There is a tradition, for young men who want to become Benedictine monks, to go to the monastery they want to join and to knock on the front door. A monk inside answers the door and asks him, “What do you seek?” If the young man responds, “Peace and quiet,” or, “I just want to get away from it all” – wrong answer! He doesn’t get to enter. There is a correct answer to this question. Which if you listen carefully, you will learn.
This is in essence the same question that Jesus asks the two disciples of John the Baptist who decide to follow Jesus in our Gospel reading. John the Baptist has been priming his disciples for the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one of God, and so when he sees Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” two of these disciples start to follow Jesus, who then turns to them and asks, “What are you looking for?” The first words Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel. The two disciples – Andrew and, as tradition has it, John the author of this Gospel – answer him by asking, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” In essence, they are saying they want to follow Jesus – they want to stay with him, become his disciples, and learn from him.
Jesus asks each one of us this question: “What are you looking for?” What are you seeking? What do you want out of life? So how do we answer that question? To answer it, we first have to give some thought. And I think it’s very easy to not give it any thought, to just ignore it. We have plenty of ways to distract ourselves: all kinds of ways to entertain ourselves, all kinds of busy work and errands to do, money to be made, etc. But even if we don’t consciously entertain this question Jesus poses to us, it’s present to each one of us, at the very least in the back of our minds. And how we live our lives reveals how we would truthfully answer it.
This question – what are you looking for – is percolating in our minds either consciously or unconsciously because we are human beings. We are rational beings, not single-cell organisms that just grow and eventually die, fulfilling their role in the food chain and nothing more. It’s in our very DNA as humans to seek and pursue something. Even the most inert couch potato is pursuing something – probably a life of ease and comfort, the path of least possible resistance. However, this path – which I think has unfortunately become fairly common in rich societies – is essentially the wrong answer to the question Jesus is asking. And, like the question asked at the Benedictine monastery of the potential candidate, there is a right answer.
We live in a very individualistic and relativistic society. In other words, the individual decides what is right and wrong, what is true and false. Our individualistic and relativistic society would say that there is no wrong answer to the question, “What are you looking for?” However you answer it, that is what is right for you, would be the response. But clearly society cannot function very well when everyone operates under that belief. Nor does this lead to true personal happiness and fulfillment. That is why I say that there is a right – and a wrong – answer to Jesus’ question.
So what are we looking for? Perhaps we would answer: safety and prosperity. After the last 12 months of what has happened in our country (and around the world), safety and prosperity are especially appealing. But for how many has safety become the greatest good? I think it is interesting to note that of all the major economies in the world, the only one that grew in 2020 was China’s. With the exception of a recent lockdown around Beijing, it is my understanding that China has essentially returned to normal following the outbreak of the pandemic. Everything is open; crowds gather again. Of course, we can’t trust the numbers given to us by the Chinese Communist Party, but it does seem that they have done much better than most countries in controlling Covid. But at what cost? China is not a free society and does not have a democratically elected government. The Communist party rules by decree and by force. They have concentration camps for ethnic minorities and political dissidents. The government surveils their people in virtually everything they do. It controls the media and decides what news gets reported and how it gets reported. Or what news gets made up and reported. They do not have freedom of the press or freedom of religion. When they institute a lockdown, people can literally be locked into their homes for as long as necessary. But they have essentially succeeded in stopping Covid. As a writer named Rusty Reno said recently, “I see in 21st century China a perverse version of the West: the promise of wealth and security in exchange for submission to technocratic control.” But how many people would accept this in return for the promise of safety and prosperity?
But safety and prosperity and just two possible answers to Jesus’ question. There are certainly others: power and prestige being two of the more particularly alluring responses. However we might answer this question though, how we answer this is revealed in how we live our lives. It is found in those things that we spend the most time pursuing. It is found in the desires of our hearts.
Please don’t mistake me: safety and prosperity are good things, especially as opposed to constant danger and financial misery. Who doesn’t desire them? Although power and prestige unfortunately tend to corrupt, they can be used for good. There is even nothing wrong with spending some time – a little bit of time – being a couch potato and watching a movie or something. But what drives us? What are the deepest desires of our hearts? What is to us the greatest good? What are we looking for?
The only answer that will truly satisfy us is: God Himself. God created us that way, to have this inborn desire for Him, to only be satisfied by Him. Each human being – each one of us – has infinite desires, or rather a desire for the infinite. Only God, being infinite, can satisfy that desire. Everything else will fall short and leave us feeling empty. And when we give up everything for the sake of things like safety and prosperity, or power and prestige, the end result is that we no longer have what we’ve given up, and we don’t get the safety and prosperity, the power and the prestige anyway – or perhaps we do, but only for a little while. These things do not endure; they are little more than illusions. Only God who is Love itself endures. Only Love itself will never fail.
And none of these other things that we often spend so much time pursuing are truly worth it. None of those things are worth our souls. When the disciples asked Jesus, “Where are you staying,” he answered them, “Come, and you will see.” The Gospel tells us, “And they stayed with him.” Jesus is inviting each one of us to come stay with him, to abide with him. And abiding with him means spending time with him, in prayer everyday, and offering up our daily activities to him out of love. When we answer Jesus’ invitation, then and only then will we begin to experience the true fulfillment of our hearts’ deepest desires.