, in Greek, zoe. When Jesus says, “I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,” this is zoe. My point here is that Jesus is troubled in his psyche – his individual, particular, dependent, and fragile human life. In this, he shares so much of what is ours.  Though he knew himself to be held within the greater life, the zoe of the Father, Jesus knew as well what it was like to feel troubled –  at the core of his finite being.

As followers of Jesus, our souls (lives) will be troubled. Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

The pain outside and around us will trouble us, as we see with new eyes the chasm between the world as it is and the world as God longs for it to be.

The pain within us will trouble us, as we feel with a new heart and a new conscience our own seeming incapacity to follow the narrow way of Jesus and to rise up to the demands of the gospel.

But there is at least one more significant reason that following Jesus troubles our souls, a reason that is at the heart of today’s gospel reading. This is related to the trouble – even the agony – that we will undergo if we are faithfully responding to the individual purpose for which God has created us, as Jesus was. This individual purpose is sometimes called our vocation.

If we consider our primary calling – our primary reason for being in the world and its alignment with the purposes of God – we know that it is moments of challenge that most refine and clarify that call. On the one hand, we know in our hearts that we are following the path God intends for us. At the same time, on the course of that path, a moment comes when we reach our known limit: “I cannot do this,” we confess. And given the evidence at hand, it’s entirely true. But then something within us or beyond us pushes back, with an equal insistence: “I cannot not do this. This is why I am here; this is what I was made for; this is the moment.” With Jesus, we pray, “It is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

When have you known this dynamic at the core of your own finite being? In your sacred calling: as a selfless parent – as a faithful spouse – as a compassionate caregiver – as a patient teacher – as a loyal friend – or as a persevering disciple? When have you felt yourself troubled at the core – individual, particular, fragile, and dependent – yet made willing by the God who is Life to face whatever life asked of you?

I can speak from my own experience walking the path of religious life as it is lived by this community.

One of the most challenging moments on that journey for me was the decision to leave my previous life behind in order to discern this vocation as a postulant, at age 31. In part, this is because I had already tried discerning an SSJE vocation once before, albeit briefly, at age 26. When I returned, I was calmer and clearer about what I wanted in life and had fewer illusions about the choice I was making. The call, as I heard it in my own heart, had only become louder and more persistent. At the same time, I had spent five years since building a life that was mine, that had its own momentum and future trajectory, and was relatively satisfying. But deep down, I knew it was too small – it was psyche. God had laid claim to me and wanted, needed, all of me. God wanted to give me zoe, in the way that I was made to receive it.

A parallel moment came for me years later as the hour of my Life Profession drew near. The chapter in our Rule on Life Profession begins by invoking the free self-offering of Jesus’s life on the cross, and his words: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Though I had read these words many times before, in that hour the words filled my fragile, particular, dependent humanity with terror. I had no desire whatsoever to leave this life. I knew it was my calling. But in that hour I began to learn the crucial difference between the desire not to leave and the free choice to lay down my life – not once for all, but daily, hourly, even moment by moment, to make room to receive the Life of God.

Many observers of our life, including men who are drawn to explore it, initially assume that monks are cut from a different cloth than other human beings; that we are hardwired differently from birth; that we have an innate intimacy with God that makes the sometimes excruciating challenge of this life not only bearable, but effortless. In all this, the implicit assumption is perhaps that we are more like Jesus – a Jesus who didn’t need to grow, learn, change, or suffer on a human path toward God’s purpose for him. None of this is true, just as that version of Jesus is not the Jesus we find in the gospel. We are simply men who began to ask a question that would not let us go until we surrendered into the arms of God. We kept striking iron and flint, and a spark finally leapt out into the tinder of our uncertainties and our blind but relentless desire to give it all to him. The question troubled our souls, and we could not rest until we found an answer.Finally, as we approached the moment of decision, nearly all of us heard the voice of psyche, the voice of our small self, our frail humanity saying “I cannot do this.” And, in one form or another, a voice from within and beyond us that broke the last barrier of our resistance, saying: “You cannot not do this. This is why you are here. This is what you were made for. This is the road that leads you to Life.”

From the eye of the storm, from the center of his one human life, Jesus prays, “Father, glorify your name.” In response, the God he knew as Father speaks as a voice from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” This is the only moment in John’s gospel that the voice of the Father communicates in this way. God affirms the calling of Jesus, both as Jesus has fulfilled it and as he is about to fulfill it. Listen intently to God’s reply to your own prayer. Is God urging you further down the well-worn path of a calling confirmed years ago? Is God inviting you to step forth from a way of life you have largely outgrown into larger life? Is God beckoning you toward a sacred purpose you are only now discovering? If we are following Jesus, all paths lead toward a troubled soul. It is how we pray from the center of that trouble that opens the way for God to meet us and carry us through every death, into unbounded Life.

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  1. Virginia (Ginger) Anderson on March 22, 2024 at 09:10

    ~I could tell a deeply, very sad story of my life, but really, the gifts God has provided so exceed that- One of the biggest is how SSJE has continually guided me in my journey. Fortunate to be at the Monastery and speak to Brother Keith afterwards, here is another example.
    Within the last year I realized, for the first time, that everything in my long life, has led me to this moment, and a surprising turn ahead was the path, as Brother Keith states “to the individual purpose for which God has created” me, “as Jesus was.” And then one day, I stopped short in absolute terror. As Keith relates, “…on the course of that path, a moment comes when we reach our known limit: ‘I cannot do this,’ we confess. And given the evidence at hand, it’s entirely true.” I saw my limitation!
    “But then something within us or beyond us pushes back, with an equal insistence” The words from God that day were a little different, but I heard, “You are correct. You can’t do this….by yourself. But with Me you are totally up to the task. Put your hand in mine and with Me, step forward.” and I did. Because I was reminded, “This is why I am here; this is what I was made for; this is the moment.”
    I was confused by the dramatic occurrence that day. I confided in a couple people close to me, but it wasn’t until I heard this sermon that I said, “That’s exactly it! THAT’s what happened to me!”
    As I walk through Lent towards Good Friday, I’ve been shown the part of me that must die, and I can now add my response, “Father, glorify your name.”

  2. Wendy on March 21, 2024 at 22:22

    Exquisite! Truth!
    Words I will meditate upon to guide me
    Into the next part of Zoe forme freeing me some more from psyche, I am grateful for your reflection.

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