Monday, April 14, 2014

Leaning on the breast of Jesus when the days seem darker

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. 


  1. Dear Fr Luke

    As I read this post for the third time, Psalm 34 just keep resonating in my mind. Especially, verse 17-18, "When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit." Indeed, at times when one sank into their darkest moments, and when they think that there isn't much hope at all, it can be very difficult for them to pull themselves out. But, as the Psalmist mentioned above, The Lord is near to the brokenhearted... if we sincerely cried out to Him, He will rescue us.. Peace, Zita

  2. Dear Fr. Luke,

    Thank you for your beautiful writings again, it is always inspiring like always. God bless Fr. Luke.


  3. Perhaps it is Holy Week and our minds are cast in a more sombre or reflective mood, but on Monday, reading this post filled me with a poignancy that was further deepened when the next day, the Gospel reading at mass featured a fuller account ( Jn 13:21-33, 36-38). The homilist was quick to point out that in all this Jesus was “the one in control” and that made a connection (for me) with what you said about leaning on the breast of Jesus – “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.................” and leads me to confront your question – “How does one still maintain faith in a loving God who sustains us at every level of our being?”

    Looking to Jesus, especially in his moment of agony, one sees that Jesus did struggle with the “will of the Father” too................for he is fully human like us. However, his “Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine,.......” shows his trust in the Father to know that it is necessary for him (as also for all of us) to accept and participate fully in our human nature and our human condition...............and what could sustain Him and us is the knowledge of the Father’s powerful love. This awareness of the loving presence of God in one’s life – whether in days of grey, darker grey or multi-coloured hues - would encourage one ‘to lean further onto the breast of Jesus’ (as you said) for it is the hour of ‘heart-to-heart’ prayer. It is not necessarily ( in fact, should not) be a prayer to badger God to make one’s life free from problems or suffering but rather, a praying for the courage and strength to bear the unbearable. Strangely enough, it is then that one is able to tap on the reserves of faith, courage and strength ( which were already given) to go on...........perhaps that is what is meant by ‘‘the grace of God......’’

    God bless you, Fr.


  4. I'm in the midst of writing an article about how Love precedes The Beginning and The Word and I made reference to this passage in Scripture and looked up examples of it in art and wanted to argue that, along with the Eucharist, the kind of love that Jesus exhibits here is almost "maternal" or, at least, "nurturing." Indeed, the art shows Jesus with a much younger disciple, who looks like a boy, lying against Jesus's breast or in his lap. Well, in the midst of this, I come across this beautiful post. It really moved me because, in the midst of writing the article, I am also in the midst of deep, deep darkness, and my only consolation has been to reach out to Christ with absolute faith that though I see no way out of my suffering I know that it has meaning and purpose. I do not comprehend the meaning and purpose of this suffering, and I may never know, not now, not in eternal life, but Christ knows and that is enough for me! Thank you for this lovely post. God bless. Jan