Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Roy de Maistre (1894-1968). Courtesy of Charles Nodrum Gallery, Richmond, Australia.
“But you, who do you say I am?” Jesus asks his disciples in Matthew 16:15. This question,” Who do you say I am?” is asked of us by God’s eternal Word which speaks unceasingly in our souls. Our entire faith can be condensed into this single question and our response to it.
Every situation that we encounter, every anxiety we confront, every decision we face, every relationship we enter, will be shaped by our response to that eternal question. In joy, in grief, in fear, in anger, in doubt, we need to turn inward and listen to that question being asked. Our response will guide us more surely and truly than we can possibly imagine.
The journey I have been making over the past many years is as unique to me as your personal journeys are to you. Many of the parts which go to make up my journey will be very familiar to others: it is the sum of those parts which will be unique in each case.
Last November, this blog described the spiritual desolation my mother endured in her final illness. Through those pitiless days I watched her go, as it seemed, into unrelieved darkness. However, in her final hours, I found myself identifying across two millennia with another person bent under a cross not his own. Simon of Cyrene made a crooked way straight for me and helped me see the Easter Sunday that lies beyond every Good Friday.
This was the first in a series of Biblical encounters which were to mark my very contemporary life profoundly. In today’s western world technology gives a false sense of connectedness – we can travel anywhere and we are never out of touch. The reality is that we are probably more alone now than at any stage in our history. However much and easily we move across the surface of the world, we no longer seem to put down roots. We are no longer connected with a place and a community in the way our ancestors were. The notion of drawing from a shared past has become alien to us; but we can become so easily enslaved by our own past, our past failures especially, which can drain us of confidence in our ability to move forward.
The journey we make from birth to death and rebirth has been made over and over again for 50,000 years. Nobody can make it for us, even though countless people have made it before us.While only I can walk my own journey, I do not need to walk alone. In any journey, it helps to have a guide – someone who has gone that way before. If you have been following this blog, you will know that I often retrace different stages of my own life’s journey in varied and illuminating company.
With Simon of Cyrene, I found myself part of an ancient community of memory. The Bible, bought by many but read by few, provides me with many other travelling companions in times of confidence and terror, exhilaration and discouragement, self-love and self-loathing, clarity and confusion. For, while each of our journeys is deeply personal, elements in each are also elements of the journey of Everyman. The people I encounter in the pages of the Bible are an extraordinary collection – ranging from wholly lovable to deeply unpleasant. Their journeys incorporate elements which embrace the tragic and the uplifting, the terrible and the playful. All have this in common – the experiences these people lived, the conflicts they encountered, the routes they mapped, are as relevant today as they were when their stories were first told.
“Who do you say I am?” With Eve and Mary, I replied joyfully, “you are God who is forever young and forever new. You have put flesh on my dry bones and breathed life into me. With you I participate in the ongoing act of Creation. Through you I make my soul throughout all my earthly days.”
In the majestic lifelessness of the Judean wilderness, I reply with Moses, “You are the one who rains down grace and makes the wilderness bloom. You make my interior landscape holy”.
With Jonah, I turned away from what I knew I should do and sought safety in numbness. I found that it is possible to come back from the land of no return and to change your judgement. I answered you, “You are the one who sometimes chooses to use me as a conduit for your transforming grace”.
I stood with Lot’s wife looking down on the cataclysm that was her former life, and I felt the salt on her cheeks. Though her experience I discovered that my life is a freely flowing focus of action in which the only thing that can stop me is the belief that I am not free.
In the temple at Shiloh, Hannah’s triumphant and prophetic canticle showed me how the ending of one story is always the beginning of another. In our children we must willingly become a channel for God’s transformative work.
At Simon the Pharisee’s table, I took courage from the nameless woman who washed the feet of Jesus and discovered that in order to love others one must first forgive oneself.
I watched David dancing with all his might before you, and I heard you speak to Job. My heart was lifted within me and I found I could exclaim with Peter, “Lord, it is wonderful for me to be here!”
In Jacob, a man for all times and all seasons, I learned to embrace crisis in the original sense of the word as a turning point – something to be welcomed rather than feared, something that the philosopher Ivan Illich described as the "the marvellous moment when people become aware of their self-imposed cages, and of the possibility of a different life".
With these ancient companionss, I make the exhilarating discovery that my journey is endlessly beginning; that I have the possibility - in Teilhard de Chardin's words - of "making my own soul" every day of my life; and that birth and rebirth are an astonishing adventure in which the soul never ages.
 Ivan Illich, The Right to Useful Unemployment, London, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd., 1996, p. 20.