The Lazarus narrative (Jn 11) brings to mind the death and resurrection of Jesus, the celebration of life, humanity, and the divinity of Jesus; Jesus, our light and life… For believers, there is no difficulty in believing these tenets of faith, but from a spiritual perspective, can this narrative challenge us to live a life of freedom and happiness? The clue is in the command of Jesus: “Untie him and let him go (11:44).” From a spiritual point of view, are not various conditionings (religious, moral, psychological, emotional, mental, cultural, societal, national…) keeping us tied and under bondage? Inner freedom is the foundation for peace and happiness. Traditions, taboos, customs, and obedience to authority… if not rightly comprehended and appropriated at a personal level, can leave us enslaved within ourselves. The directive to “Untie him and let him go” is an existential call to look at those conditions that keep us trapped within ourselves preventing us from experiencing inner freedom and joy. It is not a question of discarding collected wisdom but rather to take a realistic look at them so that we can internalize the values in them. In a series of blogs, let us look at some of this conditioning in the light of Jesus’ words: “Untie him and let him go.”
For Sigmund Freud, id, ego, and superego are components of the human psyche which develop at different stages. It is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind, the superego is identified with the voice of authority, and ego is the principle of reality. Superego, from a religious point of view, sets us on the religious and moral plane and thus it has its function. Once the introjected values are interiorized then the superego should give way to the ego; the reality principle enables the individual to come to a judgment as to what ought to be done. Such a judgment is made in dialogue with Scripture and Tradition. This process takes a realistic look at what has been handed on to us and not just conform to it out of blind obedience.
Jesus did not come to establish a new religion. He was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died a Jew. Jesus prayed at the Jewish synagogues and temples and interpreted the Jewish Scriptures and took upon himself the mission to transform and purify his own religion. Jesus tried to free Judaism from secular and temple aristocracy and taught people to go beyond the letter of the Law to the spirit of the law; love. Through his words and acts, he brought about a shift in their understanding of God by challenging the narrow sense of religion, which kept them as slaves under the yoke of Law. He proclaimed God’s Kingdom to all and offered his Father’s offer of unconditional love and mercy. The words of Lao-Tze come to my mind: “That which for the caterpillar is the end of the world, for the rest of the world is a butterfly.” True religion, for Jesus, is not to remain as a caterpillar but to be transformed into a butterfly.
Acceptance of Scripture and Tradition as sources of religious and moral authority does not eliminate the need to interpret, challenge, and question their relevance for us today. Questioning is not a lack of respect for collected knowledge but rather it is to make it personal and relevant. I am reminded of the following story from Tony de Mello:
When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshippers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship. After the guru died, the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship. Centuries later, learned treatises were written by the guru’s scholarly disciples on the liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.
It is not the presence of the cat that is essential for God-experience but what is needed is the ardent desire and love for God. Religious rituals are means to an end; intimacy with God. There is always the danger of holding onto the externals and accidentals and forgetting the essential. It is not an act of disrespect to our faith when we ask ourselves, “What benefit am I drawing from this service/prayer? Is it bearing fruit in my life? Am I just repeating what I have been taught? Am I just going through the rituals to fulfill religious obligations? Is religion just an emotional trip? What changes do I need to make so that it becomes more meaningful? Are my practices helping me to deepen my spiritual life? Does this style of prayer and liturgical service bring me closer to God? If it is not helpful, do I have the courage to listen to the promptings of the Spirit? Is my faith just a belief in a set of propositions or is it a personal and a joyful relationship with God? Who and what is God is for me? What is the image of God; is it inclusive?
A story from the rabbinical tradition is quite enlightening: When there was no rain for a longtime, the people of the village said to their Rabbi, “In the past when there was drought we requested your grandfather to pray and he went to the forest, gathered wood, made a fire and prayed to God; rain came down. During the time of your father when we requested, he went to the forest and prayed and we were blessed with rain. Now we are facing drought again. Please pray. They never saw the rabbi going to the forest neither to gather wood or light a fire to pray. He stayed in his room and prayed and rain came down. He told them that it is not the act of going into the forest or making a fire and then praying that brings rain but the faith with which we pray".
Doesn’t this make us think that it is not where we pray, how we pray, and how often we pray but the faith with which we pray?
As Christians, while we follow Scripture and Tradition, we tend to forget the third element; the personal experience. God is an experience and relationship. God is being in love. Ultimately it is the experience of God that will transform us. When Jesus was questioned about his authority to teach, he said, “… I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and speak” (John 12: 49). And in John 5 he says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, a son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees his father doing; for what he does, his son will do also” (John 19). His authority came from his own experience of his Father. Isn’t this what he expects of us as his disciples? When the Samaritan woman returned to her village to tell others that she had seen the Messiah, they listened to her and went to see Jesus for themselves. After their encounter with Jesus, they said to her, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world” (John 4:42). “Can anything good come from Nazareth,” was Nathanael’s response to Philip when Philip asked him to come and see Jesus (Jn 1:46). When Nathanael sees Jesus, he says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God;* you are the King of Israel (John 1:49). It was his own experience of Jesus. Is my knowledge of Christ just a borrowed knowledge from others? Do we believe in Christ because we have personally met Christ? It is only in my personal experience of Christ that I too can say, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). If not, we will just be repeating the experience of Paul. Let us not outsource Christ and Christ’s experience to others.
It is not a bad idea to use the words of the Buddha as a measuring stick in our spiritual life” “O bhikshus and wise men, just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting, and rubbing it, so you must examine my words and accept them, but not merely out of reverence for me.”