Our Journey Within
Based on Psalm 51:1-12, Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:20-33
I have always loved science – especially botany, physiology and chemistry. To feed this love of science I was particularly attracted to science fiction as a genre of books and movies growing up. I read widely from across the spectrum of science fiction authors from Asimov to Verne. They led me on a journey to faraway places and to strange worlds and beings. They opened my mind and imagination to the possibility of what science could do – and where it might take us. One movie in particular captured my young imagination, “Fantastic Voyage”. Anyone remember it? It came out in 1966 and was the story of a 5 person crew that is shrunk down inside a submarine and injected into a human body to repair an injury that would otherwise have been fatal. Seemed far-fetched in the mid-70’s when I first encountered it – but my love for anatomy and physiology always had me wondering if exploring the human body like this might someday be possible. Fifty years later we have nanobots and other microtools that might just be the gateway to a real fantastic voyage.
As interesting as that might be, about forty years after I discovered the “Fantastic Voyage” I discovered the way to journey within my spiritual self through the writings of the Christian mystics. My upbringing as a United Methodist did not expose me to these writings which were mostly Roman Catholic, going back more than one thousand years. I discovered them as I was led by the grace of God to the Shalem Institute and to a year-long program in “Spiritual Deepening”. During this year I was exposed to contemplative spirituality and my own spirit resonated with what I was reading, and even more by what I was experiencing in spiritual direction and in retreat. I was fascinated by the way that new spiritual understandings opened in front of me. I learned then that my spiritual journey was really a journey within me to the place where God resides. Our journey together, as pointed out by our scriptures this week, is also a journey within to where we can come face-to-face with who we are in God. This is not an easy journey, but it is necessary if we are to grow in our faith and our understanding of God’s call on our lives. Let us ask our Savior God through prayer to accompany us on this fantastic voyage…
We find ourselves just about half-way through the Book of Jeremiah. God has been comforting God’s people in exile over the last few chapters. God has encouraged the exiled Jews to settle down and to multiply in this strange land – to seek the welfare of the city of Babylon and its inhabitants. God through the prophet tells the exiled people that God will redeem them after 70 years of exile and return them to Jerusalem. This is where we pick up the passage for today, the LORD is recalling that the previous Mosaic covenant had been broken by God’s wife (marriage language used throughout Jeremiah to describe the broken relationship with Judah). The LORD states in verses 33 and 34 that a new covenant will be made with the “house of Israel” and written on the hearts of the people. Thus shall all persons, high and low born, know the LORD and God will forgive their individual and corporate sins.
King David has been caught in his sin by his counselor Nathan. David’s reaction to this is one of shame and repentance. Psalm 51 is the song which comes out of King David in response to his interaction with Nathan and his own self-reflection. David begs for mercy and to be “thoroughly” washed clean of his corporate and individual sin. He is clear that he has sinned against God (one could suggest here that he sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah as well) and that he deserves the consequences that attend such sin. The verses from 10 to 12, however, point to the real need in this case which is for God to cleanse his heart and give David a steadfast and generous spirit. David has taken a good long look inside himself and has identified that which has caused him and others harm – his hard and unclean heart and spirit.
In the 12th chapter of the Gospel according to John, in the 19th verse, the Pharisees have just emphatically stated, “…Look, the world has just gone after him!” In verse 20, where our scripture starts today, we have the first Gentile (Greek) disciples appearing, making the Pharisaic statement more fact than hyperbole. Jesus’ ministry has indeed reached far beyond the Galilee. Jesus tells these new disciples what he has already told his 12. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is not afraid of dying, in fact He states that He cannot avoid the task appointed to Him. As in last week’s scripture, Jesus makes reference to being lifted up and thus drawing all people or all things to Him. Jesus has also made the inward journey and is at peace with what He has found there.
Each week this Lent we have moved a bit farther on our journey with Jesus towards Golgotha. Each week we have considered a different aspect of this journey – our journey towards Jesus and His call to us as disciples. This week we are considering the journey inside our spiritual selves where God has stated in Jeremiah that God’s law is written on our hearts. We spend a lot of time thinking about the state of health of our hearts in these times. We think about our blood pressure, cholesterol, rhythm, and all the physiologic markers that dictate whether or not we have a well functioning ticker. There are all kinds of advertisements on the T.V. which point to “heart health” as a key to our living the kind of lives that we want to live – active and independent.
Yet, those who are wise in the ways of the Spirit know that it is also important to care for the spiritual aspects of our hearts. Thomas Merton in 1960 and Henri Nouwen in 1981 both wrote small guide books about the journey to the spiritual heart based upon the writings of the desert ascetics in the fourth and fifth centuries; Nouwen’s book is entitled, “The Way of the Heart”. Nouwen points out that through silence, solitude and prayer, the Desert Fathers and Mothers discovered their true selves which reflected the likeness of Jesus. The prayer of the heart, which is in essence the prayer that David sings of in the 51st Psalm, asks for God’s help to remove the clutter and trappings of the world and so free us for our life in and with God. In this prayer we find the same thing that David found, that is, “…The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise….” (verse 17)
Our spiritual heart in our Judeo-Christian tradition is very different from the current understanding of it as worldly and emotional. Once we backtrack to the origins of the spiritual heart, we find that the heart is the center or source of all physical, moral, emotional, intellectual, and volitional energies. It is from here, our ancestors believed, rose unknowable impulses, conscious feelings, moods, perception and understanding, and our will – and our propensity to sin. It is the very center of our personality – of who we are as sentient beings. Thus, to pray the prayer of the heart, according to a Russian mystic named Theophan the Recluse is, “…To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you….” (Nouwen pg. 73) This is what David’s song is asking for – what it is that each of us is journeying towards as disciples of Jesus.
This is truly a fantastic voyage, but one that is neither a fantasy nor science fiction. It is real and it is attainable by each and every person with enough of a will to begin and through the grace of God to finish. This is not an easy journey by any means, and it should be undertaken with a spiritual director or guide – because it is easy to get lost. To get in touch with what God has written on our hearts, however, there is no other means to the end. In order to reach that space where God alone resides, our journey must be within. It is that journey to which we must dedicate ourselves both individually and as a faith community. We must support each other as we move towards our inward and divine selves, and we must find ways to empower others to start this journey. Until we die to our worldly selves, as Jesus tells us, we will lead individual lives. Once our “grain of wheat” falls to the earth (to our center or our beginning) and dies – it bears much fruit. Thanks be to God for a journey that costs all of who we are, yet yields so much in return. Amen and amen!