Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30 Rev 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
Last week, the church remembered Catherine of Sienna, a fourteenth-century saint with a wild story. The youngest of 25 children, Catherine had a vision of Jesus when she was six years old and embraced a life of fasting and prayer. Her horrified family tried to help her to become normal, but Catherine persisted, resisting their attempts to marry her by cutting off her beautiful hair. At that, her parents gave in and allowed her to join an order of Dominican nuns. For several years, Catherine experienced terrible visions and felt abandoned by God; when she nineteen, however, Christ came to her in a vision and took her as his spouse, even giving her a wedding ring made of his own foreskin, which no one else could see. Catherine became a nurse, caring for lepers and those with cancer. She soon attracted disciples and began to travel extensively to preach the gospel. She became a trusted adviser to popes; wrote a book which is still revered today; and died trying to heal the schism in the Western church. Some legends say that those who attended her deathbed were astonished when, as she breathed her last, a tangible wedding ring appeared on her finger.
I love this story. I love its outrageous weirdness, the way it challenges our sense of possibility. I love the fact that if you take out all the supernatural bits, what you end up with is the story of a young girl from an ordinary family who set her own path, persevered against formidable resistance, and became a respected public figure and author — an outcome at least as unlikely in the fourteenth century as any of the visions she claims to have had. More than that, I love the way that Catherine’s life and legend challenge my assumptions of how God is “supposed” to act, and what a holy life is “supposed” to look like. She reminds me that God is wilder and more untamed than we can begin to imagine; that one of the greatest threats to our fidelity is our temptation to assume that God will act in ways we can understand, or, even more dangerously, in ways that we would approve.
Today’s readings present us with two stories in which people like us come up against the limits of their understanding of the Holy. We begin with St. Paul (whose Hebrew name was Saul), traveling to Damascus to contain an outbreak of heresy — men and women who were under the impression that the Messiah had come, and that he might even be called the Son of God. St. Paul knew that could not be true: there was an impassible gulf between God and creation, because what had been created was changeable and impermanent, whereas God was unchangeable and eternal. And so he set out with the courage of his convictions, only to be knocked from his horse and addressed by a Voice: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And in response to the question, Paul, who had been so certain, asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
Who are you, Lord? Perhaps there is no question so central to life in Christ, for in asking that question, we beg God to reveal Godself to us on God’s own terms, not as we wish to believe God is. It is the opposite of the experience that the disciples have a few days after the Resurrection, when a strange man appears on the shore and invites them to breakfast. St. John notes, “none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.” (John 21:12) And yet, they understood what Jesus was doing there no more than Paul. The Resurrection had left them utterly unmoored: the man they had followed and trusted was dead; their lives as disciples were utterly disrupted; and even the fact that Jesus had appeared to them did not make their direction any more clear. And so they went fishing, which we’re probably supposed to understand as returning to their former trade rather than as hanging out for an afternoon with their buddies and a six-pack; in other words, they sought a life they could understand. But that life was closed to them; their nets remained empty, and it was only with the direct presence of Jesus that they were able to do anything at all.
And so they come to the shore with their nets bulging with fish, only to find that Jesus, who had not gone fishing, had some all along. And when they had finished eating, Jesus turned and looked at Peter and asked, “Do you love me?’ Not, “Do you understand me?” — because, at this point, it was pretty clear that they understood nothing. But, “Do you love me?”, which has to mean, Do you love me enough to stick with me even though you do not understand?
That question, of course, is fundamental to love. Over the last few years, my friends and I have been working to support one of my godchildren, who has been going through serious issues with mental health layered on top of a crisis of identity. This child has been transformed in personality, in appearance, in interests, in gender — in ways that have, at times, been highly self-destructive, and that none of us would have chosen for them. And yet, walking away was never an option. Trying to force the child into a particular identity that they had rejected was never an option. The only option was to choose to love this child, as they were and as they could be, giving them whatever they need to become whole. Their transformation and trauma are ongoing — and we do not understand, but we do trust that, somewhere in there is the seed of a person who will be able to give and to receive love again.
Nor is that mystery — the mystery of love beyond our understanding — limited to people who undergo moments of complete transformation. As a pastor, I have been privileged to speak with many who have nurtured marriages for fifty years or more. Each couple has spoken of times when they had to let their relationship die, in order to allow for the birth of a new and more spacious marriage which could hold the people they were becoming.
We are speaking of metanoia, the ongoing process of conversation and transformation which lies at the heart of our unfolding humanity, and of the demands it places on those around us — no less in our daily lives than in the brightness of mystical vision. Writing of the soul’s journey to God, St. Bonaventure advises us to rely on our understanding as far as it will take us — through what is revealed in nature; through what is revealed in Scripture; through what is revealed in theology and philosophy and science. But, he reminds us, our reason is finite and God is not, which means that there is always a place at which we must let go of what we can see and step out in blind trust. He writes, “If you should ask how these things come about, question grace, not instruction; desire, not intellect; the cry of prayer, not pursuit of study; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness, not clarity; not light, but the wholly flaming fire which will bear you aloft to God with fullest unction and burning affection. This fire is God.” (The Journey of the Mind into God, 7.6)
There comes a time for each of us when we can see no more: when the path we’ve been walking, the life we’ve chosen, ceases to make sense. It may even be that we have arrived at such a time collectively: the world order we had assumed would last; the economic structures which have sustained our development; the shape of our industry; the role of our church in society — all seem to be collapsing at once. And even if we accept, as many of us here do, that they need to change, it’s still a bit breathtaking to see so much fall apart, and to see some of the rough beasts that are seeking to be born. But within our Gospel stories today lies a seed of hope: that beyond our failure lies life.
When Paul fell from his horse and rose, unable to see; when Peter heard Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?” and tasted the bitter ashes of his own cowardly denial, each must have known that the person they had hoped to be was dead. And yet, for each of them, that moment was the beginning of the life that was real, the start of the adventure that would birth them as people of courage and hope.
Indeed, that conversation by the seashore may have been such a moment even for Christ. Jean Vanier notes that when Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus had just been betrayed, abandoned, tortured, mocked and killed. Vanier wonders whether Jesus needed to hear Peter’s “yes” as much as Peter needed to give it. Do you love me enough to stick with me even though you have failed, even though you do not understand?
That is the question for each of us as we seek a way to go forward. Because if these stories show us anything, it is that the YES of God is larger than our own failures, as individuals or as a society; that the hope of God is wider and wilder than we can begin to imagine. And so we step forward even when we cannot see; we step forward especially when we cannot see; we trust when we do not understand, because the first note of creation and its last is grace and mercy and love.