The contemplative/mystical experience does not vary from age to age nor from culture to culture. What changes is the language and imagery people in widely differing cultures use to try and describe something that is essentially beyond words. Jesus himself was a man of his time and therefore used the language of his time and culture to point to the reality that silence reveals. Even more so were his disciples, the emerging Christian movement and the gospel writers. That makes reading the New Testament a challenging task. The closer we can get to Jesus of Nazareth the less time and culture bound the message is likely to be.
So far, my journey through Mark and Matthew has, I hope, yielded the essence of what Jesus was pointing to. Each Gospel writer puts his own ‘spin’ on the teaching and it is time to move on from Matthew to Luke. Matthew has given us the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. What Luke adds to the mix are several well known parables not found in Mark or Matthew. There’s the Good Samaritan, for example, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus; and then there’s Luke’s affinity for the place of women in the story.
Mark, Matthew and Luke all record a discussion between Jesus and a Scribe about the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbour. Only Luke follows this exchange with two famous passages: the parable of the Good Samaritan (chapter 10 verses 30 – 35) and the conversation between Jesus, Martha and Mary (10: 38 – 42). The first is about loving my neighbour, the second about loving God.
A Scribe asks Jesus, who is my neighbour? Jesus doesn’t respond with a direct answer. Like all good teachers he tells a story and invites his questioner to make up his own mind. It’s a story designed to challenge our prejudices about strangers. Jews and Samaritans couldn’t stand one another. Who are ‘Samaritans’ for me? Who is my neighbour? Who presses my buttons? People who don’t give up their seat on the bus or train to those in greater need? Immigrants from eastern Europe? And who can I expect help from? Sometimes the most unlikely people offer their seats on the bus to me and my wife – both of us now obviously elderly. They are only ‘unlikely’ in my mind because of my prejudices about the kind of people I think they are. Sometimes I am the wounded traveller, sometimes I am challenged to be the good Samaritan.
A common misunderstanding of the contemplative/mystical life is that one becomes too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps Luke should have placed the story of Jesus with Mary and Martha before the parable the Good Samaritan. For most of us the answer to the question, who is my neighbour, only becomes clear when we have become more like Mary than Martha. There are numerous examples of people who, Mary-like, have developed a mature and disciplined practice of contemplative prayer. Leaving their hidden place of prayer they go about their ordinary everyday lives with a deep sense of being connected with everyone they meet however fleeting each encounter may be. Thomas Merton, a contemplative monk, described this in an essay, ‘A Member of the Human Race’:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of a pure self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.”
This awareness stayed with him for the rest of his life. It was the fulfillment of the second commandment, to “love your neighbour as yourself.” I am never more essentially, more deeply myself, than when I have discovered a Mary-like stillness in the Presence of the divine. And in that stillness I know the answer to the question, who is my neighbour?