When Peter sat down again in the living room I began to tell him of my own search for wisdom. I believed that knowledge alone was enough, but from my last conversation with Peter I could see that no amount of knowledge without love would ever enable me to find the true wisdom for which I yearned. Before I went to Harvard to study for my doctorate in law I spent three years studying theology at Notre Dame. It was here that I relentlessly searched for the truth, for spiritual wisdom. I identified wisdom with knowledge and sought it out with all the urgent intensity of an alchemist in his search for the philosopher’s stone. The haphazard plundering of dusty mystical tomes gradually gave way to the feverish desire to lay hands on the latest theological paperbacks. After several years of intensive reading I emerged with a wholly new and exciting vision, only to realize with disappointment, that the visionary remained unchanged.
A flicker of flame in my head, but no fire in my belly
If knowledge of God could not change me, what about knowledge of humankind? Christ had after all identified himself with man and surely this was what the Gospel was all about? Was this not the meaning of the Incarnation, that God had identified himself in Christ with the neighbour in need. All I needed to do was to discover people’s needs, learn how to minister to them with all the professional expertise offered by the new salvific science of sociology. I became a dedicated exponent of the tenets of the social Gospel with all the verve and vigour of the new convert. However, my practice did not measure up to my preaching. My enthusiasm changed with the seasons, only to become snowed up in winter when my inner reservoirs of philanthropic energy hardened and froze over. There was still a flicker of flame in my head, but no fire in my belly. Knowledge of God had failed me; knowledge of humankind had failed me too. Then it suddenly struck me like a flash of lightning. Why did I not see it before? The words of the Delphic Oracle rang out loud and clear in my mind. ‘Know thyself’. Of course, it was obvious. I had been blind all along. The real problem was within me. Knowledge of myself would set me free. Surely this was the spiritual philosopher’s stone for which I was searching: it was self-knowledge.
In search of Self-knowledge – but in vain
I went away for a year before going to Harvard to do a course in pastoral psychology and counselling. You name it, we did it: Group dynamics, sensitivity sessions, personal analysis tutorials and counselling techniques. I know the course did help me and my faults, my failings, my problems of character, even my personal idiosyncrasies could be explained with detailed analysis of my childhood. At first, the experience was shattering. After the first few weeks I ended up like Humpty Dumpty in pieces on the floor, but bit by bit I was put together again, the better for my experience, I am sure. At the end of the year I felt liberated. The truth had indeed set me free. It was only gradually as the weeks went by, that I realized once more that knowledge was not enough. The psychological knowledge I gained about myself was true, but it did not give me the power to change myself. It showed me all the blemishes but it did not remove them. At the end of it all I was back to square one. Peter smiled and nodded when I told him something of my odyssey in search of wisdom, as if my experience was a carbon copy of his own, which it could not possibly have been.
New gods, new religions with their own insufferable infallibility
“When will we ever learn?” said Peter who went on to explain his own view.
Once upon a time it was the educationalist who would save us. ‘Open a school, close a prison’ was the slogan. Our problems would be solved overnight if we could only educate everyone thoroughly. When we all had free education and the Utopia did not arrive, we looked for another scapegoat. This time it was inflation, unemployment and housing conditions. The new religion was economics; the economists and the town planners were the saviours and then it was science that was hailed as the liberator, the panacea for all our problems and the answer to every human need. Everything was laid at the feet of the new scientific messiahs who came to deliver us and offer salvation with a materialistic face. When people began to prefer a human face, it was the turn of the sociologists and the psychologists; new gods and new religions with their own hierarchies, their own priesthood and their own intolerant and insufferable brand of infallibility. We are like my hens who will go any way but the right way, follow any path but the right one. Peter paused for a moment, gently moving his head from side to side, his lower lip lapping tightly over the upper as he mused sadly on the tragedy of the human predicament.
To experience ecstasy and to share our completion with others
You would wonder how generation after generation of rational animals could fail to see a truth so obvious, so simple, that even a child knows it by instinct, even before the age of reason dawns. We want to know fulfillment; we want to experience joy, to be lifted out of ourselves into endless ecstasy and to share our completion with others. The only drink that can slake our burning inner thirst is the living water of uncreated love. It is only under the influence of this intoxicating draft that we will be able to see ourselves, not only as the psychiatrist sees us – as we are – but as we are meant to be. It will give us the strength to grow into our true selves from the ruins that we are now. Then we will be able to reach out to the ‘other’ with the genuine hand of brotherhood, to give of ourselves totally in love to the neighbour in need, because we have love to give, not just dreams to share. Peter shifted uncomfortably in his chair, slightly self-conscious at the extravagant way he was expressing himself. Smiling, he went on to say that he did not want to give the impression that he was anti-intellectual, or that he despised contemporary learning. On the contrary, he has advised many correspondents to go on for higher studies and several to study sociology. Only a month ago he told someone to consult a psychiatrist because he realized she was in need of the sort of competent professional help that he was unable to give. He emphasised that what he wished to do is simply to reiterate and underline that no human branch of learning will ever answer our deepest needs. They may expose them, but they will never fulfill them.
It is the Truth that sets you free
I told Peter that I agreed with him and was grateful for everything I had learned, but I was a bit disappointed when I found that the truth did not set me free.
“Oh, but it does!” Peter interjected immediately. “Truth is not just a body of facts, Truth is a Person. In God, Truth and Love are one and the same, both light and life. Truth not only shows you yourself as you are, but also as you ought to be. It not only gives you vision, but also the strength to fashion that vision into reality.”
Peter reached for a handkerchief, blew his nose and continued to relate a story from the past. He referred back to the story of Mark in whom adult analysis of his childhood experience was factual and accurate and in that sense true, but his knowledge did not liberate him because it was not The Truth. In God, Truth and Love are one and the same, so His truth reaches out and touches the head and the heart at the same time. Mark’s predicament was in one sense exceptional but, in another sense, it is merely the predicament of us all in bright colours. We do not all have king-size chips on our shoulders and we are not all overburdened with such weighty inferiority complexes, but we all have some degree of security difficulties and we all suffer from guilt. In our more clear-sighted moments, we know very well that we are prize specimens of feeble human frailty. We fail time and time again to live up to even the cameo-size ideals that we set for ourselves. Day after day we experience the weakening moral incontinence that drains us dry, that leaves us apprehensive and perplexed, even when we are trying our best. This is why we feel the need to hide, to clothe ourselves with layer upon layer of falsity, fatuity and fantasy to disguise the spiritual nudity within. Peter then announced clearly that what eventually happened to Mark must happen to us too if we are to be radically changed. After all, this is what the Gospel is teaching us on almost every page. It shows us over and over again the effects of Love unlimited, as it progressively invades a human nature, the human nature of Jesus. It shows how, under its powerful influence, he grows in “wisdom and understanding” (Luke 2:52), as his humanity ripens and matures under the influence of love.
Jesus was absolutely sure that he had parental love. He knew by experience that his Father loved him, because that love was tangibly present to him day after day. This is why he is the most mature human being who ever walked on the face of the earth. No one has ever experienced such depth or intensity of love before, nor been so absolutely sure of its continued and lasting presence. This is why he was in complete possession of himself, totally secure, fully himself.
True Imitation of Christ
We like to present Jesus as the model for Christian action by showing how he was so uncompromisingly available to all. But we fail to realize that he was only able to be open to all because he was first open to God. It was only because he exposed himself without restraint to God’s Love that he could be filled with the fullness of his love from which the infused virtues are generated. This is why he could communicate the truth to others with such kindness and compassion. Without the hidden years, the desert, the lonely garden or the inner room there could be no compassion for the needy, no love for the loveless, no healing for the sick. To follow him does not mean that we should try and copy him as an artist copies a model. It does not mean that we should merely imitate the outward manifestation of the inner light that burned in him. It means that we must expose ourselves to that self-same light, that it may set us afire too.
As Peter was finishing his last sentence, he reached into the top pocket of his donkey jacket and pulled out an old watch fastened to a broken strap. He put the watch back into his pocket and looked down at the floor for a moment in silence. I knew that it was time for him to go, so after waving goodbye I went inside to make myself a cup of tea and began to anticipate our next meeting which I will divulge next week.