The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And he found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathaniel, and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. Nathaniel said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathaniel coming to him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathaniel said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathaniel answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” (John 1:43-51)
What is it about the power of Jesus’ presence and his words that evoke such a response in Nathaniel? We have spoken about the very intensity of mystery, of beauty and joy, that radiates from Christ. But we can say even more at this point concerning the experience of Nathaniel. Let us note the progression of conversion that is occurring within him. Let us try to break down this process and to see it unfold. First, let us ask again: what is it, precisely, about Jesus’ presence and words that evokes such a radical response of faith in Nathaniel?
If we follow the train of emphasis leading up to this moment, it seems to lie in the mystery of seeing. In his words, “I saw you,” Jesus is saying much more than just that he was able to see Nathaniel from an impossible distance—the external miracle or “sign.” He is in essence saying that, “Before you even drew near, I knew you.” He experiences, in the gaze of Jesus, the piercing seeing that is possible only to God himself—the gaze that pierces the heart and sees the whole person, sees the deepest mystery and identity of each one of us, and calls us by name. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” as God says to Jeremiah the prophet (Jer 1:5). In encountering Jesus, then, this is what Nathaniel experiences: he is known completely and totally by God, and not only is he known, but he is loved.
Now, this is something tremendously important to understand. Why? Because it is the very origin and basis of authentic faith. Belief in the truth taught by the Catholic Church and in the divinity of Christ, to be a fully mature faith, cannot be a mere deduction from rational and intellectual reasoning. These things can help clear the way for belief, but faith is ultimately born from an encounter—from finding God not as “He,” but as “You.” Indeed, it is born in the heart, not primarily through finding God, but through realizing that one is found by God, that one is known and loved by him. Yes, this is the true origin and the burning heart of faith—and from it blossom all the other elements of Christian life, and from it they continually draw their strength. This, also, is the wellspring from which we continually need to draw, so that we do not die of thirst, so that we do not forget the love that gives meaning to our life. How important it is—every day—to lay aside our need to achieve, to control, to see, and simply to allow ourselves to be looked upon by the God who loves us! This is the heart of prayer.
And it is precisely from here, and from here alone—from the simple and childlike attitude of allowing ourselves to be loved—that we can also learn to see, and to love as we have been loved. This is what Jesus’ next words indicate. After he has pierced the heart of Nathaniel with the light of his own vision and awakened faith within him, he then says, “You will see.” “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (Jn 1:51). What does this mean? On the natural and literal level, Jesus is drawing a comparison with the vision of the patriarch Jacob who, while he slept, had a dream of a ladder set upon the earth and reaching up to heaven, upon which the angels of God were ascending and descending. Upon awakening, he cried out, “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it. … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:16-17). These words are very similar to the words of Nathaniel.
Jesus, gazing so deeply upon Nathaniel, is thus opening up the way to vision for him in turn. Because Nathaniel expresses the faith, the childlike trust, that Jesus seeks, the Lord is able to lead him deeper into vision. Did we not say that trust is the doorway to seeing? And the vision which he promises him is precisely the vision at the heart of the Gospel and of the Church’s life: the vision of Jesus as the Covenant between God and humanity, as the place of their dialogue and espousal between heaven and earth. The ladder that Jacob saw is now recognized to be a prophecy of the Cross and Resurrection. In Jesus himself communion between the Trinity and humanity is established and heaven and earth are reconciled. Again, just as with the title “Lamb of God,” we are already seeing the mystery of the coming Passion inscribed into the narrative of the Gospel.
In all of his words, John the Evangelist is preparing us for this climactic event. This event, however, is not a mystery of darkness and failure, but a mystery of glorification, a mystery of vision—for here God will truly open himself, will rend the heavens, to lay bare his compassionate Heart before us. In the opened Heart of Christ we will see and feel the Heart of the eternal Father, burning with love for us. And, as we allow ourselves to be drawn to the One who is lifted up on the Cross, he in turn will draw us back to the God from whom we have fallen. Further, from him will unceasingly flow, never more to dry up, the wellspring of healing love and gentle mercy, a river of life in the midst of our thirsty world.
In this first chapter of John’s Gospel, we have noticed the relationship between “seeing” and “abiding.” The experience of beholding another in love awakens in the heart a deep longing for union with the one who is seen, whose beauty touches the beholder. The two disciples, Andrew and John, see Jesus and follow him, drawn by his mystery and his beauty, and ask him where he is staying. His response, in turn, is turn and look upon them, to gaze upon them deeply, and then to invite them to a deeper seeing still: “Come and see.”
We see the same thing in the encounter with Nathaniel, who feels himself to be intimately “known” by Jesus. He experiences the gaze of love that pierces the depths of his being and awakens in him a profound faith. In response to Christ’s gaze, Nathaniel proclaims the incarnate Son’s divinity, and leaves all to follow him. He enters into the magnetic movement of the Lord’s love, allowing himself to be drawn, just as the other disciples have allowed themselves to be drawn before him. Each one of them, touched by the loving gaze of Christ, have had their eyes open to gaze upon Christ in return. And in this mutual gaze, they are enabled to surrender all; the thirst, the desire, the confidence awakens in them that leads them to abandon themselves entirely into Christ’s loving hands, and to make him their very Life. From now on, he is Everything for them…their Beloved, their All, their Hope and Joy.
In a word, from now on they make their home within the love of Christ, against his Sacred Heart. This is what it means, most basically, to be a disciple. It is to be one who leans against the breast of Jesus and listens intently to the beating of his Heart. But this resting and listening is also, as we have seen, a mystery of beholding, in which we look at the One who is always lovingly looking upon us.
Yes, the mystery of prayer is a mutual beholding—in which God’s gaze awakens our own loving gaze upon him. It is also a mutual “listening” to the heart of the beloved. God is always intimately attuned to our slightest heartbeat, the slightest movements of our soul, as if his ear were pressed against our chest. All that occurs within us finds a profound reverberation within him and his own Heart. And, on the other hand, he yearns to be able to share his Heart with us, to open up to us his own deepest desires and aspirations, so that they may find a home within us. This deep heart-listening is part of what it means to abide against his breast in contemplative love. We rest in him, silent and still, listening deeply to the surging of his Heart, while he gazes upon us with infinite tenderness and love.
We see this mystery of “beholding” and “abiding” expressed beautifully in the Song of Songs. There is indeed a profound connection between the first chapter of the Song of Songs and the first chapter of the Gospel. The bride says:
Draw me after you, let us make haste.
The King has brought me into his chambers. …
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his banner over me was love. …
I am my Beloved’s,
and his desire is for me. (Song 1:4; 2:3-4; 7:10)
This yearning to be drawn, to make haste into the chambers of the King, is the same mystery that is being realized in the experience of the disciples. Rather than sitting under the shadow of John the Baptist, or under the “fig tree,” they are now placing their lives entirely in Christ’s care and sitting in his shadow, eating the fruit of his love that he so freely offers them. To sit in the shadow of the Lord, to rest in his shade…this is the great invitation of God’s love.
But what, more precisely, is this “fruit” of love that we experience as we consent to sit in the shadow of Christ, leaning against his breast? It is but the mystery of “abiding” in him, and he in us: the gift of deep and lasting intimacy. Jesus opens the way to this intimacy through the loving words he pronounces to us, words that reveal the truth of what he “sees” as he looks upon us, what he feels a he listens to our heart.
Behold, you are beautiful, my love;
behold you are beautiful…
You have ravished my heart…
you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes. (Song 1:15; 4:1, 9)
Do we not desire to truly be seen by another, to be seen and understood and loved? And yet we are also afraid of this. We feel insecure about what the other will see, fearful that, if they look deep enough they will be repulsed by what they see and will pull away. Surely, if we bear this shame within us, and want to hide ourselves from the piercing gaze of another, our fear and shame must be justified, right? But God draws near to us in Christ; he gazes upon us intensely and lovingly. His gaze sees and knows all…and his love does not lessen or draw back. No, his very gaze of love constitutes us in our unique and unrepeatable beauty…a beauty that belongs to no other person in the whole of creation, fashioned in us directly by the creative love and tenderness of God.
To welcome this gaze, to allow it to irradiate the very depths of my being, the most hidden recesses of my heart, is to find myself gradually healed and set free by Love. Yes, this gaze touches me in my own authentic personal truth, and in touching me this gaze awakens me to life. God says to me: “Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold you are beautiful.” This is not a lie, or an exaggeration, or a wish…no, it is the simple truth of God’s vision, which sees in me what I myself cannot see, what is covered over with shame and fear and regret. His eyes of love illumine my darkness, and this gaze brings his entire loving presence, which enfolds me in itself. I find myself nestled within the enveloping Love of God…upheld, sheltered, and carried by him who is the perfect Lover.
This loving gaze of God awakens in me the truth of who I am in his eyes; it gives me the confidence to live in this identity, this truth of being loved. Also, it awakens in me the desire and the ability to turn my gaze to God in response, to look into the eyes of the One who looks upon me. And what does God experience in this reciprocal gaze? What does he feel when he sees in my eyes my love and longing for him, as frail as it may be, when he sees welling up in my gaze the depths of my soul? He has told me what he feels, the profound way in which he is affected and touched by me: “You have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes.”
Ah…to ravish the heart of God with my own gaze! What a loving God we have! And what profound things this means about who I am for him! God, by his gaze, ravishes my heart with the gentle yet powerful touch of his Love…and through this touch he awakens my heart to gaze upon him in return: and in this mutual beholding is born an unspeakable intimacy, as if, through the eyes, our hearts are knit together as one in love.