Francis Thompson’s famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” describes God’s dogged persistence in seeking out sinners, despite their frenzied efforts to elude him. He writes: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days/I fled Him, down the arches of the years/I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways/Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears/I hid from Him, and under running laughter/Up vista-ed hopes I sped/And shot, precipitated/Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears/From those strong Feet that followed, followed after/But with unhurrying chase/And unperturbèd pace/Deliberate speed, majestic instancy/They beat—and a Voice beat/More instant than the Feet/’All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’” We poor sinners try to evade God, as though he were a hostile, sinister force. Of course we cannot escape his grace, yet we run even to the point of exhaustion, until every effort on our part ends in futility. Ironically, we have only outsmarted ourselves; the real enemy is thinking that exaltation of the self is a worthy substitute for the love of God. When the last vestige of ego is finally wrested away from us, only then do we recognize that the intention of God is compassionate, that the final word is…gracious.
The Catholic mystical tradition uses a Latin expression that captures the attitude of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets at Jacob’s Well: Quaerens me sedisti lassus. (“Seeking me, you sat down tired.”) To any casual observer the woman, not Jesus, is the active party, the one serving the needs of the other. In reality, Jesus places himself in a position of need, whereby he can enter her soul, and unleash within it the torrent of divine grace. Fr. Balthasar remarks that each of us is that woman: “I put myself beside the woman at the well and enter into her role. I seek refreshment, grope for a response, I am pierced by Word, I confess my sin.” We think that we are the ones who make the effort to seek the Lord, to atone for the damage we’ve done, in effect…to bring about our own salvation. In truth, “we don’t listen where (God) speaks: his Word that rang out in the world.” Even the desire for holiness is the effect of grace acting upon the heart. The only question is whether we will cooperate with it, and allow Christ to reveal to us what is truest, deepest, and noblest within ourselves.
Today’s cover art is “Christ and the Woman of Samaria” (1619-20) by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, who was active in Rome and Bologna. His dramatic use of chiaroscuro (light and shadow) and subtle facial expressions, stemming perhaps from his own vision problems and efforts to compensate for them, have led commentators to draw comparison between Barbieri’s style and that of Caravaggio. The High Museum of Art explains that the artist painted several versions of the scene at Jacob’s Well, given the story’s relevance during the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation. While engaging and respectful, Jesus insists to the woman that “after all, salvation is from the Jews.” (Samaritan faith and worship were, from the perspective of the Jews, flawed.) The idea is that God lovingly calls the wayward back to him. One aspect of the painting strikes me: the compelling way Jesus and the woman look at each other. Jesus seems to be looking past her eyes and into her soul. She, in turn, seems captivated by the Lord, as though for the first time someone were really paying attention to her. She summons her neighbors with the testimony: “He told me everything I ever did.”