Holloway on… The Gospel of St John Part II
The question arises how far the words of St. John, and the literary cadences of St. John’s Gospel, do reflect directly the words and very expressions of Jesus Christ Himself. One suggests that the correspondence will be very close indeed. It will certainly be ‘substantial’ in the sense of communicating the essential thought of Christ in all its beauty and more than human coherence. It could be more or less verbal, be a correspondence very, very close to the literal reality, especially in the so-called ‘sacerdotal prayer’, the four chapters spoken almost personally and verbally by Christ, at the Last Supper.
Retaining, verbalizing and memorising
The possibility of this involves certain human factors. There is first the power to retain, verbalise, and memorise in detail long passages of speech or writing, a power native to the Semitic mind, and found among the Arabs to this day. Indeed, among the people of Spain as well, and their descendants, whether because of their partly Moorish and Semitic inheritance or not this writer is not competent to say, something of the same ability, an ability alien to the Nordic mind, still exists. There are a number of cases recorded in the lives of Spanish saints, of the whole Bible being learned by heart, and being at the memory recall of the person involved. This writer personally, has sat in an empty lecture room of the Gregorian University at Rome, and as a student listened to members of the South American College there, rehearsing each other in the theses on which we were to be examined for the Licentiate of Philosophy. One can attest that these young men were word perfect page after page, after page of the author, comprising not only the theses themselves and their formal arguments, but the words of their author concerning the opinions, the adversaries, the corollaries, etc. One does not imply that this is a good or worthy way to learn philosophy, or that it would happen that way now. One is saying that in fact it did happen, and one can testify to the amazing type of prowess it contained.
St. John’s Vocation in the Church
We have already suggested [in Part I] that St. John made himself, in his relationship of total personal discipleship of Christ the very mirror image of the mind of Christ and the heart of Christ: we are saying that to this he was invited by Jesus Christ, and formed by Jesus Christ. No other human came as close to sharing and copying the human characteristics, in teaching and speaking, of Jesus the Christ, as did him who was ‘the Beloved Disciple’. As a result, St. John could and did express Christ, and express Christ in what He said, and did, and meant, with a unique clarity and authority. Such was John’s vocation in the Church, and that vocation gives us unerringly the Gospel of St. John. This dramatic, detailed, and rich picture is the living Christ, the Christ of history and the Christ of faith.
The question of recall in the Gospel of St. John has its own fascinating overtones as well. It is a known fact that it is possible in deep hypnosis for a subject to recall in detail, facts of deed, dress, and relationship going back to events in their very early childhood. This writer at least has had the testimony from a soldier who was there, as a medical orderly, in a hospital in Egypt, in the boredom of the last great war, that such a doctor of psychological medicine could not only make willing subjects recall back to their early youth, but that the voice of the man relating changed to the accents of childhood as he spoke. About all these claims, this writer cannot claim to have personal competence.
Mystical Contemplative Union
If, however, detailed recall of this nature is possible at all, one must ask whether as much, and more, would not be a psychological possibility in one who was not only totally formed in the mind and heart of God made Man, but who had known, retained, and always did possess his Master, at all times, in the communion of the deepest and most loving contemplation. St. John of the Cross tells us that in the deepest communion of mystical contemplative union with God, the mind, heart, will, and love of the mystic is made as much one with God Himself, as if a ‘little flame’ on a wick were merged with a great flame. When they are merged you see but one flame: when the wick is moved away, you prove the separate identity of the ‘little’ flame. Indeed, St. John of the Cross teaches that in the highest, and most final phase of perfect mystical union with God, the soul so blessed cannot think any thought not according to the will of God, nor will anything, unless God will that the mystic should will it. When John set his mind to write his Gospel, a Gospel which ancient writers of the Joannine school and tradition tell us was written expressly to vindicate and manifest the Living Divinity of Christ against the first burgeoning heresies concerning that Divinity, would he not have been in his own psyche in some special relationship to Jesus Christ?
The Graphic Mind of St. John
St. John would have been willing to do that which Christ wanted him to do, something also that Christ positively willed John to do. He had been formed, moulded, loved to do it well and do it truly. He had never lost the presence of the person of Christ to his own soul; he had loved and possessed the Master within, in communion of being, even after that Master had “ascended up to where He was before”. To this writer it seems that the ‘recall’ of St. John, lived in a living communion of contemplation with Jesus Himself, would have reached a level of graphic perfection and visual acuity which it would be hard for most of us to conceptualise. John had also, from his description of many incidents in the Gospel (as for example “full of great fishes, one hundred and fifty three”) a mind capable of almost photographic fixation. He is a master of the dramatic moment, a moment to which he thrilled. So for instance he not only gives us the terse, idiomatic exchanges of Jesus and His mother, and of Mary to the waiters, at the first public miracle at Cana, he gives us also the rough, good-natured rustic jest of the ‘best man’ of the bridegroom as well. John, elevated by a living love of Jesus, at the moment of writing or dictating the high points of his Gospel, would live again the fact and expression of the same Jesus Christ, whom John had known, loved, and almost ‘fused with’ in the days of his discipleship on earth. Does he not say himself, of that same Jesus, “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and palpably felt with our hands, concerning the word of Life: — the Life was made manifest and we saw it, and testify to it” (I John 1: 1-2.)?
Who can doubt the vivid, graphic manner in which St. John lived his love and recognition of the Lord Jesus? With St. John we would be in the presence not of any kind of hypnotic recall, not any sort of passive unconscious self-surrender, but in the presence of a recall that was total, active, loving and fully given over to the purposes of the wisdom and will of God Incarnate Himself. This is a higher principle of prompting and recall than that of a passive response to the command under hypnotic trance of another’s will. It would be similar to that process attested by St. John of the Cross, presumably from his own mystic communion with God, by which upon what St. John of the Cross himself calls, “the very threshold of the beatific vision”, the saintly soul can only think what God would have it think, and will what God would have it will, so fully is that soul now become the very mirror-image of the God in whom it is about to be beatified.
Temple and Liturgy Fulfilled in Christ’s Body
In such a state of union and communion with God, no doubt even in extreme old age, St. John the Evangelist could write with the verve and power of his youth. Yet, this writer does ask leave to doubt if St. John really was at the very end of his earthly life when he wrote that Gospel. It is the Gospel of a man in the full possession of great power of intellect and dynamism of personality. It reads like the work of a man who was, psychologically speaking, in his prime. In that sense of ‘his prime: it could of course be taken up to at least the early seventies of his life. For the whole scheme of the Gospel of St. John is amazing. Besides the points we have briefly touched upon, there is the presentation of Christ as the physical fulfilment, in His very Body, of the Temple itself, of the liturgy of the Temple, of the meaning of all its feasts, and the meaning of all the prophetic utterance, and living types of the Old Testament itself. Indeed, the great writer and former Rabbi, Dr. Alfred
Edersheim does not hesitate to state that both from the Gospel of St. John, and from
somewhat arcane references in the Book of Revelations, St. John reveals that he was
himself either of the priestly line of Aaron, or at least intimately aware of the most secret
ritual and practices of the priests within the Temple itself by day and by night. If it is so,
that John was indeed of the priestly line, then once again we see how wonderfully he
was chosen and formed by the Word made Flesh to reveal to men the whole import and
meaning of the age-long ascent of the Bible, its inspired word, and its unique prophetic
and Messianic message.
One could imagine that the Epistles of St. John, especially the second and the third,
do show something of the fading grasp on detail of a very old man. There is in them the
permanent, blinding reality of God loved and held in contemplative communion. There
would seem to be the weariness of detail of a brain now extremely fatigued. There is no
sign of any such in the Gospel of St. John, nor in the Book of Revelations, itself compiled
upon a pattern totally similar to the Apocalyptic writings, such as the Books of Henoch etc,
of the Old Testament. In John the Evangelist one is tempted to say we see the noblest and
most perfect of the Old Testament prophetic minds, taught and fulfilled in the meaning of
that tradition:— the Person of God revealed in the Flesh of Jesus the Messiah.
Reflecting and Pondering the Word of God
Neither is it true, to suggest a final thought, that later and fuller reflection on any great
vision of the truth, whether natural or supernatural truth, does in fact dilute or degenerate
or expand by extraneous addition the content of the
original vision, knowledge, or experience. The effect of
time, when the soul reflects and ponders the word of God,
is to refine, deepen, and basically to simplify in expression
the fulness of God revealed or known, in all its implications.
If this is true when great philosopher mathematicians like
Einstein or Heisenberg reflected on their work in their
most mature years, much more is it true of the knowledge
and experience of the things of God. Doubtless there is a
lot more work to be done, especially if the Gospel of St. John is linked with his Book of
Revelations, upon the fascinating character and personality of the Beloved Disciple who
conformed himself so closely to the human psyche and the divine personality of Jesus
Christ. One dares to suggest, while admitting that other and more careful scholars will do
much better, that more fruit of truth is to be found by following the theology one here
suggests, than by wandering in the deadly desert of the Bultmannite mind. One is also
grateful once again, to those students, seminarists, and most dear friends, whose earnest
enquiries in their tribulations from their confused teachers of theology, force one, in trying
to answer their needs, to rethink and understand much more satisfyingly, the beauty
and truth of the Word of God; as that Eternal Word is manifested in the Economy of the Church, and in the utterly true and loving words of the writers of the New Testament.
This is the concluding part of Fr. Holloway’s Editorial in the May/June 1983 issue of Faith Magazine.