I read somewhere that the two most important questions Jesus asks us are “Who do you say I am?” and “Do you love me?” Both these questions were asked of Peter and they are asked of each of us today. How we answer these two questions becomes the foundation from which we build our whole life. How I answer will determine how I live, who I am, and what I can become. Or to use our Cistercian Father’s vocabulary: it will determine my capacity for God, my participation in God, and my potential for God’s likeness. In the first question Jesus is inviting us to know Him and in the second question He is inviting us to love Him…it is about knowledge and love. It is about mind and heart.
William of St Thierry teaches us that these two questions are really one – they are inseparable when it comes to Christ. He repeats throughout his works that: to know God is to love Him and to love God is to know Him. Love and reason are seen as the eyes of the soul. To fully participate in God we cannot walk with a patch over one eye or be myopic! W/o love, reason moves towards pride; w/o reason love is only fluctuating emotions and unstable devotion. Obviously we cannot love what we don’t know and if we love what is false then it is a kind of idolatry. William says it well: “Reason instructs love and love enlightens reason” – they cannot be separated if we are to have clear vision. From this we can conclude that if our images, ideas, and concepts of God do not bring us to love Him more, than they are not of Truth for the more we know God the more we love Him.
I think the same thing can be said about ourselves as we ask the question, “Who am I”? If our images, ideas, and concepts of our self do not bring us to love our self more (and I mean love in a healthy, positive way), than we are not seeing our “true self” - for we are not seeing our self in God. So why is this important? Basil Pennington wrote that to live from the false self is “to exist” but to live from our true self is to ‘be alive’. We want to live from our true center where the divine comes alive - so much so that we can say “the life I live is not my own but Christ living in me”! It is not enough to know this but it has to be actualized. How is this done? I think we got a good answer and analogy from our reading this past week in Ezekiel. He is in a valley of dry bones but once the Word of God is heard, the Spirit of Truth and Love awaken the bones. They come “alive”. Our lectio divina, spiritual reading, listening to the Word make us alive in truth and love – in the Spirit. Again, it is when knowledge and love are one! It is when our experiences of love are recognized or inseparable with knowing God. Self-realization, then, is less an awareness of our self than it is an awareness of God. The question “who am I?” and Jesus’ “Who do you say I am?” become one! We fully realize our self when we cease to be conscious of ourselves as separate from God.
This can all seem so dense, hard to grasp in day to day living, so here are some more concrete questions to help us unravel a tiny piece of this mystery. When I experience love do I associate it as God revealing HIS love to me? When I show charity to another do I recognize it as GOD’S love moving within me? To recognize our true self, in the divine image, is to recognize the fact that we are known and loved by God. It is subtle but even in the monastery I can still cling to a false self - by what I have (such as a position), by what I do, by what others think of me, by what I want others to think of me, the list goes on... We see how the ego can bind us to slavery.
As we heard in the Vigil reading this week from St Bernard: Love’s natural tendency is to return to its source. Sin re-channels this flow to focus on other things or self. This is why when we focus on ourselves or externals, we are unhappy deep inside even if surrounded by ‘that ole fame and fortune’. It is also why people who live poorly and in want can still be joyful.
In the gospel today, Peter is learning to know Christ and we know in the verses after this gospel interchange, he still doesn’t have it right yet. The vision is muddled by Peter’s own concepts, images and ideas. But by the end of John’s gospel, the question is not “Who do you say I am?” but “Do you love me?” As Peter gains more knowledge, his love grows. We know how the stories ends - Peter will die on a cross for Christ, his love is so great. Knowing and loving God became inseparable; however, it was a life-time process. A good question to ask our self today is “am I growing in my love for Christ?” If not, am I spending my time in prayer and spiritual reading to further my knowing of Jesus? Am I trying to know Christ in my daily experiences and interactions? Am I trying to grow in love by going the extra mile in charity for my sisters? Am I mindful of opportunities to be charity to those around me?
I will end with the second half of today’s gospel reading. Peter is told: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” One of the themes we talked about for our Jubilee year was the unbinding or “loosening” from slavery. We spoke of our desire this year to let go of those things that bind our self and that we use to bind others. Stereotyping is a way we can bind others but we can also stereotype our self, limiting our vow of conversion, and thus binding our own potentials. Loosening or unbinding from slavery requires mercy and forgiveness. How appropriate that in Leviticus it says that the Jubilee begins on the Day of Atonement (10th day of the 7 month). It is also interesting that the words “amnesia” and “amnesty” come from the same root word! If we want to give a person freedom we need to let go of the offense or debt but also to have “amnesia” in a way – to forgive and forget. Jubilee is a time of renouncing – letting go both of things we acquired and debts incurred. This takes trust but through both we gain liberty. It is a time to renounce wounds and hurts of the past…a lack of forgiveness is another form of enslaving our self – binding what should be loosened!
So what needs “loosening”? Who do I need to forgive?...Whose debts to release? Let us forgive and letting go of things that drag us or others down – let us make mercy the rock on which our church and community are built! If so “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” but rather we will have found “the keys to the kingdom of heaven!”