Image: The Travel of the Virgin & St. John to Ephesus, Germán Hernández Amores [Public Domain]
December 27th is the feast of St John the Evangelist, one of the apostles most intimately involved in Jesus’ ministry. He was one of the privileged few to witness the Transfiguration and the raising of the dead daughter of Jairus. He was sent by Christ, along with Peter, to help prepare the Passover and was one of the three disciples who were supposed to keep watch while Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. And John was the only apostle who remained with Christ during his crucifixion.
Beloved disciple, hidden life
St. John, along with St. Peter, had a prominent role in the founding of the Church in Jerusalem. But as the Book of Acts continues, John is mentioned less as Paul and his missionary partners are mentioned more. However, Scripture tells us very clearly that, as he hung upon the cross, Christ entrusted the care of his mother to his beloved disciple (see John 19:26-27). Tradition tells us John live with the Blessed Virgin Mary for approximately a decade and a half, caring for her and treating her as his own mother.
Little is known of Mary and John’s life together, just as little is known of the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth. We see and hear about the Holy Family everywhere during this time of year—we have anxiously awaited the birth of the Christ child with Mary and Joseph throughout Advent, and we are now joyfully celebrating his nativity. However, the Bible mentions very little about the lives of Mary and Joseph apart from the nativity, and only about 10% of Christ’s life is captured in Scripture. But from these hidden lives came the redemption of mankind.
Likewise, John and the Blessed Mother shared a rich family life after the death of Christ—about which we know practically nothing. But this hidden life overflowed into John’s work in the Church in Asia Minor and into his writing (three Epistles and the Book of Revelation, in addition to his Gospel). This is the pattern Christ, his Blessed Mother, his adopted father, and his beloved disciple establish for us—their greatest contributions to the salvation of the world flowed from a hidden, interior life centered on God and family.
The source of our love
Dom Chautard, a French Trappist abbot, captures this idea more eloquently than I can in his book The Soul of the Apostolate:
“[C]onfessors, spiritual directors, preachers, catechists, professors must first of all assimilate the substance with which they are later to feed the children of the Church. Divine truth and love are the elements of this substance. But the interior life alone can transform divine truth and charity in us to a truly life-giving nourishment for others” (Chautard, pg 55).
While Dom Chautard’s statement is explicitly directed towards those who work for the Church, it applies to all of us since—in the words of St John—we should love one another (see 1 John 3:11, 3:23, 4:7, 4:11-12, 2 John 1:5, for example). Our good works, our apostolates, even our secular works should all be powered by grace that overflows from our inner life with our families (biological, spiritual, or otherwise). This family life, in turn, flows from our interior life with Christ. Our interior spiritual life is the foundation for all our activities.
The difficult work of the interior life
We are in the midst of the Christmas Octave, the eight day feast which starts with Christmas day and ends with the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God on January 1st. It is a time of great joy and celebration, and often great busyness. I have been blessed to always have the time between Christmas and New Year’s off, spending it with my family. It is a flurry of activity as we try to maximize our time together, and my prayer life tends to suffer—which always leads to a lack of generosity in my interactions with those around me. Dom Chautard, referring to the teaching of another Trappist, Dom Sebastian Wyart, offers a valuable insight into this tendency to neglect the interior life:
“Finally, there is the labor of the interior life. And [Dom Wyart] did not hesitate to declare that of the three [manual, intellectual, and spiritual labor], this kind, when it is taken seriously, is by far the most exacting… How many there are who can boast of great courage in the first two types of labor [manual and intellectual], which lead to wealth and fame, but who, when it comes to the effort to acquire virtue, are totally deficient in ambition, energy, or courage.” (Chautard, pg 29)
It is comforting to know that even learned monks recognize the taxing nature of spiritual labor. We shouldn’t be surprised that it is so tempting to find other things to do, leading to the neglect our interior life. But if we are not going to the fount of grace then we will have less to give to our families and to our apostolates.
We should certainly be feasting and rejoicing during this Christmas Octave, but we can’t be so distracted with the festivities that we neglect spending time with the Lord. Even during the busiest time of the year—perhaps especially during this time—we should model ourselves off the Holy Family and the beloved disciple, recognizing the infinite value in the hidden, interior life, the necessary origin of all our activities.