What a question! It is certainly akin to what salvation is. Yet Jesus explicitly defines it in John 17:1-3:
Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you;
and, through the power over all mankind (literally ‘all flesh’) that you have given him,
let him give eternal life to all those you have entrusted to him.
And eternal life is this; to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.(NRSV)
Can we really know God and Jesus? Seems like a stretch, but that’s what the passage says!
About 30 years ago I was invited to attend a Cursillo, a three day experiential retreat put on by the Episcopal Church. It was to be held at the Mission San Miguel, a classic old Spanish mission about three hours north of my home in Ventura County, California. I drove up on a Thursday evening with Joe Donnelly, my sponsor and a man I hardly knew. As we drove, I lamented on a real estate loss I had incurred through a recent move to the Ventura County area. That is where my head was as we drove north.
The retreat consisted of about 30 Cursillistas and 30 of us candidates. The clergyman leading the retreat was a protestant pastor; he immediately set the tone for the weekend by quoting John 17:1-3. We were called on this weekend to come to know something of the mind of God, and he pointed out that “know” was the same as the word used in Genesis 4:1, translated in the NRSV to “intercourse.” Hmmm! Intimate indeed. We sat at tables of 12 and listened to addresses by our hosts, talks that were very frank, honest, and emotional. Looking back on it, his challenge to come to know God and Jesus, in combination with the setting of the Cursillo, opened up an entirely new vista in my spiritual life. In essence, it introduced me to the possibility of knowing him. In this short weekend I was transported from knowing all about someone (I knew the Scriptures by heart) to the idea of actually encountering him. In retrospect, it had only dimly occurred to me before. A world of difference!
The process made me acutely aware of all my conflicts and egocentrisms-my sins, and my guides graciously heard my confessions. But one last obstacle remained: if I was to know him, I had to abandon those egocentrisms and risk giving myself over to him. The solution was to say simply, “Thy will be done, one day at a time!” I came away from that retreat with a wholly different attitude toward life. God was no longer words on a page, or rituals to be performed, or some taskmaster to be feared, or a judge weighing my actions, but my friend! My pique over my real estate loses faded to nothing.
So how do we come to know God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? After all, they are spirits. We come to know God in our hearts, through feel, through emotion, and through imagination. It is, after all, how we ultimately come to know each other. Recall I am a psychiatrist. The present hot topic in psychiatry and psychotherapy is mentalization, the capacity and process of tuning into another person’s mind, listening with abandon, grasping his mental states, his positions, his intents, without judgement, setting aside all the oughts and shoulds that I can think of for him, simply appreciating him as he is. Mentalization is seeing the other person from the inside and myself from the outside. It takes effort: the default mode of thinking and relating is egocentrism. So here is how we can practice mentalizing the mind of the Father and Jesus, so that we can progressively come to know him:
- We come to know him in worship, in the breaking of the bread.
- We can hear him with the receptors of our hearts through music.
- We can grasp his mind as we pray; prayer is definitely a mind-to-mind exercise.
- We can encounter him as we pour over the Scriptures.
- We can know him through service: “In as much as your have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.”
- We can know him through community: “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”
Ask for the ability to mentalize. It is, after all, the essence of love.