Jesus was deeply troubled and testified, “Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, at a loss as to whom he meant. One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved was reclining at Jesus’ side. So Simon Peter nodded to him to find out whom he meant. He leaned back against Jesus’ chest and said to him, “Master, who is it?”
Imagining the Last Supper, most of us picture a situation like the famous Leonardo Da Vinci painting with Jesus seated at the center of a table with his apostles gathered around him. However, Jews at that time would not have sat in chairs at the table but would have instead laid on the ground on mats or pillows. This is why the gospels speak of Jesus and his apostles “reclining at table.” They would have eaten the Last Supper according to this common practice of the ancient world. They would have been reclined at the table, leaning on their left elbows and eating with their right hands. John was reclined next to Jesus with his head very near to the Lord. All he had to do was lean back and, as the gospel tells us, he could rest his head on the breast of Jesus. This temporary position of John is symbolic of his perpetual disposition toward Jesus—a stance we are especially called to as Carmelites.
In the ancient world, even more so than today, the heart was seen as the center of human activity. It was the powerhouse of thoughts, feelings, and actions—the life-giving principle of the body and the place of connection with God. St. John lays his head against the breast of Jesus. He can feel Jesus’ chest as it rises and falls—the chest clothed in garments that became dazzling white at the transfiguration will soon be burdened beneath the weight of the cross. John can feel the beat of Jesus’ heart—the heart which pulsed with love for the Magdalene as she anointed his feet with perfume would soon pump the blood which will pour out from His hands and side. John can hear the subtleties of Jesus’ voice—the same voice which he heard preach love and forgiveness will soon cry out in agony from the cross. John can look deeply into Jesus’ eyes—the eyes which looked with compassion on the woman caught in adultery will soon shed tears as they look down from the cross on his sorrowful mother. John can feel the warmth of Jesus’ breath—the first breath which in the beginning breathed life into the world is united to the first breath of the child born of a virgin and foreshadows that moment on the cross when he would breathe His last. Laying on the breast of Christ, all of time is unified into a single moment of eternity. John’s experience is not only a historical event but a continuing reality that is open to us in our relationship with Christ.
This is precisely our call as Christians and especially as Carmelites! We are to perpetually lean against the breast of Jesus to feel his breathing, to hear his voice, to look into his eyes! The call to Carmel is a call to deep intimacy with Jesus—not simply as a formal relationship of servant and master, but one of an intimate lover. Listen to the words of the Spiritual Canticle of Saint John of the Cross:
In the inner wine cellar
I drank of my Beloved, and, when I went abroad
through all this valley,
I no longer knew anything,
and lost the herd that I was following.
There he gave me his breast;
there he taught me a sweet and living knowledge;
and I gave myself to him,
keeping nothing back;
there I promised to be his bride.
Now I occupy my soul
and all my energy in his service;
I no longer tend the herd,
nor have I any other work
now that my every act is love.
This is our calling brothers and sisters. This is our vocation as Christians.
But what does this mean? How do I attain this kind of intimacy with Jesus? Let’s follow the example of John the Apostle and hear the voice of Jesus, feel his breath, and look into his eyes. We hear his voice by listening attentively to the Word of God. Are we taking time to reflect on scripture? Are we meditating on the psalms that we pray? This is not some ancient historical document that tells us about what once was. It is a living document through which the very voice of Jesus can be heard. Each time we read scripture God is speaking directly to us in our particular situation. He is doing all he can to draw us to Himself. But do we actually listen to his voice? Let’s listen to Him.
We look into the eyes of Jesus each time we sit with Him in prayer. It’s so easy to complicate our time of prayer when, as Teresa reminds us, “we need no wings to go in search of God, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.” Jesus is so madly in love with each of us that he never ceases to take his eyes off of us. If we had the slightest idea what joy it gives him each time we so much as glance at Him, we would never cease lifting our hearts to him in prayer. Let’s look at Him.
We feel the breath of Jesus by being open to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Through our baptisms the spirit dwells within us and is constantly guiding us. Are we attentive to these promptings that lead us to go out of our way to do something kind for a friend, to greet a stranger at Church, or to humbly apologize to our spouse? These are the work of the Holy Spirit. I find that often I’m so consumed with myself—with how busy I am with my schoolwork or how frustrated I am with my brother—that I fail to even notice these promptings of the Holy Spirit. And even when I am aware of them I often fail to find the energy or courage to act on them. But our love for Jesus and our intimacy with Him should help us to be more and more aware of how He is guiding us throughout our days. Let’s feel His breath.
Following the example of St. John, let’s rest our heads on the heart of Jesus and listen to His voice, look into His eyes, and feel His breath. May your Triduum be an experience of intimate encounter with the Lord!