In the account of the last supper in John’s gospel, we have a scene which unfolds before us that includes a tiny, intimate but important detail. It is found in 13:23 where we are told that the beloved disciple was reclining next to him. In some versions of the bible, this detail is given a more graphic description where we see the beloved disciple leaning on the breast of Jesus. Apparently, the way the Jewish people ate the Passover was not quite as Leonardo Da Vinci had pictured it in his Renaissance interpretation of the scene, as it is most likely that they dined on couches low to the ground, enabling one to lean on another. It was thus indeed possible that the beloved disciple, who dined next to Jesus his master and Lord, physically leaned on Jesus’ breast in a loving way. But why would this strange detail be included here? Perhaps this reflection will give us some indication and hope for ourselves when dark times seem to be getting darker in our lives.
Experiencing or undergoing challenging and tough times is something that everyone without exception goes through in life. But sometimes, these dark times can suddenly take an even darker hue and life can present itself to be a tougher challenge that it already is. That turn of the corner, where things get better is not in sight, and the light that one hopes for to break upon the seemingly incessant darkness just does not seem to come. Instead, things present themselves to make it become even darker and life to be even more of an already hard challenge. Perhaps when one is already out of money and struggling to make ends meet, and a huge unexpected bill comes in the mail. Or perhaps hot on the heels of the experience of a failed venture comes news of a betrayal from a trusted friend. Or when the doctors deliver the news that one’s prolonged illness has now developed another complication that needs additional medical attention with yet more (and often expensive) drugs, painful procedures and treatments. These are times when things undoubtedly get from shades of grey to sheets of black. How does one still maintain faith in a loving God who sustains us at every level of our being?
It would be extremely useful and comforting to go to that scene in John’s gospel where we see the beloved disciple leaning on the breast of Jesus and spend time just dwelling on that image. Ignatian meditation teaches us the practice of fantasy prayer, where one paints a mental picture of the gospel scene in vivid imaginative detail. This can help one greatly here. We put ourselves in the position of the beloved disciple and see ourselves leaning on the breast of Jesus at that intimate Passover meal.
Several things happen when we do this. Firstly, coming into contact with the breast of Christ, our ears will be able to listen to the heartbeat of Our Lord. Remember – this was a time for the Lord which was getting darker and darker and he knew of his foreboding suffering which was going to happen as the hours unfolded. Yet, we do not see signs of tension or anxiety in Jesus. His heartbeat remains calm and regular. We need to let that calm and regular beating of the Sacred Heart resonate in our own anxiety-laden hearts when we think that things are getting so bad in life. We need to lean in even further into the breast of Jesus to allow that Sacred Heart beat to beat in tandem with our racing and fearful hearts.
With an ear to the breast of Jesus, one cannot but have one’s eyes looking not at Jesus, but out – out to the surrounding space, out into the world and out to the problems that loom on our darkened horizons. For the one undergoing that deeper suffering and anxiety, one’s eyes often cannot but see without much clarity or joy. But hearing the heartbeat of Christ at the same time is what enables one to look at the impending darkness now with a new hope and strength that comes from within, simply because it is now pulsating with not just one’s own strength, but calmed and supported by the heartbeat of the Sacred Heart.
In a time when hope seems to be waning, and life appears to take on darker and darker shades of grey, one can pick up the Scriptures to revive one’s hope in many places gleaned from the Holy Word. But what if words alone are not enough? What can one do if the words of the Psalmist seem empty and devoid of a sense of comfort that they used to provide in the past? This is what we can and must do – lean further into the breast of Jesus and like that beloved disciple, allow the heart beat of Jesus to become the strengthener of our ailing hearts and weakened hope.
Nineteenth century American writer and poet Emily Dickinson, known for her poems dealing with death and mortality, is noted with this saying about hope – Hope, she says, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.
Imaged as a songbird that enlivens a jaded or despondent soul, Dickinson’s hope seems to be also static in that it doesn’t help the soul to move. Real Christian hope not only gives the soul something to passively listen to, but more importantly, engenders the soul move – soaring to greater heights and deeper and more courageous acts of love despite the darkness that surrounds it.
In the darkening moments of life, leaning in closely to the breast of Jesus, and at the same time looking out at life can provide for this to happen.