“You were within, and I was outside.
And there I sought after you.”
When he was a young man, Augustine invented a fable to describe the obstacles he faced in his search for truth. The fable is about Philocalia (love of beauty) and Philosofia (love of wisdom), which he describes as two sisters that fly through the sky seeking the object of their desires. Philocalia however becomes trapped in the beauty of physical things, which deform her and prevent her from flying. Philosofia alone can save her and carry her beyond the superficial attraction to the things of this world.
Who knows what we are truly seeking? Perhaps have also fallen into the trap of the things we sough. Perhaps we can no longer escape and need someone to come help us take flight again.
This passage from the Gospel of John speaks to us of people who are seeking. There is something about Jesus that attracts them. They aren’t yet sure what it is exactly, but they are following Him all the same.
They seek Jesus in Capernaum, which, in the Gospels, is often an abysmal place, a place of misery. When speaking of this event in the other Gospels, it is Jesus who goes in search of man in the misery of Capernaum, but John inverses this perspective: Jesus precedes us in these places and we find Him there. Jesus allows Himself to be found precisely where we experience failure and shame.
The people are amazed to find Jesus there and ask Him how He got there.
Here too, John helps us understand who Jesus is: He has crossed over to the other side of the sea. If the sea is the symbol of death, crossing the sea means overcoming death. Jesus reigns over the dangerous and treacherous waters of the sea. He who awaits us in the abysmal region of Capernaum is the Resurrection, the one who is victorious over death.
Thus arrives the moment when Jesus asks the fundamental question, the one we must answer in order to grow in our relationship with Him: why do we seek Him? What do we hope from Him?
Jesus invites us to reexamine the reasons for our faith, the reason that drive us along our spiritual path. We are often disappointed when we realize that we may have had hidden or ambiguous motives. Maybe we only bread or consolation or a bit of hope. And the risk is that we stop there, trapped like Philocalia, in the beautiful – yet partial and temporary – things. The risk is to live out our entire spiritual path seeking one more consolation and accusing God of hiding from us.
But bread is nothing more than the food necessary to confront the journey. The goal, the destination, is beyond. Jesus wants to guide us into a deeper relationship with Him. He wants to help us believe in Him and to recognize that there is no one else that can satisfy our longings. Everything else is temporary and partial.
Even if we don’t know it yet, even if we haven’t realized it, deep down what we seek is Jesus.
Augustine himself, at the beginning of the Confessions, offers us a splendid description of the obstacles we will run into on our journey:
Late have I loved you,
Beauty so ancient and so new,
late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong,
You were with me but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being
were they not in you.
When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. And when they found him across the sea they said to him,
“Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered them and said,
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.” So they said to him,
“What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
So they said to him,
“What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?
What can you do?
Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written:
He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”
So Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
So they said to him,
“Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them,
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
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