The Idea of a Way
In Chapter 14 of the Gospel of John, known as The Last Discourse, Jesus tells the apostles He is going before them to prepare a place for them and will come back to take them there. Then He says, “You know the way that leads where I go” (John 14:4). Thomas brings up an important point, “Lord…we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus responds: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). There is a great deal to ponder in this short statement, much of it centering on the relationship between the three terms. Truth and life, as they appear in the sentence, are metonymies which directly refer to Christ. But how does the way relate to them? That is the subject of this article and I would like to propose a different way of thinking about the issue.
The Greek Fathers, Ambrose and Leo the Great among them, see the way and the truth leading to the ultimate goal, eternal life in Heaven. Latin Fathers, including Saint Augustine, say the way leads to the truth and the life. Aquinas says Christ is the way in his humanity, but the truth and the life in his divinity. Other exegetes think of the way in this passage as a path or route which will lead us to the truth and the life.
There is another sense in which the ancients understood the term “way”: It is an all-encompassing mode of living in harmony with something beyond one’s self. We read about it in the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of the “way of truth,” and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, wherein the members of the Qumran community refer to themselves as “those who have chosen the way.”
There is an even deeper understanding of the idea of a way. It comes from oriental cultures and is not widely known in the West. As a matter of fact, they have a whole religion named after it: The word “Tao,” as in Taoism, means “The Way.”
In this understanding, a way is not a route to a destination. Rather is a set of disciplines which, if practiced faithfully throughout life, lead to the fulfillment of one’s specifically human potentiality. In oriental philosophy, a Tao is usually associated with a specific practice such as the tea ceremony or calligraphy. It is this understanding I would apply to the idea of adopting the “Way of Christ” as the focus of our entire lives.
Start with Our A Priori Assumptions
Any movement in life starts out with a set of beginning assumptions which undergird everything that follows. In the case at hand, what might be the assumptions which undergird the Way of Christ?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers paragraphs of theological argument on why God created us and our world. For my money, the best answer comes from the Baltimore Catechism: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”
In the same vein, I am sure many of us have heard spiritual leaders say, “Your life is not about you.”
If we accept these premises, the only thing that makes sense for a Catholic man or woman is to adopt Christ as a “Way” in the oriental sense.
The Way of Christ in What We Do
Saint Paul exhorts us to pray always. How does anyone leading a modern life do that? The answer is simple: You don’t need to be in church all day fingering your rosary beads or meditating on scripture. Just make everything you do a prayer.
Readers who attended Catholic schools in my era (the 1950s—boy am I old!) might remember a thing called the Morning Offering. Sister would have us recite this before beginning the school work of the day. It is hard to imagine taking Sister Catherine’s math test could be a prayer, but that was, and still is, the idea.
Similarly, who could think changing a diaper or analyzing a spreadsheet could be prayer? But it can be so. A couple of years ago, a man named Tony Hendra wrote a book titled Father Joe, the Man Who Saved My Soul. Hendra tells of the many conversations he had with Dom Joseph Warrilow, OSB of the Abbey of Quarr on the Isle of Wight. One day Tony asks Father Joe about the Benedictine motto laborare est orare, to work is to pray. “What does that mean?” Tony asks, “How do you do it?” Fr. Joe replies with these wonderful lines of found poetry:
“Laborare est orare doesn’t mean
we actually mumble prayers while
The work itself is prayer.
Work done as well as possible.
Work done for others first and yourself second.
Work you are thankful for.
Work you enjoy, that uplifts you.
Work that celebrates existence, whether
it’s growing grain in the fields or using
All this is prayer that binds us
together and therefore to God.”
That’s it. Anything we do can be a prayer if we make it so and if we do it in the right spirit. Simple, not complicated. Really, you just have to remember to do it.
The Way of Christ in the Conduct of Life
The follower of the Way of Christ is daily faced with decisions which touch on relationships with others. We see this type of issue addressed many times in Christ’s parables: “How many times must I forgive my brother?” (Matthew 21:35) “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-37) “Tell my brother to give me my share of our inheritance.” (Luke 12:13) In every case, Christ calls the interlocutor to go way beyond legalistic definitions toward a hold-back-nothing approach to relationship. It is laid out formally, in detail, in the Sermon on the Mount. This passage, with its eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), is probably the most revolutionary of all Christ’s teachings. Joe Bissonnette, writing in Crisis Magazine, has said “The Beatitudes are forever now, radical and mind blowing. Every natural instinct is inverted and its very opposite is held up as the path to blessedness.”
To get a sense of how Bissonnette’s assessment plays out in our time consider this juxtaposition: John Lennon’s song Imagine tells us to imagine how great it would be if there was no God, no heaven, no religion. There would be no war, nothing to fight about, everybody would get along nicely and be happy doing their own thing. I never liked the song or the idea. Without some restraints on our worst instincts, people inevitably end up creating misery and destruction. (Lennon apparently never knew much about original sin.) Nonetheless, people love the song and its sentiment and sing it with almost religious fervor. (Pun intended.)
As a counter to that type of thinking, how about we imagine this: A world where people strive to be poor in spirit; where people accept mourning as a natural part of life; where people are meek rather than dominance-seeking; where they strive for justice; where mercy is the rule; where purity of heart is a cherished value; where all are peacemakers; where all accept persecution without complaint as simply the cost of following the Way of Christ.
I have often said if everyone followed the Beatitudes, we would actually have Heaven on earth. Mahatma Gandhi called the Sermon on the Mount the greatest spiritual teaching ever. Then followed it with the remark, “Too bad nobody follows it.”
Aye, there’s the rub. As Bissonnette says, the Sermon on the Mount upends everything we believe by instinct. It is counter-intuitive, demanding, calls us to take risks, and do many things we would not ordinarily like to do. Yet, that is the Way of Christ. No disrespect to John Lennon and his followers, but I think Christ has the better idea.
Adopting the Way of Christ for Our Lives–Implications
Adopting the way of Christ for our lives is a total immersion experience. It starts with our beginning assumptions about the purpose of our life and therefrom infuses everything we do, every aspect of our relations with others and all our moral decision making.
The Way of Christ is more than a path or route to a destination, although the analogy has great value in helping us envision what Jesus intended when He said it. It is a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of imagining, a way of breathing, a way of happiness and harmony, a way of expressing faith in the Truth and the Life.
One of my favorite sayings of Jesus is “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and they know me” (John 10:14). In other words, He who reads hearts knows those who love Him instinctively without words being spoken. With this in mind, perhaps we should think of the line from John 14:6 this way: Rather than imagine we are trudging a path or a road to the Truth and the Life, simply adopt the Way of Christ for our lives and the Truth and the Life will find us.