“Behold, I am with you always unto the end of time.” (Matthew 28:20)
These last words of the Risen Christ to the Apostles before He ascended into heaven are words that live in our ongoing encounters with the Son of God today. Because He has not abandoned us and is at work in the world, He is able to open our prayer to a real conversation with Him and, in the tender but unexpected love He discloses, He constantly works to free us from our own alienation and pride. In the most remarkable ways, saints and mystics have had all kinds of these surprising and life-changing encounters and their witness invites us to seek for the same.
During Holy Week, about seven hundred years ago, Blessed Angela di Foligno received a beautiful grace that purified and deepened her devotion to the Lord. It was so personal and particular, and at the same time, so necessary for anyone who loves the Lord, that she invites each one of us to seek this grace for ourselves as well.
She describes this encounter with the Lord in the form of His own words spoken directly to her in the silence of her heart. As only the heart-piecing power of the truth can do, what He disclosed overwhelmed her, stinging her with such fierce compunction, she felt it in her chest. The words she remembers being spoken to her, however, were not harsh, but tender. Jesus Crucified spoke with frank sincerity into her efforts to attend to Him, “My love for you has not been a hoax.”
By this time in her spiritual life, she was already a very disciplined ascetic who dedicated many hours to prayer. During Holy Week in particular, she strove to withdraw her mind from everything else so that she could be completely vulnerable to the presence of Christ and completely enter into the mystery of his saving work with her whole heart. When she heard these words echo in her innermost depths, she glimpsed the reason why we believe the Son of God “assumed” our human nature and humbly accepted every form of privation and suffering.
By “assuming” our humanity rather than simply using it or absorbing it, He endows our humanity with new meaning, a salvific meaning by which we can discern the truth of God’s love for us. God’s love delights in accomplishing its work within the limits of our frail efforts to love. This is because He loves to be like us — which is the mark of true friendship. Friends want to be like each other and they want to enter into each other’s worlds. Jesus, in embracing our humanity to Himself, has found a way to enter into our world of misery so that in prayer we might hear our Crucified God inviting us to enter into His world of glory, a world without end.
We can truly know the love of Jesus, not because of what we achieve, but because the Lord really is loving us in this present moment, in and through His crucified and risen humanity. If privation and suffering make it difficult to affirm this triumphant presence of love; by means of this His love hidden in these hardships, He is even closer and more accessible to us. Whenever we face these things, even if it is death itself, we never do so alone. The love of the Risen Lord for each of us, individually, is not an appearance or a sham – it is true… it is really real. He is always with us… until the end of time.
These kinds of truths washed over Blessed Angela in that moment she heard Jesus speak personally to her. Her awareness of His solidarity with her, His particular love for her, all of this mystery those words contained captured her heart in a whole new way. She was flooded with a painful and sober awareness of just how much of a hoax her own love for Jesus had been up to that point of her life. Compared to the love with which He loved her, she was sobered by the realization that her own love did not seem to be love at all. Accepting this difficult truth steeped her in an adoration informed by a holy sorrow, a painful sorrow of heart. Jesus was not content to leave her alone in this compunction. He went on to reaffirm to her that she was never far from Him: He had kept her close to Him throughout all her efforts, through all her life. Indeed, He comforted her by explaining, “I am more present to you than you are to yourself.”
What does this mean?
First, we really do not know ourselves all that well. We, in fact, are a mystery to ourselves but not to the Lord. In the light of the love of the Lord we know by faith, there are certain conversations with ourselves that we must renounce. We should not attend to that self-occupied conversation in which we pat ourselves on the back for our piety. Neither should we attend to that inner dialogue our ego holds with itself about how unimportant we are. Neither of conversations of pride or self-pity speak to us with the voice by which the Lord speaks to us in our depths. Neither of these voices knows the truth about who we are before Christ Jesus. Neither of these voices understands how much He cherishes us and yearns to share everything with us.
Second, Angela di Foligno’s encounter with Christ teaches us that the truth about ourselves can only be known when we attend to Christ Himself. We must open our hearts to the Word of the Father and welcome Him into our prayer. We must allow Him to surprise us with His love and to captivate us with the radiant beauty of His humanity. Blessed Angela seems convinced that the Lord wants us to know His presence and to feel His love inside us. She believes that anyone who earnestly seeks to find Jesus and know His love in their hearts will be given these graces. At the same time, those who want to be the brothers and sisters of Christ must make space in their lives for Christ to disclose Himself to in the particular and wonderful ways He desires to.
The love of the Risen Lord for each of us is the most real thing about our lives. It is His love and not our inadequacies that most defines who we are. His love for us is the very ground of our dignity. It is because we want to hear the voice of Christ rather than our alienated ego that we enter into the silence of prayer, simplicity of life, and the service of those in need – especially the needy who are closest to us. It is to learn how to share everything in our lives with Christ that we go to mass frequently, and it is to welcome everything He wants to give us that we make every effort to prepare ourselves to worthily receive Holy Communion. On this point, Blessed Angela helps us see the One who is closer to us that we are to ourselves; how He yearns for us to know, not only with our minds, but also to feel His loving presence; and in this friendship, she also witnesses to how wonderful it is to suffer and rest all in that the Lord yearns to share with those whom He calls His friends.