We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
THE KINGDOM FEAST
Mark presents us with two accounts of a miraculous multiplication of food to feed a great multitude, each with a slightly different twist (the second account can be seen at Mark 8:1-10). This first one occurs after the Twelve have returned to Jesus from their mission work. While the few lines are used as a literary device to provide a link from one section of narrative to the next, there is much more to be treasured from the point of view of our lectio. In this sense we remind ourselves again that every word which is given to us in Sacred Scripture is an expression of the Spirit, the Word speaking to us in our deepest being, and so, even though at this moment the word may not speak clearly to me, being attentive to it is part of the practice of lectio. Someday I may return again to this passage and that will be the moment when God finds my heart fully open to receive the word which is addressed to me.
Those who have been sent out (literally, the apostles) come back to Jesus. For each of us, this is a precious reminder that our work on mission is empty if we are not returning again and again to Christ, the source of our life and work. It would simply be that all the preaching and demonstration and action would become focused on me and my plan. And as is so very obvious here, we run out of fuel! We need the top up which is Christ’s life and the life of the Spirit within us. So, the apostles return to Jesus because without him there is no message and no mission.
There must have been tremendous excitement amongst them as they sat down with him! And he is all ears! Christ wants us, waits for us, to tell him about how our life is unfolding in his service and in the service of the Kingdom. God never tires of hearing how we have been caught up in the growth of the kingdom. But it doesn’t stop there: God wants to hear everything about us. This is part of the ongoing prayer conversation into which God continually invites us, because he asks that he be woven into the fabric of life and not an anxious bystander, a sort of divine audience and spectator, who watches and listens but whom I deliberately keep at a distance. Who else, after all, would have fully understood what the disciples had experienced on their mission, except the one who had already done these things and seen the results? Only God really understands the wonderful things which he has done in our lives, but we grow in our acceptance of them, and the awe which we experience because of them, by telling him about our experience in the midst of them.
We should notice one other thing about the report which the apostles give to Jesus: they tell him about all they have done and taught. In this, they mirror their Teacher – he is the one above all who is always teaching, both by word and deed. This complementarity is important in the mission work with which we are commissioned: one cannot have one without the other – teaching must be translated into action, and action must provide the seed bed for teaching. This marriage of the two tools of proclamation can be applied to each moment of our lives: nothing need be wasted, or seen as wasted, if it is invested with the word of the Gospel. And the Gospel which we are asked to preach and hand on becomes the arbiter of the integrity of our words and actions.
Jesus’ response to the disciples is an invitation, which many of us will know from our Retreat Sunday experiences, since this is the invitation which we use to that monthly stepping aside. “You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while”.
The invitation is of paramount importance because of the realities which it places before us. And what follows in the course of the narrative hinges upon these realities. We are not now speaking about place but experience, and Christ offers us the experience and asks us to participate in it as fully as we can.
The word “lonely”, in one form or another, will appear in this passage three times explicitly, and once implicitly. Then it will be fundamentally revealed in its truth by the simplest and yet most striking additions – a single, almost commonplace adjective, which effectively qualifies the entire usage in the passage.
The Greek term here – eremos – does not mean simply “lonely”. In fact, the English is quite misleading in this regard. This place to which Jesus invites his disciples – and the huge crowd, we notice, follow their example by going after them – is a desolate place, an uncultivated place, a place which is set apart and different in its quality and growth and appearance to the usual places associated with habitation and communities. In effect, Jesus invites his disciples to come away to a place which is very different to the places to which they are accustomed. This is, of course, a new part of their training. How extraordinary! We might even say, counter-intuitive! Jesus begins his training of his disciples by sending them out into the field, by gathering experiences upon which they can reflect, by asking them to see how the Spirit which animates the kingdom works through them in human situations to effect the growth of the kingdom. Then, and only then, does Jesus invite his disciples to begin the tougher training, that of the interior life, that of the prayer-place within each of them, and in their midst, which will be the hidden dynamism which gives energy to their mission work! This is pretty much how we go about training people today – in any field! As soon as possible we send them into the workplace to garner practical experience, then we begin to reflect on the theory which justifies the practice.
It’s good to notice how we approach this ourselves. Essentially, neither beginning with the concrete and ascending or beginning with the transcendent and descending is wrong – each of us has a very personal approach to our spirituality and how we begin to understand and encounter God. But here we are talking about what is essentially an ascending theology – one which leads us from the experience (of God) in the nuts and bolts and living of our lives and our communities to the mystical and transcendent embrace of God’s presence. In many ways, this is the greatness of and God’s surprise to us in the Incarnation – the Word becomes flesh, so that he can be part of our experience – and through this experience we begin our journey to the face-to-face with the Father. Commenting on Karl Rahner’s mystical theology, Harvey Egan writes:
“Rahner offers common human experiences to help us ‘dig … out from under the rubbish of everyday experience’ real life occurrences of grace, such as accepting with hope the experience of utter loneliness; forgiving with no expectation of the other’s gratitude or even of feeling good about one’s selflessness; being utterly faithful to the depths of one’s conscience, even when taken as a fool; praying, even when it feels useless; maintaining faith, hope and love, even when there are no apparent reasons for so doing; experiencing bitterly the great gulf between what we desire from life and what it actually gives us; and silently hoping in the
face of death. God is experienced, in Rahner’s view, most clearly and intensely, … where the graspable contours of our everyday realities break and dissolve; where failures of such realities are experienced; when lights which illuminate the tiny islands of our everyday life go out.”Harvery Egan, The Mystical Theology of Karl Rahner, in The Way. The full article may be found by clicking here.
So, this place which is lonely, desert, separated, different, is set aside for a new purpose, an altogether new encounter, and a wholly unexpected new revelation. We need a moment to take this to heart – Jesus invites his followers to journey to a place and a way of relating to the world which is entirely different to the usual way in which we encounter the secular age. This is a place which stands in marked contrast to the usual haunts of our existence; and not just that, the implication is that it involves a different way of behaving, a different way of being. Jesus is saying – in order to reflect fully on what has happened you need to find the place and attitude which will allow you to enter fully into reflection and meditation.
Separation is vital here. Stepping aside is vital here. Allowing a new rhythm to begin the tick of our inmost life is vital here. And it is an undertaking which is distinct from our other business – Jesus asks the disciples to move away from what they have been doing. They are to be by themselves – in other words, they must form the community which defines them. What will take place will take place within a kingdom community, and it is a necessary part of this community’s life. It is a new part, a new action, a new teaching, and a new experience, and one which opens up, in a new way, to the action of God in the lives of this new community. I don’t think we should doubt that Jesus addresses himself to a community here which is gathered, very definitely and concretely around him. And that revelation has not happened yet in the experience of the disciples, and those who follow them to this place, but will do so in the place.
Linked to this is the invitation to rest for a while. I wonder did this seem as difficult for the disciples as it does for us – they are, presumably, on the crest of a wave after their first mission, and like as not, want to get out on the road again and pick up where they left off. But Jesus is adamant – they must step back and undertake a different sort of work.
This work is arduous. Whether we call it the interior life, the search for tranquillity or apatheia or quiet, the spiritual life, the life of prayer, the invitation to contemplation …. It stretches our very meagre resources and can leave us feeling at a loss with ourselves. The daily grind of work is often more welcome than this – precisely because we like to be able to measure results. But results in the interior life are of a very different quality. In a sense, in these few verses, Jesus is teaching the disciples, and us, about the nature of this interior life – it begins by trusting in the word and promise of the one who invites us into a relationship with him. By and large, we find trust difficult, particularly when it calls us into unfamiliar territory.
This is a constant invitation extended to us, and we are asked to become used to doing this ourselves. The search for the place, within and without, which allows us to enter into rest – the place of quiet and solitude which most fully opens us up to God’s presence within us and around us – is not just an experience which stands in contrast with our deeds and work. It is, of course, different in its nature and quality but not separate. It requires a definite shift in mind and heart so that we re-focus the eyes of our mind and ears of our hearts and see and listen in a different way. There is always a place and way of existing provided for this when we celebrate the Church’s liturgy. Often we can fall into the trap of thinking that we have to re-invent some kind of mystical environment or context, forgetting that the Church herself gives us an abundance of contexts in which to enter this place of rest and separateness. This is precisely what the liturgy asks us to do – to step aside in a very particular way from the usual mundane occupations of our lives and sit in God’s presence, mediated to us in the celebration of the liturgy and the sacraments. If we are missing this, then we need to reclaim it!
Then we look at our own celebration of personal prayer. Perhaps it’s the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours; or this lectio divina and prayer with Sacred Scripture; perhaps it’s the meditative praying of the Rosary as Mary invites us to contemplate, with her, the pivotal moments of her Son’s life and saving death and resurrection; perhaps it is the close and slow reading of a document of the Church on some part of the Church’s life – and my life – which helps me to ponder the mystery of which I am a part. Whatever it may be, we do it with the intention – and this is always central – of coming away to a different place, a place which exists specifically for encounter with God in Christ through the work of the Spirit.
And maybe it is that liturgy which above all defines the kingdom community to which I belong – the celebration of the Eucharist:
“Incorporation into Christ, which is brought about by Baptism, is constantly renewed and consolidated by sharing in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, especially by that full sharing which takes place in sacramental communion. We can say not only that each of us receives Christ, but also that Christ receives each of us. He enters into friendship with us: “You are my friends” (Jn 15:14). Indeed, it is because of him that we have life: “He who eats me will live because of me” (Jn 6:57). Eucharistic communion brings about in a sublime way the mutual “abiding” of Christ and each of his followers: “Abide in me, and I in you” (Jn 15:4).
By its union with Christ, the People of the New Covenant, far from closing in upon itself, becomes a “sacrament” for humanity, a sign and instrument of the salvation achieved by Christ, the light of the world and the salt of the earth (cf. Mt 5:13-16), for the redemption of all. The Church’s mission stands in continuity with the mission of Christ: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (Jn 20:21). From the perpetuation of the sacrifice of the Cross and her communion with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the Church draws the spiritual power needed to carry out her mission. “The Eucharist thus appears as both the source and the summit of all evangelization, since its goal is the communion of mankind with Christ and in him with the Father and the Holy Spirit.” (John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 22)
Many of us need to reclaim our sense of the utterly unique sacredness of the Eucharitsic liturgy. Perhaps like nothing else in the experience of the Catholic has so great a gift been taken for granted. Rushed liturgies and celebrations; poorly prepared homilies; poor participation on the part of those attending; poor preparation of those attending and participating; preference given to other activities, some even scheduled at the same time as Mass is celebrated when those responsible should know better; poor catechesis; a bewilderment on the part of many as to how to win back those who have grown disinterested and indifferent and wandered away from this centre point of our spiritual lives. While it is invidious to judge the quality of our celebrations by the numbers attending, we nevertheless need to wake up from a spiritual torpor and set the Eucharistic celebration once again in the centre of our living and life-giving Church experience.
The mystical is always before us, and in our hand – we are, after all, people of the great Mystery of Faith, and who have been given by our baptism, the right to its celebration. And we cannot speak truly about renewal of the liturgy if we have little or no idea of what it is we are renewing!
For a few introductory verses, the Word of God here has drawn us close to himself and has drawn close to each of us – to reflect on the ministry of word and deed; to reflect on our willingness to step into a different context and way of relating to the Gospel and our ministry; to re-establish the “alone” place in my life, which is distinct and separate not because of its geographical or physical condition but because it is made distinct and separate by my radical awareness of God’s radical presence; what it is to be by myself with the others who make this kingdom community with me; how rest is a part of my prayer and desire for God, expressing my deeply seated search for him; what are all the contexts which I might be taking for granted or simply ignoring but which give me the opportunity for this focusing.
When was the last time that I consciously allowed myself to hear this invitation from Christ to come away, by myself (and with him and the Father), to a place set apart, free of the usual distractions and trappings, and rest for a while, not in an empty way, but in a way expecting his presence to be revealed to me? And asking this, to ask, when was the last time I responded with a “yes” to that invitation?
The people who follow Jesus and the disciples, and indeed manage to get ahead of them, do so because of desire. They guess, we are told – they second guess, perhaps. They have come to know Jesus and the disciples, after a fashion, and so they can make an educated guess about where they are going. My following depends on getting to know. Guessing here is probably the wrong word – the sense is more that the people worked it out, they discerned the intention and directions that Jesus and his disciples were taking. As we shall see, their discernment was also one with God’s plan for them, although they don’t consciously know that at this stage. But they have an acute sense that they have to continue to be with Jesus. This, then, throws some light on that word “all by yourselves”. Really it implies being in private, but not individually – they are privately together as a group. And so the great crowds come with them, also to be in that group which is by itself. We might say that the group of followers is acquiring an identity, is being formed into a community which will allow it to be “by itself”, in other words, different to and separate from the other groups which existed in that day in Palestine.
In the light of what is about to happen, we might reflect again on “our group” – that is to say, the group of believers to which we belong. If this evangelist is the John Mark who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles he will know already that the group of believers, the early Church, is already a group which has an identity and a way of behaving which is quite distinct from other groups (look again at Acts 2:42 and following and Acts 4:32 and following).
There is a desire within these people, and shared by them, to want to be in the Jesus group.
Jesus’ pity on the crowd is noteworthy. The English term is very inadequate – Mark is speaking here about a feeling which is situated in the deepest part of Jesus’ anatomy, in the kidneys and gut. His feeling of compassion for the people rises from the deepest part of himself – his whole self is brought into this compassion, and it makes him, as it were, unable to ignore them, or send them away. And now, having had two occurrences of the lonely place word we have the implicit use. Frequently in the Greek a form of the word which we have been seeing – meaning, broadly, desert – means also a flock of sheep which has been deserted, which is alone, which has no one to guide them to pasture, hold them together, watch out for them! So, Mark is completely on the ball here – these people have come to a very new deserted place – a place set apart – to have their abandonment transformed by Jesus, who will be, in effect, their shepherd!
We are used to reading and praying with Jesus’ words recorded in John’s Gospel in which he takes to himself the title “Shepherd”. But here in Mark he reveals himself as such by caring for this vast flock which has come to know him, in some manner, and is following him. And the revelation is of a deep compassion, a feeling at one with all these people, almost, we might say, knowing them individually, as a shepherd does his own.
Is there really abandonment? Is there really a moment when God leaves us, withdraws his presence from us, in which we are wholly alone? Certainly the feeling can be there. Certainly God allows us to experience this abandonment as if he were not present. Each of us, in those moments, is asked a question about our experience of God’s presence, or better, how we look out for him. Frequently, the apparent abandonment which we feel is precisely a re-calibration of the desire which we have for him. And again and again it is an invitation to see what has happened for me in my life which prompts this feeling that I am no longer aware of him at my side. That is a very different experience to abandonment.
St Teresa of Calcutta, still often better known as Mother Teresa, had a profound sense, from early in her life, of God’s absence, and of being wholly unaware of his presence. This constantly surprises those who think they know something of her life, since all the evidence of her work and her involvement with so many communities at so many different levels would appear to indicate otherwise. And yet she herself, acutely aware of this darkness, entrusted herself to the God whom she could not feel and yet she knew guided her. The following is taken from a letter written to Fr Joseph Neuner sj, who was to become a type of spiritual accompanier to Mother Teresa:
“Now Father – since 1949 or ‘50 this terrible sense of loss – this untold darkness – this loneliness – this continual longing for God – which gives me that pain deep down in my heart. Darkness is such that I really do not see – neither with my mind nor with my reason. The place of God in my soul is blank. There is no God in me. When the pain of longing is so great – I just long and long for God – and then it is that I feel – He does not want me. He is not there. Heaven. Souls. Why, these are just words, which mean nothing to me. My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls – to go where? From my childhood I have had a most tender love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament – but this too has gone. I feel nothing before Jesus and yet I would not miss Holy Communion for anything.
“You see, Father, the contradiction in my life. I long for God – I want to love Him – to love Him much – to live only for love of Him – to love only – and yet there is but pain – longing and no love.
“I want only God in my life… Before I could spend hours before Our Lord – loving Him – talking to Him – and now not even meditation goes properly. Nothing but “My God” – even that sometimes does not come. Yet deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness.
“My heart and my soul and my body belong only to God – that He has thrown away as unwanted the child of His Love. And to this, Father, I have made that resolution: To be at His Disposal: Let Him do with me whatever He wants. If my darkness is light to some soul – even if it be nothing to nobody – I am perfectly happy to be God’s flower in the field” (quoted in Mother Teresa, The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta)
Very often we desire to have something of a saint’s fervour, or their ecstasy, or their continual closeness to God. More often than not we forget that they, like us, struggled in their human condition to remain close to God and have an abiding sense that he continually walked with them – and us.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-