Readings: I Samuel 3:3-10, 19; I Corinthians 6:13-15, 17-20; John 1:35-42
With the on-going development of information technology and the growing availability of the internet, it is now possible to take “virtual tours” of museums, art galleries, palaces, cathedrals and the streets of foreign or distant cities. However, as amazing and enthralling as virtual reality can be, it can never replace reality. And today’s Gospel makes it clear that nowhere is this truer than in our relationship with Christ. For, attempting to come to a knowledge of Christ by taking the spiritual equivalent of a virtual tour and encountering Christ from a comfortable distance–as a neutral or uninvolved observer–results in a knowledge that is inevitably second hand, impersonal and superficial. And yet many do attempt the virtual tour by adopting a predominantly rational, intellectual and ideological approach to Christ, attracted more by his teachings and wisdom than by his invitation to enter into a personal and saving relationship of love and union.
Others, while ostensibly seeking a truly personal encounter with Christ can, often unknowingly, opt for the spiritual version of the virtual tour by, for example, vicariously partaking in the spiritual experiences of others they encounter in reading spiritual books and autobiographies, or by frequenting shrines and monasteries in search of unique and esoteric spiritual experiences; or by engaging in eloquent discussions about spiritual realities, and yet never actually seriously and personally undertaking the spiritual journey. Consequently, a true encounter with Christ forever eludes such people until these abandon the virtual tour they are stuck in and seek and encounter Christ for themselves. The virtual tour seems to be precisely what Jesus is seeking to preempt when, in answer to his disciples’ question, Where are you staying?, he doesn’t simply tell them or give a graphic description of his domicile but instead invites them to actually come and you will see.
However, eschewing the virtual tour and striving to encounter Christ personally, is not without its significant challenges, hardships and trials–something that helps explain s natural attraction to the virtual tour. Chief among these is the fact that following Christ to see where he stays, takes us not on a journey out there to some place, but rather on a journey within. For, although we cannot localize God in any place there is, nevertheless, a unique sense in which he is said to dwell within the human heart–that Temple of the Spirit. But whereas the physical distance to our physical hearts is but a few inches, the journey into our spiritual heart–that inner depth of our being–can seem like an endless journey. This is because the spiritual heart is not a place or a bodily organ, but a spiritual reality constituting our deepest and truest identity. And it is only when we plumb these depths of the human heart that we truly encounter Christ as he is, with all of who we are. Uncovering and discovering all that we are is the glorious fruit of our “yes” to Christ’s invitation to come and see, as he takes us on this inner journey of self-discovery that leads us to that “place” where he is staying, that is, the very core of our being. As we know, this growth in self-knowledge is often painful, humiliating and thus naturally aversive. Accordingly, we need to trust that this difficult journey is a means to an end and that the destination is well worth the pain and the persevering effort required in walking with Christ into those dark and unredeemed regions of our heart.
This inner journey to encounter the One who dwells within is complicated by the multiple layers of an inauthentic self, accumulated over a lifetime of living in a fallen and sinful world as people who have forgotten in whose image and likeness we are created. In the words of Gregory of Nyssa, God imprinted on [our nature] the likeness of the glories of his own nature. But the evil that has been poured all around the nature bearing the divine image has rendered useless to you this wonderful thing that lies hidden under the vile coverings. Saying “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to come and see, and journeying inward, allows the gradual stripping away of these layers of falsity and inauthenticity so as to reveal and restore the original image, beauty and likeness. Describing this painful but liberating process, Saint Gregory of Nyssa goes on to assure us that if with a diligent and attentive mode of living you wash away the bad things that have deposited upon your heart, the divine beauty will shine in you. Contemplating yourself, you will see within you he who is the desire of your heart and you will be blessed.
And when we reach this blessed state, the question Where are you staying? is answered, not intellectually or in words, but experientially, as we cease looking there for one who dwells within and is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Furthermore, in discovering where Jesus is staying, we not only come to an intimate, experiential and unmediated knowledge of Christ, but also to a complete knowledge of ourselves. And thus it is that the often restless quest in search of our true identity finally ceases as–with the purified eye of faith–we now gaze on Christ and see, as in a mirror, our own selves radiant, whole and complete in him. Good reason then to abandon the virtual tours that keep Christ out there and can never satisfy the deepest longing of hearts forever restless until they journey within and finally rest in him.