Trinity 10 - Journeying towards God

A sermon preached by Fr Robert Thompson in the United Benefice on 12 August 2012

I read the Christian religious blog ‘Journey with Jesus’ most weeks. This past week its regular essayist Daniel Clendenin wrote about his experience of walking the Camino de Santiago over 33 days. It’s an ancient pilgrim route that cuts through the North of the Iberian Peninsula to the Cathedral church of St James in Galicia, which is in NW of present day Spain.

In recounting his experience he focused on people that he met en route. Most were not religious he said. But equally most were on some sort of spiritual journey or quest. For these people walking the 800 km from St Jean Pierre de Port, in South West France, to Compestela in Galicia embodied some of our deepest human longings and desires: about life and death, about love and friendship, about work and play, about what is the meaning of it all anyhow?  A particular story caught my attention. It is the story of Jean-Claude.  I quote from Daniel Clendenin’s blog in full:-

"Jean-Claude worked in the French steel industry, with responsibility for a $20 million budget and forty people. But working 60–70 hours a week had taken its toll. At the age of thirty-eight he was divorced, clinically-depressed, and badly overweight. "This is not living," he told us. So he quit his job, and in May started walking the Way of St James in Le Puy, France. Two months and 1,000 miles later he had lost thirty-five pounds. We walked the last week of our Camino with Jean-Claude, and on Wednesday, June 18, we entered the Cathedral of Santiago for the daily "pilgrim mass." Jean-Claude had never gone to church, nor had his parents, but that day was what another French friend called a "deep moment" for us all. Jean-Claude took the Eucharist, and attended the pilgrim mass the next two days. He has a new job waiting for him in September, but he says that he doubts he'll take it; his dream is to open a pilgrim hostel in France."

Many of us are like Jean-Claude. Or at least many of us have been where he has been. It’s a story that I see reflected in the lives of many of my contemporaries from school and university, even theological college. It’s a story similar to those that many of my patients at the hospital where I am chaplain tell me. It’s a story that I have heard from the lips of many of us who sit here in this building today. It’s a story that in some form I could easily tell of myself. All of us here have our own stories of existential restlessness, our own stories of unmet and unfulfilled desire, our own stories of deep dissatisfaction.

The well known phrase of St Augustine springs to mind. Augustine tells us that we were created by God and for God and then he says “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Augustine reminds us that our deepest human desires can only be satisfied in God. We, of course, spend most of our lives trying to find such satisfaction in paltry substitutes, some of which are much better than others. We do it in work and wealth, in family and fame, in drink and drugs, in sex and power, and even in religion itself.

Following Augustine, the French mathematician Blaise Pascal compared our insatiable desires to a God-shaped vacuum which only God can fill: "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in us a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This we try in vain to fill with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself" (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 425).

Pascal’s language is strong and evocative. We go “seeking in things that are not here, the help we cannot find in those that are”. In other words, we seek refuge in illusions in order to compensate in the lack of satisfaction that our real lives give us. This equals the “infinite abyss” that only God can fill. And which of us has not experienced a great absence, or a great sense of emptiness, or an utter lack of meaning in our own lives at some time?

The work of the contemporary French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan is helpful in thinking through this sense of the abyss, this emptiness that we can experience. Lacan makes a distinction between need, demand, and desire (“Signification of the Phallus”). Our needs arise in our biological instincts. We need to be fed, we need fuel for the body, and so this leads to the demand for food. Demands then are our articulation of our biological needs. But Lacan believes that our demands are never simple and straight forward. So when we articulate our need of bodily fuel into a demand for food, we not only demand to be fed but we demand to be fed by another, and therefore we also demand love. When we are fed our original need of food is met. But our demand which is now two-pronged, is not completely satisfied, because our demand for love is not fulfilled. Lacan calls this deficit, arising from partially met demands and fully met needs, desire.

Lacan’s distinctions are helpful in reading what’s going on in the whole of John Chapter 6. John Chapter 6 can be read as a text which is about our abyss and our emptiness and what constitutes full satisfactory fulfilment. The chapter begins with Jesus feeding the five thousand. Jesus meets their implicit demand for their physical needs to be met. But they do not, in the end, experience their feeding as full satisfaction. Rather they want more; they desire more and they seek more. So we are told in John 6.16 that Jesus knowing that the crowd wanted more and wanted to make him King, withdrew. He had realised that they had misunderstood the miracle of the feeding. And then in John 6.22-24 we see that the crowd are tracking Jesus down in order to find him again. And eventually in verse 26 when the crowd find Jesus he says to them “you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

The crowd misunderstood Jesus’ feeding miracle. Their misunderstanding led to a separation of their demands of Jesus from their actual needs. They desired Jesus simply for what he could do for them. They made Jesus into an object, a bountiful provider, a magic man, whom they reduced to the merely instrumental. They condensed Jesus to the giver of bread to fill their bellies. But the clear teaching of today’s gospel reading is that Jesus is not an object who provides food. But that it is he himself who is the living bread. He is the bread on whom we must feed. Only in feeding on him do human beings find the fullness so life.

All of us are like that crowd in the way that we treat others instrumentally for what we can get out of them and for what they can give us. All of our human relationships are caught up at some level in similar, crude, cost benefit analysis. What we do of others we also do of God too. We too often reduce the life of faith to a form of religious marketing. “I’ll be good God if you are good to me” we say. In that sense too our religious lives can be deeply unsatisfactory, and unfulfilled because our desires, spawn yet further desires of a God who knows that we too simply want our fill of the loaves. Or to put it another way our religious faith can so easily be reduced to what we can get out of God.
But Jesus who calls himself the living bread calls us not simply to believe in him but to a relationship with him. Jesus calls us to follow him. He calls us to join his walk. He calls us to take up our cross and to tread the path with him. That’s a path which both expresses God’s love and leads to the fullness of God. It’s a path on which we discover that it is the education of our desires by self sacrifice which forms relationships of reciprocal love and allows them to flourish, that is truly satisfactory.

Jean-Claude discovered that on the Comino de Santiago. There for him the prayer of Hildegard of Bingen was answered:
O Shepherd of souls
and o first voice
through whom all creation was summoned,
now to you,
to you may it give pleasure and dignity
to liberate us
from our miseries and languishing.
(Hildegard of Bingen)

Where do we discover that liberation in our own lives? It was on the Camino that God awakened Jean-Claude, and freed him. For us it will be on different roads and in different places. As we feast today on Christ the Bread of Life, both in the words of scripture and in the communion of his body and blood, let us pray that here we may find our deepest desires fulfilled and satisfied by our walking Christ’s path and our resting in Christ’s arms.
Holland Park Benefice