There are few things as powerful as a poetic image. The nation with the best poets will ultimately triumph because poetry is more powerful than armies. An army can beat a nation into submission, but only a poetic image can change a people’s vision.
That’s not an exaggeration. To offer a small example: Centuries ago, Leonardo da Vinci painted a picture of the Last Supper. No historian in the world would suggest that the actual Last Supper of Jesus looked anything like da Vinci’s painting, but his image of the Last Supper has so branded and stamped itself into our universal consciousness that today we cannot not picture the Last Supper, except as he painted it.
With this in mind, I want to highlight two images from the Gospel of John, mystical images that we would do well to brand into our consciousness, like a da Vinci painting. They are images for the religious quest, for true pilgrimage, for discipleship.
Unlike the other Gospels, where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is presented as the ideal disciple, John’s Gospel gives Mary a different role, that of being Eve, the mother of all creation. It then gives us two powerful images of discipleship, one male and one female: The Beloved Disciple and Mary of Magdala.
The Beloved Disciple, whom we commonly, though perhaps naively, identify with John himself, offers one image of what means to be a disciple of Jesus. John presents this figure in various guises, but all have this in common: The Beloved Disciple has a unique intimacy with Jesus. Perhaps the single most powerful picture of this is that of the Beloved Disciple reclining at the Last Supper with his head on Jesus’ breast.
What is contained in this image? This is a mystical image, of intimacy and of listening. Simply put, the image is this: If you place your ear on someone’s chest, you can hear that person’s heartbeat. The Beloved Disciple, then, is the person who is so intimate with Jesus that he or she hears his heartbeat and, from that perspective, looks out at the world. To be a disciple of Jesus is to have your ear attuned to his heartbeat as you gaze out into the world. For John, if you do this, you will always be at the right places, will always have the right perspective, and will always have the courage to do the right thing. You will also be driven by love.
And this, to be driven by love, is John’s other mystical image for discipleship, the figure of Mary of Magdala.
John presents her as the restless, driven figure from the Song of Songs, a woman unable to sleep until she finds her soul mate. And, like the image of the Beloved Disciple reclining on Jesus’ breast, it is an image of a unique intimacy.
To help grasp the strength of this image, it is helpful to first read the Song of Songs. Its early chapters, speaking through a woman’s voice, present us with an image of an inconsummate, driven lover whose yearning for her soul mate relativizes everything else in her life. She has only one thing on her mind and in her heart, to find the one who can still her moral loneliness:
On my bed at night I sought my beloved, sought him but could not find him.
So I got up and went into the city; in the streets and in the squares, seeking my beloved.
I sought but could not find him!
I came upon the watchmen, those who go on their rounds in the city:
“Have you seen my beloved?”
Barely had I passed them when I found my beloved
I caught him, and would not let him go, not until I had brought him to my mother’s house and to the very room and the bed where my mother had conceived me.
There are no images more intimate than these. And, for John, true discipleship is driven by precisely such yearning, both in terms of its earthy intensity and in terms of the depth of intimacy it desires.
But we rarely think like this religiously. Such language strikes us almost as sacrilegious, unfit for pious ears. The quest for God and the hunger for this kind of consummation form different categories, two distinct worlds, inside of us. Our quest for discipleship and religion is emotionally all but completely divorced from our yearning to find a soul mate, divorced from our sexuality, and divorced from our fantasies, whatever they are, of what ultimately makes for consummation. For us, religion and our psycho-sexual world rarely, if ever, intersect at that level. Religion is understood as a duty we do, a categorical imperative that in our better moments we recognize as important, but it isn’t something that drives us out on a Sunday morning, as it did Mary of Magdala, to restlessly prowl gardens, which we tend to call churches, looking for a God to fill an emptiness that we consider only emotional, psychological, and sexual.