Beyond Flesh and Blood: homily on the feast of Ss Peter and Paul

“On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,
Ochwiay Biano

“Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something… they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are mad.”

This was what Native American chief Ochwiay Biano thought about the white settlers in his ancestral home. So why did he think they were mad? Because, he said, “they say that they think with their heads.”

Today is the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, chiefs of the Apostles. The Gospel at mass today tells the story of how Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. Only Simon gets it right: “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” This shows such strength of faith and wisdom that Jesus gives him the name “Peter,” meaning rock, and says that the Church will be built on him, and more, says that he will give him the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven – which is why statues and pictures of Peter often have him holding a pair of keys.

But how did Peter come to this crystal-clear recognition of who Jesus was?

There’s one thing we can rule out from the start, because Jesus himself says so: “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee.”

We in the West have got used to the idea that our thoughts are located inside our bodies, in our flesh and blood. We assume that the only knowledge we can have is that which we experience with our senses and process with our brains. We say that we think with our heads. But the Bible speaks more about the heart. Not the physical organ which pumps blood to our flesh, but the spiritual heart, which Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware calls the “seat of the memory, understood not just as the recollection of things past but as deep self-awareness at the present moment:” something like our conscience. Historically even in the West we did not divide our heads from this spiritual heart like we do nowadays, and if you look to the cultures and religions of the wider world, you will soon see that our idea of thinking with the head alone puts us in a tiny minority. The results of this have been mixed, as the world has both benefitted and suffered greatly from our detached, scientific mindset and the technologies and systems which the West has developed.

Jesus used to say, “the Kingdom of God is within you.” He didn’t mean that it is all “in your head.” Rather, he was expressing what many religious thinkers have discovered in their experience of God. As the great North African bishop St Augustine put it, God is “deeper than my innermost being;” or the Prophet Muhammad, who found Allah closer to us “than the jugular vein.”

When we think about God, we are not thinking about someone or something “out there,” as if we could fly off in a spaceship and go and find him, like a giant version of us, sitting on a cloud. God is not in the order of physical things, flesh and blood, like that. When we look for him, we won’t find him by a frenzy of action and trying to put everything right, as Peter was sometimes prone to do himself, thinking that he could defend Jesus on the night of his arrest by drawing his sword and fighting.

Rather, we find God by going into the infinite corridors and chambers of our own heart, our spiritual heart, enterting what American monk Thomas Merton called the “little point of nothingness and absolute poverty” which “is the glory of God in us.” There, if we search hard enough, we catch a glimpse of hidden treasure buried deep within: lying in the dust, those keys to the kingdom of forgiveness and peace without bounds. And that journey is a journey we make not with our heads alone, but by letting our heads sink into our hearts – which is what we, in the trade, call “prayer.”

In case this all sounds self-indulgent, like escaping into yourself instead of taking positive action, I’d caution against drawing yet another dividing line. You cannot share what you do not have. If you do not have peace within you, there is no way that you will be able to bring peace to the world. The treasures within are given by the grace of God, and far greater than anything we can achieve for ourselves by our efforts, our flesh or our blood.

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