He Was One of Us: the Life of Jesus of Nazareth, by Rien Poortvliet, text by Hans Bouma.
Copyright 1978, Doubleday & Company, Inc.
He went down with them to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age
and favor before God and man.
Dear Jesuit woman,
As we enter the climax of the liturgical year, I’m thinking a lot about Jesus. My spiritual director delightedly called Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises “the cream” of the retreat. (If you want to read more about the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises in general, try here.) This is because, while Week 1 can teach you a lot about God and a whole lot about yourself, in Week 2 you meet the “real” Jesus.
I put “real” in quotes because of course, this Jesus is different for every person, befriending and missioning each of us individually. And I also put “real” in quotes to differentiate the Jesus I met in Week 2 from a variety of caricatures that I had carried into retreat – a fuzzy composite that I now call “Words in Red Jesus.”
There can be a lot of struggle in the Exercises; I struggled frequently and vehemently, prompted to greater authenticity with God by the safety and support of the retreat container. One of my most violent struggles was with doubt and anger about Jesus, based on a whole life of hearing Gospel stories that presented a mysterious and sometimes contradictory person who, by the way, happened to be God.
But if my experience has anything to tell you about Jesus, it is that Jesus is eager to show you who he really is. And he is ready for all of your most uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, long before you are ready to reveal them. When I first told Jesus how mad I was at him, and how stupid I thought he was sometimes, I felt a sense of eagerness and delight in the air, as though Jesus were rubbing his hands together and grinning like my middle school basketball coach. “It’s go time!” he said. So I made a list of all the terrible things I had thought at one time or another about Jesus, based on cursory contact with Scripture and Tradition. To me, Jesus sometimes seemed like a spoiled prince, a demagogue, a “bad boyfriend,” a jealous lover, unavailable, exclusive, complacent, limited, judgmental, a know-it-all. Jesus seemed like someone who didn’t think women were very important, was obsessed with his inner circle, was not interested in understanding me, didn’t see me, didn’t listen, secretly thought I was less, or (worse?), didn’t even know my name. As I looked at the list, my heart ached.
“I’m kind of afraid to say these out loud,” I said. But I read him the list, and then set the journal aside and went for a walk. Outside, dry October leaves were tripping down the road on a warm walnut breeze, and the afternoon sun glinted through several enormous spider webs, anchored on the lawn and stretched out to the low-hanging branches of a live oak tree. As I watched the spider weave, a single solemn sentence floated up into my mind. I can see why you’d think that, the voice said simply.
That afternoon in our hour of conversation, my spiritual director noticed how worn- out I seemed. “You’re thinking too much – we need to change up the dance! New music!” she announced, pulling a large, slender hardcover off the bookshelf. “Don’t read too much or try to contemplate the stories,” she said, referring to the five scripture readings about Jesus’ birth and coming of age that were slated for five prayer sessions in the next 24 hours. “Just skim, and look at these.”
This was the start of a new Jesus for me. That little boy drinking from the bowl looked exactly like my brother at 5 years old. This Jesus played with a puppy, sucked his fingers, and gazed up into Mary’s face with a sleepy left eye as he breastfed. He was soft, and vulnerable, and lively. He learned a craft from his father and studied the word of God with his mother and her brothers. As the Week went on, my director introduced a form of prayer that involves written dialogue. In this form, you quiet down, ask for the grace you are seeking, and then start to write without stopping. You simply let the pen create a dialogue between Jesus and you, skipping a line where you finish talking and Jesus starts. Using this form for the next several days, I was able to ask Jesus all about his youth and coming of age, his early adulthood and his call to ministry. The Jesus who emerged became the “real” Jesus of Nazareth to me – he still said the Words in Red, and did all those things that had confused me in the Gospels, but I understood him and his experience better. He had my trust.
Sometimes the stories that came out of these dialogues surprised me. The biggest surprise was the story that follows, in which a certain Holy Week character, in a sudden twist, gained life, and breath, and great depth in my prayer of imagination.
10.16 – 7:30 pm
-Did you ever fall in love, Jesus?
–Yes. I was in “love” with a cousin in Nazareth. I thought about her a lot, even dreamed about her. I loved her hair, I remember. It was dark and rich and shiny. One of the reasons I liked to go to the fields was that it went by her house. Sometimes I would see her out there, too, going to draw water from the well that was closer to her house than the center-town one. I didn’t speak to her for a while after the dream. I felt embarrassed and thought she would know. I wasn’t great at talking with girls, although I had some girl-friends, family, when I was younger. Her name was Maryem.
-That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that you fell in love when you were young. I kind of thought since you were God, that you would be mostly focused on God.
–I did think a lot about God. Especially after the time in Jerusalem when I was 12, I wanted to know more about God and our history with God. I realized that I had a strong desire for this, to learn from the scribes. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable because it seemed like the scribes didn’t know the same God that I knew. The God that I felt I knew from my time in the fields was very quiet, and very friendly. He reminded me of my father when he was teaching me something, very patient, only dropping a word here or there, not intrusive at all but always watching. My father saw everything I did in the workshop. Later, while we ate or walked, he would comment on a tiny decision that he saw me make, about placement or design, and I wouldn’t even know that he had seen me do it. It was often like he had read my mind. This is the Yahweh that I knew, very close, very quiet, and extremely detailed, observant. Like I could feel his breath on my neck when I walked. I really related to the Isaiah stories about God, and the God in Ezekiel, when God is not in the fire, not in thunder, not in storm, not in wind, but in a whisper. When I talked with my uncles, though, and other scribes, it seemed that their God sat all day and prescribed endless rules. I saw a lot of hair-splitting, which bothered my young mind. I also saw that often the people who were said to know the most about God mistreated others, or ignored others. They did not care for the ill or the poor in our town, like the elderly wives and mothers. They left the care of our widows to a community of women who organized to help them, when they could have used some of the riches and space of our temples to help. They even avoided people who were sick, saying they were unclean.
When Maryem was 14, something terrible happened that also made me change my mind toward my uncles. One day I went out to the well and she was there, but she had been beaten, terribly. Her dress was torn, her veil was off, and her face was bruised, even with a little blood. She had been raped, and robbed of the food and drink she was carrying, by highway robbers, I think. It was the first time I had talked with her in two years, I was 15. I felt terrible, so angry I did feel I could have killed the men, and I wanted to help her. My mother had taught me how to bind wounds and treat bruises, so I went quickly and got some oil, some wrappings, and some cool cloths with milk on them. I brought these to her, washed her face and arms with water from the well, and stood off to the side with my back turned while she washed her own private area. She was not herself. As you would say, she was “in shock.” She was with me, said thanks, but also not with me, somewhere far away, and she did not cry but looked like she had been crying before I saw her. I asked her if she wanted to go home – it was evening, sun setting, and she said no, not yet, could we just sit for a while and be quiet, she needed to rest. So I sat with her, although I really wanted to go get my mother or her mother or somebody who could help. I prayed to God for her, and I even held her hand for a little while. Seeing her suffering changed me toward her. I was no longer afraid of her or afraid of myself around her. The worst had happened, and I felt free to help, which was a strange feeling because if I had walked by her an hour before and she was fine (and I would have been looking for her), I would have been mute and kept my distance.
I learned something as I pondered this, which is that when we are well sometimes we are worse off than when we are ill, because when we are ill, or see others who are ill, it opens us in a way we are not open otherwise. I regretted the time I had spent not knowing Miryam (sic), not asking after her or talking with her, because I was afraid of what I would feel around her. I took this lesson with me, forever.
When it was dark, I finally asked if I could take her back to her home. She said yes and we walked together slowly, her legs aching and my heart aching, aching. We went to her house and unfortunately, it was her father, my uncle, who answered the door (I was hoping for her mother). He was very cold when I told him what had happened. He actually seemed angry or maybe a little disgusted with Miryam, which I couldn’t believe. I couldn’t believe my father would have treated her like that. He looked at her like she was spoiled, a thing of less value than when she had left the house. Then he seemed to cover his face and reaction, and he regained his composure. “Thank you, Jesus,” he said. “God bless you, peace be with you, greetings to your mother and father,” and he beckoned Miryam, not touching her, and closed the door. “Thank you, Jesus,” she said quietly, before she turned her back and went inside.
I felt sick.
-What did you think? How did this affect you, and her?
-Well, it really changed my view of her father and the other scribes of the town. Before that, I had thought of them as treasure-troves of knowledge about God, the covenant, and the history of our people. They treated me with respect because we were family, and they respected my family. But when I saw Jairus treat his own daughter with disdain like that, my concerns about their conduct with other people became very personal, and I could not feel warmly about them anymore, or fully trust their counsel. I still wanted to learn about the scriptures, so I went and listened, but not with the same relish as before. And I went to pray by myself more, went walking with God by the same paths I would have taken to see Miryam by the well, and I noticed her absence every time. She became a very large part of my thoughts, where before she was a passing feature, a kind of fancy and a curiosity in my mind. Now her face was before me, both beautiful and thoughtful, as she had been, and battered and bloody, as I last saw her. Her father sent her to another town. I found out that she had been betrothed to an important man in Jerusalem, a Pharisee, and that since she was no longer considered clean or suitable for marriage since the attack, he divorced her. She was sent to live with an elderly relative, a widow who was quite poor. That was the last time I saw her before my ministry, years later when I started traveling. I saw her in Bethany, then. I was overjoyed to see her, and I feel that she knew what was about to happen to me, though I don’t know how because I had told no one of the vision I had of this. She gave me great comfort in a moment of great desolation, of feeling very alone. I felt at that time that God sent her back to me, just as God had sent me to bind her wounds in my first real act of eye-opening compassion. Miryam was my first love, and she opened my eyes, too.
This was certainly a prayer of imagination. It flowed without stopping from a place of quiet in me. At times it felt alive; as though I were reading a book or watching a movie, the story took me by complete surprise at the end as Miryam became the unknown woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany (Mk 14:3-9, Lk 7:36-39 and 44-50). There are many stories like this in the Exercises – points at which God invites you to get under the Words themselves and meet the “real” Jesus, who is both specific to each person and revealed to all in common, though the shared stories of Scripture. Later, trying to make sense of the experiences, I wondered if the narrator is actually Christ in me, speaking from within through vivid images of my “real” Jesus of Nazareth. As my director would say, though, it’s good not to try too hard in prayer.
Good Holy Week to you! Be assured of my prayers, and please pray for me, too.