I want to share with you some kind of discovery I have made: I have come by accident upon the writing of a workman who produced them when he was in prison. There was nothing grand or admirable in his finding himself in prison. He was there for theft, not for a big one, but for theft. He spent 5 months in prison and as he expresses it in his writings, it gave him time to disentangle himself from himself. He was born a Roman Catholic, brought up with a good schooling and catechism, he was a knowledgeable working class man, then he was mobilised and took part in the war, then in the Resistance, and eventually a man who had been big enough for comparatively tragic circumstances, he proved much too small for the ordinary things of life, and when life became difficult he turned to all sorts of ways to make it easier for himself and that brought him into prison as I have said. Five months he was in a cell, working and left to himself and during this period he read the Gospel with new eyes. He had had occasions to read the Gospel before but it was out of the comparative comfort of a bourgeois life or of the security of working class. Here he found himself a man without a future; — and to a very great extent a man without any present because the present in prison has become so short a space of time. The present was the actual moment he was in, but this moment could burst open if the door was opened and he was commanded to go elsewhere and then another present moment occurred that lasted just as long as others choose for it to last. There was no future in the sense not only that it was dark in a general way, but because one could not make plans at all mysterious future broke into the present out of the arbitrary will of people; and this arbitrary will in itself had no meaning, because part of this imprisonment of him ruled by the decisions of the warders was simply meant to make him feel completely at the mercy of those who had him a prisoner; so that he should realise that unless he can find the right place in society, society could play with him in the most absurd way, never leave him in peace, never give him a chance to escape. And so this man read the Gospel, he knew that he was reading the Gospel only at the moment the Gospel was in front of his eyes, that this moment would cease at any moment, and he began to look into it in a new way, and here are a certain number of passages from his writings which I would like to offer to your meditation:
Would we have recognised Christ if we had lived in his time? How would we have recognised Him while others whom He met in the course of his earthly life did not recognise Him? Why should have had recognised Him, or else why would we not have recognised Him? You could exclaim, had we lived in that time, had we been able to hear Him, to see Him, to touch Him, how much should we have loved Him, with what enthusiasm would we have abandoned everything to follow Him. That is what you think. And you mean to say that you have never seen Him? Never touched Him? — But you can commune to Him every day. And you mean that you do not hear Him, but every day He is there waiting for you, ready to speak, in the Gospel. You mean to say that you never met Him? — I was hungry and you have given me food, I was athirst, I was lonely, — did He not say that? Is there not an hour in your life when you just not miss Him in one of your brothers? He says the truth when He says, “I am with you every day until the end of the world.” He is with us every day; how could we be more comforted, where should we get more assurance, more tenderness? There is nothing so false as the nostalgia of those who lack only one thing, just one thing to be good Christians, that is to have lived 2000 years earlier. It is more than probable on the contrary that our vices, far from giving way when He came near us, would have prevented us from recognising Him, exactly as thousands of people who approached Him with curiosity and turned away disillusioned, because they had found too ordinary a man, or else because they had found that this original man was unbearable and scandalous. Again He says, blissful is he who will not take offense because of Me. Every thing starts every morning, Christ is always the same. The Gospel is a book of Revelation, it reveals God, it reveals us also; it tells us the story of Jesus meeting men, all sorts of men in all sorts of meetings. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be. And the Gospel tells us how in all times God treats man and how man ill-treats God. Jesus has been near us for years and we have not noticed Him; indeed not one day has passed without you having met Him, but it is another thing to find out how often you have received Him and how often you have ignored Him, despised Him, condemned Him. Do not imagine that the people who tormented Him and of whom the Gospel speaks, were any worse that we: they were full of good intentions, they were doing exactly as we do without knowing it, they were acting for the good of the community, they were acting according to their conscience; they were killing Christ according to their good conscience exactly as we do. And Jesus was always saying: “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”.
“There is in our midst one whom we do not recognise, whom we do not know.” This warning of John the Baptist is a living word, a word that resounds throughout the ages, a prophecy applicable to all the times. There is in your midst one whom you have not noticed, whom you do not know, and now many years have passed; Jesus lived in their midst 30 years, He had met them hundreds of times, He had worked with them and been kind to them, and helpful, He had look at them, He had listened, He had spoken to them, but no one had ever recognised Him. This living word of St. John the Baptist concerns each of us; between Him and us there is the same veil, the same screen of indifference or of bitter hostility. In the depth of each of us there is opposition violently unleashed against all that is divine. With all our strength we reject the God who allows Himself to be so different from the image we have created of Him. He must be done away with. And even more extraordinary, more shaking than the words of St. John the Baptist are the words which Jesus addressed to Philip on the eve of his Passion. After 3 years of public life when He had taught every hour of the day, when He had shared their lives, to one of those with whom He had shared all his adventures, Jesus had to say: “Philip, it is so long that I am in your midst and you cannot yet recognise Me”. And after 20 centuries, who is the one to whom these words do not apply? It is so long that He is in our midst and we do not yet recognise Him. We have not understood that He is hungry, and thirsty, that He is poor, and that He was there were there was nothing to honour, nothing to admire, nothing to be afraid of, nothing to respect; He was there, precisely there where you were sure that He could not be. His public life has now lasted 2000 years, yet the presence of God is still a hidden presence, and God’s presence shall always remain a hidden presence perceptible only to these who will have accepted no longer to picture Him in their own way, who will no longer look for Him where they expect that He should be. The most violent call of God will always appear as a kind of silence, because his language is not the one which we expect to hear. We could meet Him but to do this we should love Him enough to prefer his ways, his language, his will to ours. Even after the Resurrection, when Jesus appears, no one recognises Him at once. Whenever God manifests Himself time and again He is unrecognised, taken for someone else. Look at the disciples at Emmaus, they had a long walk with Him, for a long time they listen to what He said, they felt warmed by His presence; yet they did not know who was comforting them; at the end only they recognised Him when He broke the bread.
On the shore of the lake of Tiberia, their nets had to be miraculously full, so full of fishes that they began to give way for one of them, indeed the disciple whom Jesus loves — to exclaim “It is the Lord”. But for Marie Magdalena, lost also because she mistaken the Lord for the gardener, it was enough that He called by her name and she recognised Him at once. One who is of God hears God’s words, one who for a very long time accepts to become familiar with the things of God gradually will learn to recognise His voice. We always complain that God is silent, that God is absent; and we play with the thought that we would be full of joy if such or such event made Him manifest to us; and yet the Gospel shows us that those who lived in the time of Jesus did not recognise Him any better than we, although He was present for them as He is present for us. Are we simple enough at heart, candid enough to believe that for us also the Word has become flesh, that He lives in our midst and that it is us who refused to recognise Him, not Him who does not manifest Himself? Are we sufficiently simple at heart and candid to realise that all he wishes is to dwell in our midst and that we do not want to receive him? He is among his own but his own do not receive Him; because man still prefers darkness to light, “because their deeds are evil”. Are we honest enough to recognise that this is the reason of the darkness against which we hit at every moment? The light does shine in darkness but this darkness is our darkness. For centuries, for thousands of years a people has been prepared, nurtured, warned, formed, in order to receive the Messiah, and they got Him and they missed Him. These people believed in their scribes, in their doctors, in their theologians, in their parish priests, in their parents. Oh, they were learned, they knew their religion well, it filled their mouths, they were the elected people of God, they were specialists in religious affairs, they were specialists in all those things which concern God, and God was in their midst and they did not even so much as notice Him. Oh Lord, that was not the way in which You were to come, can any thing good come from Nazareth? And then really whims are permissible, but you should not have exaggerated; we have learned from Scripture, it is written there, all sorts of things are written and said to which you do not correspond at all.
Well, let us be careful, us, Israelites of nowadays, we have so well formulated every truth about God that doctrine itself which we have formulated does not interest us any more as far as its contents, God, is concerned. Let us be careful not to know so well the signs that in the end we forget the things which we mean to express by these signs. To believe in God presupposes that we have not gathered notions, facts concerning the religious phenomenon, but that we have met a person, a living person, that there has been a coming near, a contact, a turn, a movement. Those who had met Jesus, all, had a religion; they all believed in a God whom they had been told about; those who followed Jesus are those who accepted to outgrow the ideas which they had acquired with such difficulties, to give room to his ideas which were quite different. The most difficult conversion, the one to which we are all called is interior to our religion. Those who followed Jesus had to acquire from the first step new ideas on God, they had to sacrifice their ideas, they had to reject all that had filled them, their relationships, their friends, their social milieu, all these conventional backgrounds of faith and of habits which Jesus was about to shake to the very ground, all this system which the Lord was about to explode.
Those are the things that one has got to renounce when one follows Jesus, when one begins to believe in God, the living God. When someone begins to believe seriously, earnestly to take God seriously, he individually scandalises all the goods Christians who are humble enough to do as every one does. He scandalises all those who are sure they hold the right religion, who has given proofs and who is harmless, who brakes nothing. St Paul also, while he was persecuting the Christians, was convinced that He possessed the good religion, no one better than him was aware of all the commandments of the Church and no one had greater zeal to observe them; and these people, these wretched people who questioned all things, who looked as if they taught that everything had not been settled, legalised for ever, they drove him beside himself! There was a law, a law that foresaw all things, what was the use of these inventions? But when this impeccably religious man in the end met truly the God whom he thought he was serving, he was thunderstruck. “Who are you?” In his heart, the god whom he had protected so ferociously had suddenly dried out and he saw it was nothing but an idol. What about our God? The God whom we imagine we serve? Is he the sensitive, anxious being, who fell on the way, who was persecuted, who could be persecuted and who revealed Himself to St. Paul, or is he the all-powerful distant being, a sort of book-keeper who spies on us and will catch us the first time we slip, if we are not careful? How many Christians would not be like the God they imagine; they would be better than Him!
When Jesus revealed Himself, when Jesus revealed the Father and said “One who sees Me, sees the Father”, people discovered that God was infinitely better than they had thought. God was near, God was gay, God was tender, God was friendly; and God wanted to be loved; He ran after us in fields and bushes when we turn away from Him, and when we left the house, He stood at the door waiting for our return, and if we were kind enough to come back He melted with tenderness and He did not know what foolish things He could invent to make our return bright and more joyful.
Now then, if we have never met Him, is it his fault or ours? Throughout the Bible resound the words that says that it is God who searches for man, starting with Genesis “Adam, where are you?” and ending with the Book of Revelation “Lo, I stand at thy door and I knock”, ”If anyone hears My voice and open its doors I shall come in and I will have My meal with him and he with Me.” And He goes on knocking. How at times throughout the night until morning, this irritating shatter does not
stop hitting the wall of this door which we had shut so carefully and for ever, making such a noise when the wind blows, and then something has hit inside us and it hurts, oh, that is worst than to get up and to open the door and yet someone is knocking — God — but He meets always and everywhere this hard wall, this inert wall, my Lord, we will try to open for You, we do realise how hurtful it is for You to knock in vain.
Pascal’s God says “You would not search for Me if you had not yet found Me”. Would it not be righter to say: “if I had not yet find you?” God may be forgotten, denied, abandoned, betrayed, but He is a faithful Saviour, a real Father and that for ever. He does not change; a son may no longer feel a son, a father never ceases to be a father.
The hunger which man has of God is nothing compared to the hunger of God for man. God never misses a “rendez-vous” with man, and it is Him who appoints the date. It has never happened to anyone that he searched for God and that God did not recognise him at the meeting place. No one can say that he has put himself at the Lord’s disposal and that the Lord has not heard him, not come to meet him, that God has not begun to act upon him, that He did (had?) not healed, consoled, touched him, indeed seized upon him.
And exactly in the same way in which He loved us once upon a time, in passing, 2000 years ago, in the same way He has never ceased to be a revelation, that of love. Love can be expressed, is communicable, the proper quality of love is that it seeks for expression. When people begin to love one another they start by telling one another all the details of their lives, all that has happened to them, they unveil themselves to one another, that is they reveal oneself, they confined in one another, they open their hearts, and God does the same, He is always tensely directed towards us, offering us to share, to confine in us, but we turn away. He wishes to manifest Himself but we are absent-minded, hostile and we resist fiercely against God. We have such a thickness of indifference, of disgust, of hostility, and yet whenever we cast our heart towards him. whenever we say a word of prayer it is as if we cut of a shaving of our lack of faith; and when we will have prayed enough for this thickness of indifference to have grown thin, and then to have disappeared, we will discover that God was there all the time. Prayer alone is capable of wearing our resistance against God. To pray means to expose oneself to God, to put oneself at His disposal, in order to allow Him at last to do in us what He wanted to do and what He will wish to do, to give Him a chance and time to entrust us His secrets, this confidence which He has in store for us from all eternity. To pray means to allow Him to kill in us this rude, brutal noisy self-satisfied chap whose cries and shouts prevent any conversation. To go into retreat means to train oneself to understand that it is not God who is in the wrong and that it is us who are unfaithful, forgetful, negligent, indifferent and merciless to Him. But to attain that just vision in order to outgrow what seems, and what we have built gradually and petrified gradually to protect ourselves and to prevent the real God from being God in us, in order to present his voice so exacting and so tender to reach us, because we are afraid that we will have to respond if only we hear it, we must pray a long time, calmly and with interior attention. As long as we remain in agitation, possessed by problems and interests, we are secured, we are out of reach from God. Days of retreat and isolation are necessary for us to begin to live in Him, by Him, we must stand like a stupid beast, allow our engine to stop, remain immobile so that no other movement occurs except God’s movement and then God’s responses are surprising and shaking. And they never address themselves to you the way you expected. He will speak to us the way He will choose, in the words He will choose; that is His business, not ours, it is His concern, not ours. When we will have given our problems into his hands, which are the only ones capable of carrying it, we will discover that there is no weight on us, that we can bear our weight and that we possess even the strength which we need to carry it.
Well, I think I stop here, because there are pages and pages more. I wanted you to hear that because I think that this man has made the kind of retreat he was speaking of. He was an ordinary thief and he found himself in prison. He was confronted with the absence of time, a sort of hopeless abiding present, the future was unpredictable, he could be safe only in the present, he looked at the Gospel and these are some of his commentaries, some of his responses to what he read.
Ref: René Grossman. Cahiers Saint-Irénée. 1963, n. 39.
(Eglise St Irénée. 96 bd Auguste Blanqui. Paris 13e)