Christian life anchors itself in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Discipleship has been the hallmark of the committed Christian, inspired by the words of Jesus, "Follow me." Almost 2,000 years later and millions of committed followers, the good news of Jesus is still like seed on rocky ground. The winds blow and the seed is scattered.
After many years in religious life, I have begun to wonder if following Jesus is the whole story and if this, indeed, is the mark of religious life. There are two reasons for confessing this wonder. The first is based on the Gospels. The call to follow Jesus is found in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus feeds the hungry, cures the sick, heals the leper and raises the dead to life. These Gospels have been foundational for the work of religious men and women who founded hospitals, orphanages and social welfare programs.
Yet the Gospel of Luke seems to presage what will be explicit in the Gospel of John, namely, life in the Spirit is the core meaning of discipleship. Luke expounds this meaning in the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Martha is the house frau who worries about serving her guests while Mary sits close to Jesus attentive to his words. Martha laments the seeming laziness of her sister but Jesus commends Mary for "choosing the better part" (Luke 10:38-42). What is this "better part"? Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John: "If you make my words your home you will learn the truth and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31). He then goes on to say that he must depart so that the Spirit of truth, the advocate, may come into the hearts of all who believe. This Spirit of truth will not only reveal truth but will enkindle the pursuit of truth, enlighten the way of truth, set on fire the life of truth, so that all may come to see and believe that God is doing new things.
Obedience or listening attentively to the Spirit of truth flowing forth from the words of Jesus is at the heart of discipleship. We listen to these words not to follow them slavishly but to be set free and thus to live in the same Spirit of love as Jesus. We are asked not to repeat his works but to go beyond them, to do new things: "Whoever believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father" (John 14:12).
John's Gospel in particular shows that Jesus must depart in order for the Spirit to come: "Unless I go the Spirit cannot come" (John 16:7). We are constantly trying to make Jesus present over and over again, but Jesus says, "No, I must go." Jesus is not about making himself present but making God present in new ways, new relationships, new community. Jesus constantly points away from himself toward the Father and the in-breaking reign of God.
Here we might say are the roots of religious life — the radical following of Christ is acceptance of the Spirit into one's life — breathing in the newness of the Gospel so as to break forth in the newness of God's reign.
Years ago there was a scholarly discussion around the words sequela Christi in the writings of Francis of Assisi. Francis was considered an alter Christus; he made the Scriptures so much a part of his life that he seemed to be a second Christ. But when scholars turned to the writings of Francis, they found very little mention of Jesus in his writings; actually only in two or three places and in relation to God the Father. So the question was, "How could he resemble Christ so closely and never speak about him to any extent in his writings?"
Francis spoke often of the Spirit in his writings; in fact, the Spirit of the Lord dominates his letters, Rules and admonitions. For Francis, life in God was life in the Spirit and his deeply charismatic personality was magnetic. He was so attuned to the love of God speaking to him in worms, flowers, birds, lepers and noblemen that he was heart to heart with God wherever he went throughout the world. It was his deep attentiveness to God in every aspect of life that rendered his "living in the Spirit" a true following of Christ. Love shapes who we are and what we become. The face of Christ emerges from living in the spirit of unitive love.
To follow Christ requires self-emptying, a continual letting go and inner flow in surrender to God's loving embrace. This letting go and flowing into God is God breathing new life in us; it is living in the Spirit of God's entangled love. Out of this shared energy of love flows the life of Christ. In other words, we do not so much follow Christ as the life of Christ flows from us, as we become united to the Spirit of love, drawn ever more deeply into the mystery of God. This Spirit of truth, light and newness of life encourages and enkindles us to do new things. Those who have made a radical difference in the world, such as Martin Luther King or Dorothy Day, have lived deeply in the Spirit of prayerful union in love.
Is religious life today grounded in the Spirit of new life or has it become overly complacent? I am well aware of the many good works religious women and men have undertaken, works that have helped the poor, the homeless, the environment, those in prison and those who live in darkness. But the structural core of religious communities has become too corporate and institutional and this structure has afforded a domestication of the Gospel life.
To live in a radical commitment to the Spirit is to live in the anxiety of the now; the moment of in-breaking future; to live poised for the next moment of divine surprise. It is understandable that communities strive to care for their members but the institutionalization of such care, and the excellent care which many communities provide, has rendered many members self-indulgent and naïve to the real daily struggles of millions of people. Is this really a radical commitment to Gospel life?
Our world needs committed Christians who drink from the well of the Spirit. When religious men and women become comfortably centered in their private lives, when their anxieties are centered only on themselves and their needs, then one must question the purpose of such a life. What is this religious life existing for? Whom is it existing for? Whether wearing a habit or no habit, or living in community or apart from community, the religious person today is the one who lives on the edge of the uncomfortable, the uncertain, the unknown, the chaotic, nurturing interiorly a deep wellspring of divine love which embraces and encourages us to breathe new life into a world struggling for life. The irony of Christian life is that action is not primary; rather, it is being attentive to the Spirit so that every moment is lived in the self-surrender of love.
Jesus assures us that the Spirit is God's deep abiding presence. God breathes through us as life steps into the future. In his final appearance Jesus asked his disciples to "go" into the world and "announce" the Good News. Go to places you have never gone before, say things that are unthinkable, do not fear, for the One who is with you has already gone before you.
The Gospels are the spiritual counterpart of the Big Bang — inviting us to be part of God's magnificent work of creating and loving the world into something new. We do not "follow Jesus" to do the same things Jesus did; rather we listen to Jesus and breathe in his words of life as we breathe out new life in a world struggling for more life, more justice and more unity in love. To love is to create, and to create is to imagine the new. In the words of Francis of Assisi, "let us begin anew."
[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of 16 books and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe. Her newest book is Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness (Orbis Books 2015).]