From today’s Gospel:
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
– John 6:66-68
“To whom shall we go?” This is a sweet thing for Peter to say, isn’t it? He is saying, “Why would we want to be with anybody else? You’re so great!” At least, this is partly what he is saying.
But he is also giving a backhanded compliment. Jesus has just finished telling them that, if they want to live, they will have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. So Peter is also saying: “Following you is weird and distressing. But every other option is worse, so I guess we’re stuck.”
And of course the compliment isn’t too backhanded, because he also praises the words of Jesus: “You have the words of everlasting life.” What are those words?
I think Peter is expressing a certain special quality of encountering Jesus and listening to him. It is the quality that made the disciples on the road to Emmaus say: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us?” (Luke 24:32) It is the quality that the sheep recognize in the voice of the shepherd, whose “sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:4) It is the quality that makes the temple guards say, “No one ever spoke like this man does!” (John 7:46)
In college, when I was a sheep without a shepherd — or anyway, a sheep who was rushing around too frantically, and had too many barbs tangled in his fleece, to be able to listen to the voice of all the shepherds who had been sent — I had a theology professor whose lectures always brought balm to my soul. The lectures didn’t offer solutions to my personal problems. They didn’t offer insight into any of my difficult relationships. They weren’t, actually, about me or my problems at all.
All he did was to talk about the Gospel, about Jesus. His words were not instructions on untying my knots; instead, his voice was a voice from beyond those knots. It was a voice from a world where those knots were unimportant — or, not unimportant, but forgotten in the presence of something greater. A voice carrying with it the cool breeze of reality. In speaking about Jesus, he somehow spoke with the voice of Jesus. The voice of the shepherd. The words of eternal life.
His words took me out of my problems, but it was something different from escapism. Escapism means escape into the realm of something less real than the current situation; a drug that makes you feel good for no reason, a movie that makes you stop thinking by drowning you in trivialities, a hookup that blots out loneliness with a simulacrum of intimacy.
But when Jesus speaks, if we have ears to hear, we hear something more real than whatever we’re mired in, whatever busy thoughts occupy us, waking and sleeping, for 23 out of 24 hours of the day. We hear a voice that calls us, not away from reality, but deeper into it, further up and further in.1
I was speaking recently with a new friend, someone who came into the Church only months ago. She was still uncomfortable with a lot of the things she saw: the rigidity of some strands of Catholic culture; the not-really-very-obvious distinction between venerating the Blessed Mother and adoring her; the politics, the infighting, the scandals, the pettiness.
Why did she become a Catholic, then? I wanted to know. What drew her?
“I wanted the Eucharist,” she said. To whom else could she go for that?
To whom else can any of us go? The words of Jesus challenge and dismay us. His standards are at once impossibly high and scandalously low. But who else speaks with his voice? Who else offers anything but distractions? Who else offers us the beating heart of reality itself?