1 John 2:1-17
The reading from the first letter of John that we heard earlier seems to be saying something contradictory:
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
This new commandment which is somehow also old is the great commandment of Jesus at the last supper, the command which the letters of John repeat so often, to love one another. And that command is not to construct our own little loves, as though we were unconnected islands, but to find ourselves and one another in the Love of God made known in Jesus.
There is a sense in that reading from John of seeking something that we already have. We are on a quest which is itself the discovery that we seek.
There’s something of that also in the reading we heard from Proverbs. It is the figure of Divine Wisdom herself who addresses us in this reading and urges us to seek wisdom and insight, the wisdom that comes from the Lord.
The Divine Wisdom is a personification – a feminine personification – of the creative power of God. She is God at work in creation, both the rational principle of why things are, and God’s delight in them. So our very existence, and the call to seek wisdom, are themselves acts of Divine Wisdom.
In both readings, it seems that we come from that which we are called to seek. Wisdom, love, and light are our origin and our goal. And Wisdom, Love and Light, of course, are God, God made known in creation.
This mystery of seeking what we, deep down, already have, appears in most religious traditions as something fundamental to humanity’s spiritual journey. We come from God, and return to God, but somehow we need to travel by long and winding paths to discover this truth. Our journeying snares us in illusion. We imagine ourselves to be autonomous. The ego reigns supreme, and we imagine we can construct ourselves, make of ourselves what we will. We forget where we have come from, forget that we are created. We become, as 1 John puts it, trapped in darkness. But once we begin to rediscover the deep truth that we are loved into being, the giftedness of our existence, then at that same moment we find that “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining”.
That call to find ourselves, to return home by remembering where we have come from, is written deeply into our nature. Wordsworth puts it very memorably in his poem Intimations of Immortality:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
In the gospels, it is Jesus himself who is, pre-eminently, the one who comes from God and returns to God. In the prologue of John’s gospel we read that the Word, who was with God in the beginning, through whom all things were made, was made flesh and dwelt among us. And having come among us, into exile so to speak, he gave us power to become children of God. Power to enter into the deep truth of our being that we come from God and are called to return to God.
I think this is part of what is meant when Jesus in John’s Gospel says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the way, the journey. He is the one who is from God and returns to God. He is the pattern of exile and return in which all creation is called to find its true identity. A pattern which has a resonance in the depths of our being, if we can but hear its distant echo.
And yet, the spiritual path in which we seek the truth we already have can seem to be rather humdrum and mundane. The epistle of John is full of practical advice to children, young people, parents. Advice to persevere in love and avoid the unsound teaching that was unsettling their little community.
But this is exactly what we should expect. The gateway to eternity is the present moment. We aren’t anywhere other than here and now, and it is in the here and now, in the ordinary circumstances which each moment presents, that we are called to discover the truth that we are from God and returning to God.
Every moment has within itself the possibility of complete realisation, the potential to enter into the luminous truth that my existence is rooted and founded in God, that there is no other “I am” to my being than the I Am which God himself pronounces. Every moment is like that hazelnut kernel that Mother Julian held in her hand, and wondered what it was until she saw that it was everything that is.
Now, a proper spiritual discipline is needed, not to produce this “experience”, but to dispose ourselves to see this truth that is in fact always present to us. In the Christian tradition the liturgy and worship of the Church are of vital importance in realising this discipline. The liturgy is not something we devise ourselves but something we receive. By that very fact it helps us break down the illusory fortress of the ego and hear the call from beyond ourselves which is at the same time the call to find our true selves.
In the ancient wisdom of the Christian tradition we continue, as the book of Acts puts it, “in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers”. That tried and tested way is the discipline, the training, that can open our eyes to the truth within.
The breaking of bread and the prayers are not things we construct ourselves. The Eucharist is something given to us to do, for all time, “do this in memory of me”, and it is both the daily bread of our exile and, as the hymn puts it, the “dear home of every heart, where restless yearnings cease, and sorrows all depart”.
The Divine Office of morning and evening prayer consists almost entirely of passages of scripture, in the psalms, canticles and readings, the versicles and responses. By nourishing our prayer life with these words which come from beyond us we can hear more clearly the call from home, to home, the call deep within our being to find our true selves in God.
By meditating on the psalms and scriptures we do indeed find ourselves “singing the songs of Zion in a strange land”, as Psalm 137 puts it. Until the darkness passes away and the true light shines, and we find that the “strange land” is in fact Zion, our true home, after all.