Faith and the walk to Emmaus, a reflection

With the help of Google, I've just been re-living an experience of schooldays long ago...

It was a Holy Year and our school laid on an overland pilgrimage to Rome. It was just a few years after the War and for most of us it was the first sight of Europe beyond Dover. After 3 days in the scenic heart of Switzerland our train headed south. We were crowding to the window to take in the magnificent scenery.... and then sheer darkness! We had entered the old St Gotthard tunnel, seemingly endless. As we eventually emerged into sunlight this surely must be Italy with cupolas, gondolas...! And then someone pointed to a distinctive distant church; but hadn't we already seen it? Indeed, it was the same scene - but different.  This was a spiral tunnel piercing the Alps. For a railway, the gradient had to be very gradual, hence the need to spiral. So, yes, it was the same church but seen now from much higher up. On the two dimensions of a map, we had not made any progress at all, and Italy was still hours away. But now with the added height we could head towards the sun: truly it was progress!

For this schoolboy the symbols of the Faith were the same in Rome as in England... and yet different: after papal Mass in the packed Basilica a new dimension was added to the experience of Mass at home - even on a dull humdrum day!  It was an instalment of our lifelong process of re-viewing and relishing the Faith – and growing in faith.  And many a time that spiral has flitted back into memory.  Growth in depth may sometimes seem like plunging into darkness, and with a pandemic and its effects enticing us into despair. The sun has not gone away but certainly hidden itself.... pending our perception of another dimension.

These thoughts re-surface with Holy Week and Easter, especially as we read the Emmaus narrative. “Wasn't it essential for the Messiah to suffer this and so enter into his glory?” 1

Let's look at Luke’s Emmaus narrative (in chapter 24) in the light of faith, and at our faith in the light of that story.  

No doubt Jesus could have revealed his wounds to the two disciples and convinced them in one minute.  But no, he chooses to accompany them on a journey – as he chooses to accompany us on a journey – our life's journey in faith.  The Journey transforms them, the Journey transforms us.

They’ve already heard rumours of an empty tomb… but it doesn’t fit their pre-conceptions.  What doesn’t fit our pre-conceptions isn’t really heard - we don’t take it in. So, Jesus takes time.  He is patient. On our side we too need patience. 

They are fed up, discouraged, as sometimes we feel discouraged, and when we look around us the whole world seems to be discouraged and discouraging. They are getting out of the City without delay.  It seems they they have made the mistake of taking a decision while desolate.  And they are making matters worse by loading each one’s desolation on to the others.  

Faith must bring together our deepest hopes and the awkward reality of our life as we actually experience it.  So, Jesus invites them to open up. He is beginning with their story, not with his instruction:  what has been their recent experience? and he makes the same invitation to us.  They must have felt, "But it’s worse than anything you could imagine". Even so, he says, let’s hear it.

Then, through the Scriptures he brings their experience into contact with what deep down they most desire. And, significantly, he does this not by telling them anything new but by reminding them of what, as good Jews, they already know: the scriptures that since childhood have become part of them. We are tempted to think, if only I could meet the right person, read the brilliant book, visit the magical place… that would do the trick! I could really believe! But in reality, we have within us enough already, thank God (whose Spirit is at hand). 

Their faith comes alive as they listen to him… because it’s not so much knowledge about:  it’s living faith in the living Person of Christ, who is concerned for them.  Their journey had begun with reminiscence - memory of the past, over and done with: they speak with reverence of this “prophet”, what he said, what he did, but it is in the past. Now it explodes into faith, relationship with a Person, present - now. Their hearts began to “burn within them”. 

You’d expect that they’d recognise him… and that would compel their belief: “Now that we’ve seen, we have to believe”. No! It's the other way round: He brings them gently to believe – and then they can recognize his presence. And so, it is with us. No magic! but patient deepening of faith, and we come to realise that he was there, with us, all along. And it has been remarked that it’s when they treat a stranger as one would like to treat Christ (“they pressed him to stay with them”) that they are ready to realise that it is Christ!  

Now, in faith, their instinct is to share: to share their meal with him … and after that?  He vanishes from their eyes - they no longer need to see him as they carry his presence in their hearts - so they rush off, back to the City, to share with the others that The Lord is Risen! Faith wants to share - we may not know how to do this but the wanting is significant. 

So, to sum up what Emmaus shows us. Faith isn't so much believing a lot of facts - that can follow; it's above all relating to Christ, person to person. He deepens his relationship with us as we reflect on the scriptures and on life, as we sincerely share our experience with him and each other; as we patiently listen to him and each other.  

And as they recognised him "in the breaking of bread", so may we. When Luke wrote that Gospel passage he was saying to the Christians of his time: this is how you meet Christ and deepen your friendship with him – especially when you meet for the Eucharist: you become more one with him and more one with each other 2. In effect it concludes with, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” - to which our response is “Thanks be to God”. Yes, Lord, with your Spirit guiding us, we’ll try. Every one of us is an apostle.    

If the two travellers had not met Christ that day, or had brushed his concern aside, and had continued their journey without ever knowing that the Lord was risen, life might have been easier: nobody would have persecuted or molested them; more likely they would be respected for their interesting reminiscences of a certain prophet mighty in word and deed. Faith does not guarantee that we shall be in for a pleasanter time; what it does is to assure us that, come what may, “I will be with you always, to the end of time”.

Actually, that old St Gotthard tunnel (there is a newer one now) is not just a spiral, it's a succession of spirals. And faith is a kind of succession of spirals, for some people including rejection, despair, eventually stumbling back on to the path that is Christ; for others more of a gentle gradient - growth by instalments but hardly ever without something of the pain and stretching of growth.

 1. Nicholas King translation

2   I am not presuming the answer to the question, was this an actual celebration of the Eucharist? Scripture scholars discuss this at length.

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The Ignatian Exercises reflect much of the lesson of the Emmaus passage.  

A lot of the time Ignatius is suggesting where the focus should be but implicit in his text is that those making the Exercises must start “where they are”.

Jesus’ patient, sensitive accompaniment of the travellers is a model for a retreat. “If the giver of the Exercises sees that the exercitant is desolate and tempted, it is important not to be hard or curt with such a person but gentle and kind, to give courage and strength for the future, to lay bare the tricks of the enemy of human nature, and to encourage the exercitant to prepare and make ready for the consolation which is to come” [para 7]. When we come to the Resurrection we are to “look at the office of consoler, which Christ our Lord fulfils, and to compare it with the way friends are accustomed to console one another” [para 224]

Cleophas and his travelling companion (his wife?) begin their morning journey in gloomy introspection but by sunset they are hurrying out to proclaim the Resurrection. The Exercises are sometimes dismissed as “inward-looking”. They are, but equally they stimulate Christian commitment. In an early exercise “turning to myself, I will ask, ‘What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?’” [para 53]. Later we “consider how the Lord of all the world chooses so many persons, apostles, disciples etc., and sends them out over the whole world to spread his sacred doctrine among people of every state and condition” [para 145].

One possible characteristic of spiritual consolation noted by Ignatius is “when any interior movement is produced in the soul which leads her to become inflamed with the love of her Creator and Lord…” para [316]: echo perhaps of “Did not our hearts burn within us..?” The next paragraph considers “disquiet arising from various agitations and temptations”: something Cleophas could illustrate from the morning hours of that Easter Sunday.  Para [318] could warn him, “In time of desolation, one should never make any change but stand firm and constant in the resolutions and decision by which one was guided the day before the desolation or during the preceding time of consolation”. Stay put in the Jerusalem community, Cleophas, until the desolation lifts! (Admittedly, if they had stayed in Jerusalem we would have been deprived of this precious account). Ignatius, recalling his own painful experience remarks [326] that it is prudent to confide one’s struggle to some wise person: as our travellers would surely agree when looking back on their experience. Looking back on our experience - of folly as well as of joy - is a practice central to Ignatian spirituality.