Homily for Sunday, June 2, 2019
Just so you know, the homily this morning is not about typewriters. I will mention typewriters. I own typewriters. (I have a Hermes 3000 that was my mother’s high school graduation present from my grandparents in 1960; it’s gorgeous and still works perfectly.) But the homily is not about typewriters. The homily is about how much Jesus loves us and that—if we could but see—we would see that Jesus’ love is close, intimate and enduring, and is—deep-down—what our hearts crave.
But we’re going to begin with typewriters… and also a question: How did John do it? That is, how did John write his Gospel? And I mean in a very practical kind of way, like:
Was John’s desk in the corner of the room (where Stephen King recommends a writer’s desk to be) or was it in the center (like Roddy Doyle’s)? From his desk could John look out the window (like Joyce Carol Oates does), or was his desk in the boiler room (where John Cheever’s was)? Did John keep the door closed when he wrote, or open? (King writes with it closed, but rewrites with it open.) Or maybe John didn’t use a desk at all; maybe John—like Vladimir Nabokov—preferred to write while seated in a parked car, or—like Sir Walter Scott—liked to pen his pages from the back of a horse. Or maybe John when he wrote didn’t sit at all; maybe he—like James Joyce—wrote while lying on his stomach, or—as Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll purportedly did—wrote while standing. In order to finish his Gospel, did John hole himself up for weeks on-end without leaving the house (like Victor Hugo did to meet the deadline for The Hunchback of Notre Dame)? Or did John work better outdoors (like Wallace Stevens and Mary Oliver)? Did John write his Gospel in solitude (as most writers seem to write), or did he prefer being surrounded by people (like J.K. Rowling and Vanessa Blakeslee, each in their favorite cafés)? To write his Gospel did John write every day (as Joseph Conrad and Flannery O’Connor insisted on doing)? Or was he more “intermittent” in his writing (as Franz Kafka and Sylvia Plath purportedly were)? Did John write first thing in the morning (like Anthony Trollope)? Or was he more of a night owl (like Robert Frost)? Did John set for himself a daily word quota, like, say, 1,000 words (Jack London), or 1,800 (Thomas Wolfe), or 3,000 (Norman Mailer)? Or did John—like Joyce—consider two perfect sentences a full day’s work? Did John (like James Patterson) have the luxury of writing his Gospel without having to hold down a day job? Or did he—like T.S. Eliot after the bank, or Tennessee Williams after the International Shoe Company—come home to write only at the end of a long day at work? Did John tell everyone or no one that he was writing the Gospel? (The author Maeve Binchy says that “Writing is a bit like going on a diet: you should either tell everyone or no one.”) Did he have a favorite snack to get his creative juices going (like Ray Bradbury’s ice cream, or Agatha Christie’s apples)? Did he find inspiration for his writing in between errands (like Gertrude Stein)? Or maybe while riding the bus (Joseph Heller) or the train (Alexander Chee)? And—here are the typewriters—as Hemingway had his favorite typewriter (a Royal Quiet Deluxe) and Maya Angelou hers (an Adler Meteor 12), or Agatha Christie hers (a Remington Home Portable #2), did John have a favorite quill with which he wrote?
I ask because John is so extraordinarily creative. John’s stories, style and theological vision are entirely different from the Synoptic Gospels (the “common vision” gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke). Sure, Luke is a masterful story-teller; yes, Mark does amazing things with an economy of words; and, absolutely, Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is arguably the greatest speech of the past two thousand years. But John is sui generis; he writes unique stories with no prior script. No other evangelist tells about the wedding at Cana, or of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, or of the woman at the well. No other evangelist develops so fully the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd. No other evangelist has such a profound sacramental sense, in which Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” and whose “flesh is true food and [whose] blood is true drink.”
How did John do it? What was his “mojo?” From whence came John’s “muse?”
It wasn’t his typewriter. And if what other writers tell us is true, it is also almost certain that John did not find his “muse” by going to writing seminars or reading about how to write.
Of writing seminars, Stephen King said, “It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.”
Of reading about how to write, Frank Conroy (from the University of Iowa) says, “I don’t think you can learn writing from a book, except from reading literature.”
Of learning to write at university, Flannery O’Connor said (in a wonderful, crusty, typical Flannery O’Connor quote), “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
Today’s gospel lesson from John 17 is an excerpt from Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.” The “High Priestly Prayer” is unique in the Gospels and is so called because it is the prayer Jesus prays just before going to make atonement by his crucifixion. To be sure, in the Synoptics Jesus teaches his disciples the “Lord’s Prayer,” and goes to “deserted places” to pray (e.g., Mark 1:35), and prayed in Gethsemane, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matt 27:39). But nowhere else do the scriptures give us the entire text of an extended prayer that Jesus prays.
And Jesus’ prayer is beautiful:
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that … they may be one, as we are one… that they may become completely one… so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.
Where was John’s creative place? When was his most productive time? What were his writer’s “best habits” that enabled him to write so beautifully?
Beyond knowing that John did not write in a parked car or that he did not use a Royal Quiet Deluxe (or an Adler Meteor 12 or a Hermes 3000), and beyond presuming that he did not go to university or attend writing seminars, we can only guess at John’s “best practices” for writing.
But John’s “muse,” what inspired him, that we do know. Yes, of course, because all scripture is divinely inspired, John’s “muse” was the Holy Spirit. But more specifically, how did John encounter and channel that muse?
In John’s gospel, people encounter Jesus in multiple ways:
- John the Baptist encountered Jesus while standing—“The next day John again was standing… as he watched Jesus walk by” (1:35–36).
- Jesus’ first disciples encountered Jesus while walking—“The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus” (1:37).
- Nicodemus encountered Jesus by night—“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus… He came to Jesus by night” (3:1).
- The woman at the well encountered Jesus at about noon—“It was about noon [and] A Samarian woman came to draw water” (4:7).
- The royal official encountered Jesus because he sought healing for his son—“Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill…he went and begged him to… heal his son” (4:46–47).
- The crowd encountered, and then followed Jesus because they were hungry—“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me… because you ate your fill of the loaves” (6:26).
- The man born blind encountered Jesus without even seeing him—“They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know’” (9:12).
- Lazarus encountered Jesus after having been dead for three days—“’Lord, already there is a stench, because he has been dead for [three] days’” (11:39).
If in John’s Gospel people encountered Jesus standing and walking, by night or by day, in need of healing or when they were hungry, or even without seeing him or after they already had “died,” chances are—for these encounters to have resonated with John and for John to be able to write about them—that John, too, had encountered Jesus in these ways.
- As John the Baptist encountered Jesus while standing, so did John probably sometimes encounter Jesus while standing.
- Like the disciples who first came to Jesus walking, so did John probably sometimes experience Jesus walking.
- Like Nicodemus, so did John probably sometimes encounter Jesus at night.
- Like the woman at the well, so John probably sometimes encounter Jesus at “about noon”.
And so on and so forth…
We cannot write, really, about what we have not experienced; we cannot describe something if we have no way of even imagining it. That John wrote of these multiple encounters with Jesus suggests that John, too, encountered Jesus in multiple ways: by night, by day; standing, sitting; hurting, hungry; dead, then risen.
And if John’s “Farewell Discourse”—from which we’ve been hearing this Easter season and of which Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” is a part—[if John’s “Farewell Discourse”] is any indication, John’s experience of Jesus must have been extremely close—intimate, even. For in these chapters Jesus touches the disciples, washing their feet. In these chapters Jesus teaches the disciples about love: “Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.” In these chapters Jesus speaks of the disciples and he being so close that “I am the vine, you are the branches.” And as we hear in today’s lesson, John must have experienced Jesus so closely, so intimately, that John could imagine not only that Jesus prayed to his “Father,” but even the very words Jesus prayed:
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that… they may be one, as we are one… that they may become completely one… so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.
Just as oysters do not learn how to make pearls by attending “pearl-making seminars with other oysters,” we know that John did not attend seminars to learn about such love. Just as it is not possible to “learn writing from a book, except from reading literature,” we know that John did not read books about this intimate love. The only way John was able to write such language about Jesus was through John’s own encounter, experience and discovery. John’s “muse” for his Gospel, what enabled John to write this beautiful prayer from Jesus to the Father, was a close, intimate and enduring relationship with Jesus.
To quote again from Flannery O’Connor:
The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. [The writer’s] problem is to find that location.
John found his location. It mattered not whether John was standing or walking, whether it was day or night, whether he was hurting or hungry, “blind” or “in the grave”—Jesus was there. Filled with love. For John.
Jesus is there. Filled with love. For us! If we would know that love—if we would be fed, if we would have our eyes opened, if we would experience resurrection –no special knowledge is required (we need not attend a seminar); we need not acquire a library of books; neither is a degree needed, nor any special tools. If we would know Jesus’ love, close, intimate and enduring, it is there but for the asking and our making ourselves available. Jesus’ love is there but for our approaching Jesus—or letting Jesus approach us—and asking: “Lord, that love you talked about in today’s gospel lesson—‘the love with which you have loved me’ and that you asked might be in the disciples? Might that love be in me, and you in me, just like in your prayer?”
It may take some time; it may take some persistence. But I bet the Father is going to answer, “Yes!” to our prayer.
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.
Why not allow ourselves to go there? Why not allow ourselves to ask God for such a close, intimate love? And why not allow ourselves to be available to receive it? As Jesus said in today’s Gospel, Jesus wants to love us with such love; Jesus wants us to go there; Jesus is praying for us to be one with him and the Father, “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them.” Such love is what all human hearts, deep-down, truly crave. Why not allow ourselves to go there?