The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



A spirituality for beginners

Father Lou DelFra | Wednesday, September 5, 2007

“To follow Jesus is always a beginning; it is The beginning happening once again.”

– Father Julián Carrón

Every once in a while, and especially when we are starting something new, it helps to remember: The first disciples of Jesus had no idea what they were getting into.

That is to say, they didn’t just wind up disciples. They had to begin somewhere.

Beginnings, by definition, are incomplete – they are the initiation of something that is not yet. As such, beginnings are filled with a freshness, a sense that anything can happen. And so, beginnings are also filled with uncertainty, disorientation, even some fear.

This was true for Peter and the first disciples. John the Evangelist captures the “spirituality of beginning” – famously and sublimely – in the first chapter of his Gospel. John the Baptist stands waist-high in the Jordan River, screeching and screaming a brilliant new message of the coming of God’s Kingdom. His message is full of hair-raising imagery, but also full of conviction and resonance, which would explain the crowds that evidently journeyed into the desert to hear him preach.

In the Bible, big things often begin in the desert (see the 10 Commandments, or Jesus’ Temptation). But this is a bit counter-intuitive. When we begin something, we usually prefer to begin from a place of strength and move along with some certainty from there. The desert is not a place of strength or certainty. In the Baptist’s desert, life hangs by a thread. No one actually lives there (except him), and insects are standard fare. His disciples go there, not to be comforted in what they already know and experience, but to lose, momentarily, their daily comforts and encounter something fresh and new.

Peter and others risk making this journey into the desert. Evidently, they were dissatisfied with some aspects of their daily lives – personal, social, political, whatever. So they wander into the desert, let go of their daily, insulating routines, to see what is there, what directions the outrageous, compelling Baptist would propose.

Who knows how long they waited? All we know is that one day, the Baptist finally proposed – a new beginning.

An unidentified figure mysteriously enters the scene. John points to him as he walks by, and says to the disciples, “There goes the one we have been waiting for.” It must not have been what most of them expected, for only two disciples – Peter’s brother, Andrew, and a second, unnamed – follow. And even they don’t know exactly what they’re doing. They just walk behind this mysterious figure, and can’t even compose themselves enough to ask him where he’s going.

Finally, perhaps sensing their growing disorientation, Jesus turns and asks, “What are you looking for?” Surely, he already knows the answer – they don’t really know.

At a loss, and now feeling how far from their familiar comforts they have strayed, they make a plea for a home-cooked meal around a fire. “Teacher,” they ask, “where is your home?”

Jesus, in turn, invites, with three indelible words, right to the heart: “Come and see.” And so it begins.

It can often be helpful to recognize in the stories of Scripture the stories of our own lives. Perhaps in this story of the beginning of the disciples’ journey we can see some semblance of our story, here at the beginning of a new semester.

All of us – whether freshmen or life-time Domers – begin this year in some degree disoriented, restless. If you are not feeling some sense of freshness and its corresponding disorientation, you are probably not really beginning this year, but just continuing last year. Beginnings demand restless hearts. In fact, restless hearts are about the only cogent explanation for 10,000 of us gathering together in the northern woods of Indiana to study for a year together.

Coming to know the burning questions inside of us, the ones that have driven us to this place, can be a great spiritual exercise to begin this semester. In fact, John’s Gospel suggests that in the following of our restlessness – the questions about ourselves and our world that bug us, that a professor raises and remain with us all day, that are on our minds when we go to bed and when we wake up, the person we can’t get off our minds – are often invitations from Jesus to . . . Well, it is hardly possible to articulate all that we are searching for, here at the beginning.

Here, perhaps, in our uncertainty and unarticulated hopes, and even in our fears, we can gain calming, leg-steadying, dream-inspiring consolation from the beginning of the journey of the first disciples. They followed restlessness into a desert, trailing behind a mysterious man, until one day, their restlessness provoked a conversation with God.

“What are you looking for?”

“Teacher, we hardly know ourselves, but you seem to know a way. Will you show us where our hearts can find rest?”

“Come and see.”

This week’s FaithPoint is written by Father Lou DelFra, director of campus Bible studies in the Office of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.