Jonathan B. Coe | Both John the Baptist and our Lord spent long periods of time in the desert fasting and praying before commencing their ministries. Jesus was known to regularly retreat to the deserted places during his earthly ministry to pray to the Father and replenish his inner resources.
While today’s orthodox Catholic in the West complains about a virulent secular culture outside of the Church and scandal and crisis within the pillar and ground of the truth, the apostle whom Jesus loved had his own formidable challenges. While we legitimately complain about the erosion of religious liberties in the U.S., he dealt with persecution, especially during the reigns of Nero and Domitian.
While we have grave concerns about the present scandal and crisis in the Church worldwide, John confronted his share of enemies of the gospel. Though the enemies that surface in his First Epistle are difficult to specifically identify, the apostle called them antichrists, liars, deceivers, and false prophets who denied that Jesus was “the Christ” (2:22; 5:1) and “the Son of God” (2:23; 5:5) who had truly “come in the flesh” (4:2).
In the biblical narrative, there is definitely a rhythm and relationship between the servant of God’s private and public ministry. Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mt. Sinai (in private ministry), then came down off the mountain to, among other things, administer punishment (in public ministry) to the Israelites whom he found dancing around the golden calf.
Both John the Baptist and our Lord spent long periods of time in the desert fasting and praying before commencing their ministries. Jesus was known to regularly retreat to the deserted places during his earthly ministry to pray to the Father and replenish his inner resources.
Our own public ministry, which often involves marriage, family, friendships, work, local church involvement, etc., is like the house that is framed on a concrete foundation (which is our private ministry to God). Christians of all persuasions may find themselves cranky when the house they are building on the concrete foundation is twice as big as the foundation itself.
A common mistake in our day is to spend an inordinate amount of time in a prophetic mode criticizing the Church and not nearly enough time being refreshed internally by her immense resources. Some practicing Catholics do have a unique call and vocation to be in a prophetic mode much of the time, but unless this is counter-balanced by a devotional mode, they will eventually burn out.
Most of us cannot be in the prophetic mode 24/7. We put the prophetic mantle on when we are having coffee with friends and discussing the most recent revelation of corruption and depravity in a particular diocese, but then take it off when we go to Confession to confess our sins and get right with God.
This assertion is coming from someone who has recently written four articles in this magazine excoriating prelates and priests, especially in the U.S., who have wandered far from the sacred deposit of the faith, in both their teaching and behavior. There’s undoubtedly more where that came from, but, without a life of retreat and renewal, I am a man most miserable.
With today’s practicing Catholic facing opposition and turbulence from both without and within the Church, the life and writings of John the Evangelist can be a good place to retreat to, along with other devotional practices, as we finish one year and look with vigilance to the next. For example, in times of affliction, when there is a confusing cacophony of voices, I’ve never failed to be instructed and edified by reading the First Letter of St. John in one sitting—a time investment of about 30 minutes.
The theological left and other sophisticates, who are in love with moral ambiguity and shades of grey, would undoubtedly find the epistle “simplistic” and “binary,” but, for the earnest and faithful Catholic, it is instead profoundly simple and renders one with a new clarity of vision and purpose. Such reading can be like hearing the still, small voice, the wisdom of God that is almost completely absent in our institutions of higher learning and in some of our local parishes where heterodox priests reach into their groovy grab bag of social justice bromides and feel-good theology for their latest homily.
Immersion into the life and writings of St. John is a journey into the mind and heart of the apostle that Jesus loved (21:20, 24). Such a distinction leads one to ask, “Does God play favorites?” The well-taught Catholic might smile in response and answer, “Why, of course he does; we call them saints.”
Cain was the first radical egalitarian and proto-social justice warrior. He and Abel made decidedly different offerings to God and yet he demanded an equal outcome from the Almighty (Gen. 4:1-13).
Yahweh played favorites under the old covenant. Corruption and depravity were so rampant in Israel during the time of the Babylonian exile that he told Ezekiel that even if Noah, Daniel, and Job lived in the land, he would still judge the nation severely though these three luminaries would save their own lives by their righteousness (Ezek. 14:20).
One cannot help but notice that our Lord kept some of his followers at arm’s length (e.g., those who followed him for the loaves and fishes) while others he pulled especially close to himself. Peter, James, and John were in his inner circle.
At the Last Supper, John sat in the place of honor next to Christ (Jn. 13:23, 25). Such passages lead us to ask how one becomes like the apostle that Christ loved.
The answer to this question is certainly not that we need to already be a saint or close to perfection. The Gospels make it clear that both John and his brother James struggled with selfish ambition and anger.
The sons of Zebedee asked to be seated on his left and right when Christ would come into the full glory of his kingdom (Mk. 10:35-37) and they wanted to call fire down on a village of Samaritans when it did not receive Christ (Lk. 9:51-56). This should be encouraging to practicing Catholics who are fighting various sins and question if God is interested in intimacy with them or using them to advance his kingdom.
What God is looking for most of all is what Fr. Jacques Philippe calls “good faith.” Put another way, God is not only calling those to his inner circle who are already saints but also those who want to be saints.
I recently heard a practicing Catholic say, “I’m not entirely sure I’m on the straight and narrow, in comparison with the saints throughout Church history, but I want to be.” These Catholics may have their ups and downs but they are pursuing a single-minded devotion to Christ exemplified by the apostles who left family, homes, businesses, and friends to follow Christ.
Like John, they are pursuing Christ as an end in himself and not a means to an end (e.g., the loaves and fishes). They may get distracted now and then as John did but their modus operandi is characterized by pursuing the One Thing that is crystallized in Holy Writ:
King David only wanted one thing: “…that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27: 4b). Jesus told Martha that only one thing was needful and Mary had chosen it: to sit at his feet, listen to his voice and bask in his presence (Lk. 10:38-42).
The apostle Paul counted all things as rubbish except for one thing: an intimate knowledge of Christ characterized by knowing him in the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of his suffering, and an identification with his death (Phil. 3:10). Like John, as practicing Catholics, we must not lose sight of the Forest (i.e., Christ) for the trees (i.e., the particulars of our faith).
The truth of our mission is captured in the title of a book by Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, and summarized in John’s final directive to the audience of his First Letter: “Little children keep yourselves from idols” (5:21). Idols become like adulterous lovers who defile our marriage bed with Christ our Bridegroom.
Someone might ask, “Is a utilitarian relationship with Christ really such a bad thing? Doesn’t he do things for us? Isn’t he our Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, Provider, etc.?”
This is an excellent question, and, yes, we no doubt receive the benefits of availing ourselves of a full sacramental life in Christ. However, this isn’t the whole picture.
The earnest, practicing Catholic is like a woman from an economically deprived background who marries a virtuous man who is well-off. She is grateful for her newfound financial security but her favorite part of the marriage is being with him.
Another important way to imitate the apostle whom Jesus loved is in his relationship to the Mother of God: “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (Jn. 19:26-27).
Recently, on December 12, we celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe where we see this same mutual affection between Juan Diego and Our Lady. She met his needs for nurturing maternal care:
Listen, and let it penetrate into your heart, my dear little son, do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your Fountain of Life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?
He, in turn, gave her the tender affection of a son and in aligning his life with her request—to build a shrine in her honor where she could “show him [Christ] … exalt him … make him manifest … give him to the people”—Juan Diego humbly participated in her work as Unifier in bringing the indigenous people and Spaniards together.
The Mother of God’s work was to help bring heaven to earth. This is what the apostle John, as an elderly man, saw in his heavenly vision in the Apocalypse: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9; emphasis mine).
Few of us are called to such a spectacular or consequential mission as Juan Diego or John, but we all are called, as St. Thérèse of Lisieux declared, to do small things with great love. This may mean, without sacrificing truth or integrity, bringing people together in small ways, whether it be at home, at work, in our local churches, or in the public square.
Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He has written for Catholic Exchange and The Imaginative Conservative. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.