This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 15 October 2009.
Then he said to him a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was upset that he asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” and said, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” — Jn. 21:17a
I had planned on a walk. Instead, as I bent down to put away the groceries I made a dismaying discovery — something sticky was oozing out of the freezer. The freezer door had jammed open, and things were melting apace.
Five minutes later, freezer emptied, I was on my knees with a bucket of hot water and a rag. “I went to college for how many years? So I could do this?” I groaned as I scrubbed at the unappetizing amalgam of vanilla ice cream and melted chicken broth that had accumulated at the bottom of the freezer.
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than a vision of Christ on the cross flashed through my mind. The Word that was spoken and the universe came into being, not only humbled himself to dwell in our messy midst, but proceeded to clean up the shambles we had made of things with His own hands, with His own life.
I spent many hours on my knees, contemplating the crucifixion last January while on the Long Retreat. Now here I was, on my knees, once again contemplating the mystery of the all-powerful God, powerless on the cross. Contemplating humility.
In this passage from the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter to repeat himself three times. Christ’s demand of a triple affirmation is often read as a one-for-one counterbalancing of Peter’s three-fold denial of Christ in the Passion. I will admit that I have a hard time imagining God, who promises us a full measure, shaken down and flowing over, so carefully balancing the books with Peter.
Rather, I see Jesus asking Peter to slow down, not answer in haste from his head but to engage his heart. It is a powerful antidote to Peter’s rash, albeit rationally self-preserving, rejections.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius recommends repeatedly returning to the same meditation. The point is not to figure out the mystery in front of you — these are mysteries, after all — or to seek some new insight each time.
It is to slow things down, to return to the points you and God thought most important. To let go of the intellectual and respond interiorly, “wherein the fruit chiefly lies” as an old Jesuit manual for spiritual directors advises.
Ignatian repetition allows the mysteries of Christ’s life to be winnowed down to what is most essential for each of us and to ultimately trace themselves more deeply on our hearts. Ignatius reminds us, “It is not the abundance of knowledge that satisfies the soul, but feeling and savoring things interiorly.”
Kneeling in a puddle on my kitchen floor, surrounded by the contents of my freezer, physically I could not have been further from the spare elegant chapel that was the scene of my winter meditations. Interiorly? I could not have been closer. He humbled Himself, even to death on a cross.
I have made a free oblation of myself to your Divine Majesty, both of life and of death and I hope that you will give me grace and force to perform. This is all I desire. Amen. — St. Edmund Campion, S.J.