It takes a while
Everyone must remember that story about young Francis Bernardone who, while reconsidering his profligate life, paid a visit to a run down chapel outside Assisi in Italy, knelt to pray before a painted crucifix and thought he heard Christ’s voice saying, “Go, Francis, and rebuild my house for it is falling into ruins.” So Francis bought materials and labored to refurbish the chapel. He did not realize the full scope of Christ’s words: that he rebuild the universal Church itself, as a whole; that he revive it from the complacency and politics and mere ritualism into which it had fallen. In other words, the message from the cross had a slow fuse as far as Francis was concerned; it took a while for his response to match the magnitude and depths of its intent.
The Gospel of John especially illustrates this tendency of ours initially to fall short of grasping the wider intent of Christ’s discourse, the Holy Spirit’s influence in our lives. For instance when Jesus says to the Samaritan woman by the well of Jacob: “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Taking him literally she says in effect, “How can you do that, since you have no bucket and this well is deep?” OK, the well might have been deep, but she was shallow – not deep enough into her spiritual life to understand the kind of depth perception, freshness, vitality the presence and words of Jesus could bestow on her. The same misunderstanding was shown by the Pharisees when Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” In effect they immediately thought, “There’s no bakery around for miles; where will he get sufficient literal bread for this crowd!”
Even the saved in Matthew’s parable of the last judgment struggle when Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.” They reply, “When was that? When did we see you hungry, thirsty, an alien . . .?” They couldn’t see past the faces of the poor they served to detect the face of Christ in each of them - and the presence of Christ in their own behavior.
In his poem about the journeys of St. Brendan John Savant writes of one monk showing dismay over the whales swimming just beneath the surface of the sea: . . . the young monk cries / “Whales!” And then fearfully, / “Many whales – one / a wee fathom under!” // And Brendan: “Why do / you fear? It’s shadows / that guide us, our dreams / that drive us, more / than ordinary light.” As Christians, of course, we trust that it is more than shadows, dreams – but the intervention of God as an undercurrent in our lives, bringing us with each revelation closer to him.
I have spoken in the past of an incident in my teen years when I was in high school. It happened during a music appreciation class – in which we bored freshmen had to listen to classical music instead of Glenn Miller. Then one day the brother played Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The melody woke me up, I snapped out of it, listened, felt carried away – I had crossed a horizon into a world of heartfelt experience. But you know what? The experience of something special, hidden in that music, only burst into bloom a few days ago when, during a discussion with some retired ministers, that high school experience came back to me with the message I didn’t quite get 70 years ago. It dawned on me that what the moment was saying to me, what Schubert was saying to me, what the Holy Spirit was saying to me was: I myself am an Unfinished Symphony; everyone of us is an Unfinished Symphony! A divine composition that shall never end! One could say with regard to that freshman moment in my life that Jesus got through to me - after all - with living water – having no need for a bucket.