Early in my Jesuit life, I would often think about the person I wanted to become, the person I hoped to be one day. Most of us have an image, even if it is an unconscious one, of the person we are meant to be: our true self, our best self. For some time I had thought about that person: independent, confident, loving, charitable, and not concerned about people’s approval of what I was doing. In a word, free.
During my annual retreat one year, I mentioned all this to my retreat director, who recommended that I pray with the story of the Raising of Lazarus.
That evening, I’d had a revealing dream: I met my best self, who I recognized instantly, in a dream that was so vivid, so beautiful, and so obvious that it woke me up. Now I don’t put stock in every dream, but sometimes, as in Scripture, dreams can be a privileged place where our consciousness relaxes and God is able to show us something in a fresh way. In my dream, my best self, oddly, looked like me but wasn’t me. My double seemed looser, easier, more relaxed; he even dressed in a more relaxed way!
I knew the direction I needed to travel to become a better person. But I was afraid of letting things go—a need to be liked, a propensity to focus on the negative, a desire to control things. It is precisely those kinds of unhealthy patterns, unendurable yet seemingly ineradicable, which need to die, which need to be left in the tomb. From time to time, we need to ask, “What part of me needs to die?” For me, Lazarus’s tomb became the place to leave behind whatever I no longer needed, whatever kept me from new life.
For another person, what needs to die may be entirely different—an attitude of pride, a constant desire to be right, an inability to forgive, an overly cynical attitude towards life, a hatred of a particular person, anything that keeps someone from a full life.
As I prayed about Lazarus’s tomb, I also imagined hearing Jesus’s voice calling to other parts of me as well, those parts that desired new life, parts still open to the possibility of greater freedom. Some parts of us must die; other parts need to be revived. Some aspects of our lives that are like dormant seeds, awaiting the sunshine of God’s life-giving word. Maybe I’ve closed myself off to new relationships. Or I’ve decided not to look for love in my family. Or I’ve given up on finding a church that will nourish me. Sometimes the dead parts of ourselves are not meant to be dead.
But in order to experience new life I have to listen for God—just as Lazarus did.
Often it seems that those dead parts are completely beyond the reach of God. That’s probably how it seemed to Martha and Mary. Lazarus was dead. You can’t get any deader than being in a tomb for four days and beginning to stink. Some Jews of the time believed that the soul hovered around the body for three days, so Lazarus is meant to be seen in John’s Gospel as dead in every conceivable way.
But God’s word can awaken anything.
On that retreat, I found it easy to imagine myself in the tomb—as Lazarus. Jesus placed his hand on the cold, dark, damp opening of the tomb, and spoke to me in a whisper, the softest imaginable. It was a gentle sound, an inviting voice calling to the parts of me that wanted to live. In such tender ways does God speak to us.
Sometimes, however, God needs to speak more loudly. That’s one way to look at Jesus’s speaking in a “loud voice” in the story. God may need to get our attention—in a very blunt comment from a friend that provides the right solution in a crisis, in an intense prayer experience that floods us with peace, in a Bible passage that hits us like a thunderclap, or in a homily that seems tailor-made for us—so that the dead part of us can hear.
Excerpts from “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” by James Martin, S.J.