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And so it begins

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, August 25, 2011

Beginnings, by definition, are moments of incompleteness. They are the commencement of something that is not yet. So, thankfully, beginnings are filled with freshness, a sense that anything can happen. And yet, for precisely that same reason, but not always so thankfully, beginnings are also filled with uncertainty, disorientation, even some fear or anxiety.

Even our most beloved Scripture stories — the endings of which are so well-known that we can easily forget that their actors were experiencing it all precisely as NEW — testify to the mixed blessing that beginnings are. Remember: the first disciples of Jesus did not begin as disciples. In fact, the Gospels suggest, in the beginning, they had no idea what they were getting into.

Certainly, this was true for Andrew and Peter, the first two called by Jesus. John the Evangelist captures their awkward beginning — famously and sublimely — in the first chapter of his Gospel.

John the Baptist is preaching on the banks of the Jordan River, arousing a captive audience with a fiery, penetrating message of the coming of God’s Kingdom, full of conviction and resonance. In a rather unlikely place — the middle of a desert — his crowd of listeners swells.

The desert — though, aptly, a deserted place — is also a surprisingly frequent setting for beginnings in the Scriptures — from the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness towards the Promised Land to the temptation of Jesus before he begins his public life. Perhaps, as we reflect on our own beginnings, there is something spiritually resonant about the desert. For when we begin something, we do so, not from a place of total strength and certainty, but with the future somewhat unknown, the outcome somewhat in the balance.

In the Baptist’s desert, life hangs by a thread. No one (except him, and wild beasts) makes a home there, and insects are standard fare. His disciples go there perhaps for similar reasons that we journey to Notre Dame — not to be confirmed in what we already know and experience, but to lose, at least momentarily, our daily comforts and certainties, and encounter something fresh and new.

The first disciples take a risk — making this journey into the desert. (It is, arguably, about the only thing they do right through the first several chapters of the Gospels!) Evidently, these would-be disciples were dissatisfied with some aspects of their daily lives — personal, social, political, religious, whatever. So they wander into the desert and let go of their daily, insulating routines, to see what is there, what directions the outrageous, yet compelling, Baptist would propose.

Who knows how long they waited, homesick, in that place of uncertainty? All we know is that one day, the Baptist finally proposed — a new beginning.

An unidentified figure enigmatically arrives in the desert. John points to him, and alerts the crowd: “There walks the one we have been waiting for.” It must not have been what most of them expected, for a mere two disciples — Peter’s brother Andrew, and a second, unnamed — follow. But though they follow, it can hardly be said that they know what they are doing, at least with any certainty. They simply trail behind this mysterious figure … trusting, hoping, questioning.

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

At a loss, and now feeling how distant from their familiar comforts and certainties they have strayed, they make a plea for the recognizable: a home-cooked meal and a fire.

“Teacher,” they ask, “where is your home?” Get us, in other words, to a place of security.

Jesus gently but surely refuses. Instead, he invites with three indelible words right to their hearts: “Come and see.”

And so it begins.

Perhaps in this story of the beginning of the first disciples’ journey, we can see some semblance of our story, here at the beginning of a new semester.

All of us — whether first-year students or lifetime Domers — begin this year to some degree incomplete and restless. If we are NOT feeling some sense of freshness, with a corresponding disorientation, we are probably not really beginning this year, but just continuing last year. Beginnings demand restless hearts, the embrace or at least the facing up to, of what is still unknown.

Beginning to identify the burning questions inside of us, the ones that have driven us to this place — the ones that drove the first disciples out into the desert — 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, our world, our God that escape us, the questions that a professor or roommate or friend raises that we just can’t shake, the questions and people that are on our minds and in our hearts when we go to bed and when we wake up — are often invitations from Jesus to “come and see.”

Here, perhaps, in our unarticulated hopes, our restless desires and even in our uncertainties and fears, we can wrest some consolation from the beginning of the journey of Peter, Andrew and the first disciples. They followed a path whose end they did not yet know, 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 we do seek, and you seem to know the way. Where do we live?”

“Come and see.”

Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, is a campus minister and the Director of Pastoral Life for the ACE Program. He can be reached at Louis.A.DelFra.2@nd.edu

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