For some reason this morning I decided to tackle a very big subject – knowing God. Because sometimes we might feel that God is very big or very far away or not very knowable. But we hear from the Second Letter of St Peter that through Jesus we have been given “all the things we need… [for] us to know God himself.” Isn’t that something wonderful – to be able to know God himself!
I’m reminded of the story told by a Grey Friar from Brooklyn while preaching in my home town of Wexford. He is a larger than life New Yorker now working with the underprivileged in Moyross. Back when he was studying in the seminary he undertook some missionary work during the summer break. He went into the mountains of New York State to assist a bachelor living alone in a rundown cabin. The man was a remnant of the old mountain men of America. He had his rundown cabin and not much else and lived on what the land provided him.
But when the young friar-in-training arrived he encountered one of the happiest men he had ever met. After working many days repairing the man’s porch he plucked up the courage to ask him how he was so happy given the conditions he was living in. And the man answered “Because I know Jesus!” Now the young seminarian thought to himself “well hold on a minute, I know Jesus too!” and set about telling the old man how he studied the bible and had taken all kinds of different theology courses. But he had to admit that didn’t have the same joy that this humble mountain man had. And after listening to him at length, the old man said to him: “Son, you know about Jesus, but you don’t know Jesus!”
Isn’t this a little like Jesus’ rebuke of Philip in the Gospel where he said: ‘Have I been with you all this time Philip and you still do not know me/’? Where he says: “Have I been with you all this time Philip, and you still do not know me?” But of course he gives Philip and us the key to unlocking the mystery. When we truly meet Jesus, when we encounter him with all our heart, that’s when we know God. As he tells us: “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”
A bit like my Grey Friar’s story, I knew a young man in Wexford who had multiple sclerosis (MS). I would see him at mass every week up until he could no longer leave his house owing to his illness. But no matter how much pain he was in; no matter how difficult it became for him to get around; he always had a smile on his face and was always willing to help anyone who asked. One day I overheard someone asking him in the church: “John, how come you always have a smile on your face?” And he answered, pointing towards the tabernacle: “If you knew who I know, you’d be smiling too.” And off he went on his crutches. Now that’s certainly a man who knew Jesus; a man who truly believed in God. Sadly, he died a little while after that but his words always stayed with me.
I’m reminded of the wise words of J.I. Packer, the English theologian, who wrote a book called “Knowing God” that “once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.” So as Jesus says to us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He has shown us the Father; he has shown us the way. And despite whatever adversity may come our way, like the young man John I mentioned, smile for the friend you know, the One who has prepared the way for you.
Neil Foley lives near Wexford Town in the Diocese of Ferns where he is involved in several prayer and music ministries. His latest collaborations are on the Hook of Faith digital evangelisation project and with The Mustard Seeds contemporary worship group, both of which can be followed on Facebook. He is married to Helen, has a Certificate in Pastoral Theology and works as an environmental scientist. This article was originally provided as a talk at a Redemptorist Novena.