by John Perriam
Sometimes, even now after 45 years, my mind goes back to a significant moment in my life. It was such a simple yet profound revelation. It was an exchange which I still treasure and will until my time here is complete.It was my duty and privilege to visit a man dying in hospital. His courage and his acceptance of his situation could only be marvelled at. His strength of character, whilst not unique, was relatively rare. The manner in which he spoke of his journey through life including his deep faith, left me in no doubt at all that he was someone very close to God. I used to visit him almost daily and on one occasion I asked him about his deep familiarity with Jesus.
He said: “I read and absorb the Scriptures and I bring them to life.”
I said “I read the Scriptures with regularity but I am sure I don’t have the serenity and attachment with Jesus that you have”. It was then that he opened to me a window into his spiritual life.
“Words,” he said “ are very important. Body language more so. Christianity is essentially a relationship with Jesus — no more no less. I can’t physically see Jesus. I take the words he uses, the circumstances surrounding those words and I take time to scrutinise his movements, his tone, his look, the light and intensity of his eyes. I try to capture his affect, his joy, his sadness. I rely heavily on my imagination for this is my most useful asset in coming to know him — as Paul would say ‘through a glass darkly’ (1 Corinthians 13). I have been working at this relationship for years now and in almost every aspect of my life I have Jesus by my side. It is a huge comfort to me and I am never really alone.”
This conversation changed my attitude toward, and perception of, Christian spirituality and my own relationship with Jesus. Words are very important and take us so far but ultimately they are not the stuff which relationships are made of. They are but the “entrée” or the external manifestation. See if you will an old couple sitting in the sun on the verandah. They have had a happy forty or fifty years together. Listen to their silence, but don’t tell me they are not in a deep relationship. They have moved beyond words and their knowledge of each other is deep and intimate. They reach each other on a plane where words are all but redundant.
How then can today’s disciples come to a deep relationship with Jesus? It is, in my opinion, that the primary mission of the Church is to facilitate this and yet I don’t see it happening. In the Acts of the Apostles 8:31, Philip asks the Ethiopian, who was reading from the prophet Isaiah, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “how can I unless someone shows me?”
It seems to me that our Church is not fronting with regard to this. It chooses as it were to ignore the spoken and unspoken needs of the little red hen (disciples) when help is requested. I have little hope that it will or even is capable of providing meaningful guidance to the disciples in its present form. There really needs to be a “road to Emmaus” experience on the part of our bishops. Sadly I do not see this happening in the near future. Indeed it may be a generation away. But it will happen. And yet, the revelation and the treasure of Jesus is the only point of difference the Church has in today’s, and more particularly, tomorrow’s world.
What then can we, rapidly becoming the remnant, do about keeping our spiritual journey viable and contemporary? The man I met in the hospital said he had been working at, and nurturing his relationship with Jesus for a long time, primarily using the Scriptures and building a familial relationship. This surely is a road we can all embark upon but it will take time insight and perseverance. The apostles were with Jesus three years eating with him, talking with him and mingling their lives with him. But even they did not know him really well. In John 14:9 Philip said to Jesus “Lord show us the Father”. Jesus said “have I not been with you so long and yet you have not known me”.
What hope have we of knowing Jesus with a degree of intimacy? It is true that no one can completely know God, but we can, like the apostles, like the man in the hospital, come to know him enough to avail ourselves of his strength, his reassurance and the sense of belonging he can impart to us.
In these times of spiritual disillusionment, it is good to call to mind the parable of the mustard seed as illustrated in Matthew 13:31. The small seed which later becomes a tree where the birds of the air build nests in its branches. It could be said, I think, that this parable sees the branches and leaves as the Church and the trunk as Jesus. It may be that in these times of plenty and loneliness a storm of indifference on more than one front is at hurricane force. The birds of the air (disciples) need to cling tightly to the trunk (Jesus) for fear of being blown away.
This then brings me back to the beginning when I met the dying man. He found a way to seek shelter and reassurance from Jesus. The branches and leaves (our Church) is under immense pressure because of inadequate leadership — a fact mourned by the revered Cardinal Martini in 2012 when he said “our Church is 200 years out of date”. This “out of touch” leadership is causing many to seek spiritual fulfilment in alternative places, and others to walk away, never to return. There is little likelihood of this storm abating in the foreseeable future. We must none the less remain within the tree, stay close to the trunk, and link ourselves to it so the storm will not affect us too adversely.
The Ethiopian’s complaint “how can I unless someone show me” is our dilemma too. It may be necessary for each disciple to seek, like the little red hen, his or her relationship with Jesus in relative isolation.
The formation of small groups to reinforce one another would be a major advantage. This however is not easily done. There is no doubt this exercise is difficult and requires a consistent and somewhat dedicated personal programme. For those who persevere the rewards are huge. The dying man said “I read and absorb the Scriptures. My relationship with Jesus is a great comfort to me and I am never really alone.” This connection with Jesus can be our reward if we but turn our inclination into resolution.
And the little red hen said, “who will help me make my cake?”: “We won’t” they said: “Then I will do it myself,” she said. And she did.
John Perriam, who lives in north Canterbury, worked as a priest for six years. He then worked as a family counsellor in private practice for 35 years. He married his wife in 1973 and they have five children.