Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 9, 2009 – Blessed Sacrament
We continue today our annual meditation on the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, and on its chief theme, Christ as the bread of life. Last week we heard him make the bold claim: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Jesus was calling the crowd that had followed him beyond the physical hunger he had once satisfied by multiplying the loaves and fishes to the inner hunger and thirst which he can satisfy by his word received in faith. “Coming to Jesus” and “believing in him” are here identified: as St. Augustine put it: “We do not race toward Christ by walking but by believing; we draw near to him not by the movement of our bodies, but by the decision of our hearts.”
Those hearts have to be hungry, however. Hearts that are satisfied with what they have made of themselves do not hunger for the righteousness, the integrity that only God can make real. The self-satisfied experience no need of him. This seems to be what Jesus implies when he responds to the scepticism of the crowd with the statement: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him,” a statement that provoked in Augustine and Aquinas some of their profoundest insights. (It has to be said that this is missed in the politically correct version of “I am the Bread of Life,” which, to avoid using the masculine pronoun, falsifies what Jesus said with the line: “unless the Father beckon.”)
The question is the one posed by Augustine: If we have to be drawn, pulled, toward Christ, then we believe unwillingly; violence is being used, the will is not being stirred. But there’s the problem: “Anyone can enter a church unwillingly,” he says; “he can approach the altar unwillingly; he can receive the Sacrament unwillingly, but he cannot believe unwillingly. If believing were a matter of our bodies, it could occur in the unwilling; but one does not believe with one’s body.” Hence the dilemma: one cannot believe except willingly; but no one can come to Christ (believe in him) unless drawn or dragged or pulled by the Father–which suggests a violence incompatible with freedom. How can one resolve the problem?
Both of the great commentators look in the same direction. “Don’t think you are drawn unwillingly,” Augustine replies; “the mind is drawn also by love.” A person is drawn not only by the will, but also by pleasure. Does not the Psalm say: “Delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires” (Ps 36:4)? “There is a pleasure of the heart for which that heavenly bread is sweet.” Augustine then quotes the great Latin poet Virgil: “‘Each one’s pleasure draws him on,’ not necessity but pleasure, not obligation but delight. If that’s true, how much more strongly must we not say that a person is being drawn toward Christ who delights in the truth, delights in happiness, delights in integrity, delights in endless life, all of which Christ is? Or do the body’s senses have their pleasures but the mind have none of its own?” And as if fearing scepticism in his own audience, Augustine cries out: “Give me someone who loves, and he will know what I am saying. Give me someone who desires, someone who is thirsty; give me someone wandering and thirsting in this desert, sighing for the spring in his eternal homeland. Give me such a person, and he will know what I am saying. But if I’m talking to a cold person, he won’t know what I’m saying.” It was such cold people who were grumbling at what Jesus had said.
Augustine then offered some homely examples to make his point that the Father draws us by revealing Christ to us. “Show a green branch to a sheep, and you draw him. Candies are shown to a child, and he is drawn, drawn by love, drawn without injury to his body, drawn by the heart’s chain. If such earthly delights and pleasures draw people when they are shown to them, does Christ not draw when he is revealed by the Father? What, after all, does the mind desire more strongly than truth?” And St. Thomas completes the thought: People are drawn not only by the Father; “they are drawn also by the Son, by wondrous delight in and love of the truth, which the very Son of God himself is…. Let us, then, be drawn by love of the truth.”
We should think a bit about this insight of the great saints. A person who delights in the truth, in integrity, in authentic life, they are saying, is already being drawn, pulled, even dragged, toward Christ, because Christ is life, integrity, truth. I do not think that they mean only religious people in these comments. I think they are speaking about any desire for, any delight in, the truth in any area; to experience them is already to be drawn toward God and toward his Christ. Love of the truth, delight in the truth, is at least incipient love of God and of Christ. This surely is the ordinary way in which people begin to move toward God long before they know they are being drawn toward God, if indeed they ever come to know that it is God whom they love and desire. They’re not drawn, they don’t move toward God spontaneously and freely and without violence to their hearts and minds, because the object of their desire, the source of their delight, is known to them in religious terms, comes labelled as “God”. They desire and love the truth and delight in it when found, and in such desire, love, and delight it is in fact God and Christ who are desired, loved, and delighted in. And as both saints insisted, without this inner movement, this inner drawing by God, even the revelation of Christ will not suffice to bring people to faith, as Jesus himself experienced when his revelation of himself as the bread of life was ignored by people who were not hungry for it.
By coincidence (that is, divine Providence!), last evening as I was thinking about this homily, I read an article which ended by citing Denise Levertov’s poem, “The Thread.” She seems to be describing her own poetic and religious journey, for which pulling, dragging, and tugging are metaphors:
Something is very gently,
pulling at me–a thread
or net of threads
finer than cobweb and as
elastic. I haven’t tried
the strength of it. No barbed hook
pierced and tore me. Was it
not long ago this thread
began to draw me? Or
way back? Was I
born with its knot about my
neck, a bridle? Not fear
but a stirring
of wonder makes me
catch my breath when I feel
the tug of it when I thought
it had loosened itself and gone.
If you have felt this gentle pull, be grateful for it. If you have not, be alert for it because I believe that God never ceases to tug at your mind and heart. If you fret over others who seem to have no need for God or Christ, take some comfort that for them to pursue truth and integrity is already to be moving toward God, responding to his pull and tug, and if they are faithful to that desire, then they are not as far from God as you may fear.