In preparing the first homily on John 6, I had to face yet another question: What if the pursuit of truth about God and Christ, and my efforts to preach the truth faithfully, could disturb some of the Catholic faithful? Or more pointedly, and more poignantly, what if some persons are pulled away from their unquestioning creedal “faith” and move, not towards the truth of openness to the living God, but harden their hearts altogether, and end up in a state of unbelief? In other words, what if preaching could contribute to men, women, and young persons turning away, not only from the God of the creed, but from God altogether, and become, in effect, atheists? The loss of faith is not only a real possibility, but perhaps the single most compelling reality of life in American society today. Many there are who are either atheists or functional atheists, and yet they do not care, or perhaps even know the depth of their spiritual disease. They are in a sleep of death, and they are relatively content to stay in that sleep.
In order to make clear some of these thoughts to myself, and then to share with with those who attended Mass to hear the beginning of John chapter 6, I conceived, or entertained, what may be a kind of allegory of the stream and the desert, or the stream in the desert.
Many there are--millions indeed--who are living in the sun-baked, dry, nearly lifeless desert of unbelief. They know neither their need for God, nor the truth of divine reality. They are oblivious to the movement into God which constitutes the meaning, purpose, and end of life. These are burned out souls, living in a burned out land. Their inner and outer wasteland is unrelieved by beauty, goodness, life. They live in hardened untruth, and do not know it.
In the midst of the desert there is a river of flowing water, and along its banks are life-giving plants of all kinds. The bank where many of us in the churches are standing is the familiarity, safety, at-homeness of our institutional religions. Here is Christianity in its various churches, with their Scriptures, creeds, doctrines, rituals, clergy, lay people. On this bank many of us are standing, and enjoying the comfort, ease, pleasure of Christianity as a religion. A few of us have wondered into the stream. Indeed, I see the purpose of the preacher as one to help lead people across the stream to the farther shore. For the farther shore, where we see no one, but a few have passed in silence, is life in profound and lasting union with God. Ultimately, the farther shore is what has been called “heaven,” but I would call it selfless life in God. Jesus himself crossed over, and indeed lived in that crossed-over state even while on earth, while living and walking among us. And Christ Jesus sought and seeks to lead us, to lead all, across the river to the farther shore. Genuine saints have crossed over. In meeting a man such as Francis of Assisi, or a woman such as Theresa of Avila, we meet a man or women who even in this life tasted the glories of union with the Unknown God through faith working by love. Their union was real and lasting, and endured beyond death into the utter mystery of God. “By their fruits you will know them,” and such saintly souls are rare, and full of God.
Few of us, it seems, make the effort to cross the stream. We seem all too content with life along the comfortable bank, with our familiar Scriptures, creeds, rituals, with a fixed ministry and priesthood, with all that “just feels right,” because we have known it for years--in some cases, for our entire lives. The point of living, however, is to enter the stream, the stream of life. In the stream we are forced to live by faith, not by the familiar and comfortable; in place of creedal belief, we must exercise real, muscular faith, that costs us everything we have and are. In the stream we encounter the living God, who more than likely does not fit into the neat categories through which we had pinned God down and left him as a rather hollow, doctrinal shell. In the river we live and move by the Spirit of the living God, and we are forced to fare forward by nothing except the light which is burning in the depths of our hearts. “Without other light or guide than that which in the heart was burning.”
“Come to the waters.” The LORD would lead us into the flowing, turbulent, sometimes muddy waters of life, but we dally along the bank of familiarity, of institutionalized religion, of institutionalized life. Christ would have us cross over, and the only way to do so is to wade or to plunge into the stream, and begin the journey. No doubt we will be tossed about, even scraped up as the stream presses us against rocks, but we keep going, or we perish.