One of the major breakthroughs in human history is Greek philosophy. Perhaps to a degree not found elsewhere, especially with Plato and Aristotle, humanity develops a technical language for, and a detailed map of the terrain of, human consciousness. A very famous instance of this is Plato’s allegory of the cave, which some, or many, of you might know. If you have not come across it, it is well worth a read and definitely worth the time to ponder. I looked at it this week with some Year 9’s in a discussion on how education is basically religious.
Briefly, Plato’s allegory of the cave deals with the suffering and travails of education. Plato has Socrates describe humanity’s situation. We are locked in a cave watching shadows on a wall, shadows of things moving behind us that are illuminated by a fire. Socrates then describes the psychological experience of being freed, being forced to turn around and behold the fire. One is thereby forced both to confront the falsity of one’s situation up to now and to experience the pain of a brighter light. Socrates then has this person be dragged kicking and screaming out into the light. This means that the confusion and the pain grow as one’s sense of the world is turned upside down and the light just gets brighter and brighter. The freed prisoner gradually gets used to the light to such an extent that he realises what is real, what was going on in the cave, and how one relates to the other.
But Plato does not finish the story there. Plato has Socrates pose another question: what would happen if the freed cave-dweller wanted to free his brothers and sisters still trapped in the cave? He then describes the passage back into the cave, the experience of darkness overwhelming one, but now in a different way. One becomes weaker and more vulnerable because one is no longer used to the cave. Socrates describes how when this freed person arrives back at the cave-dwellers, this new weakness undermines the credibility of his story. In fact, his enfeebled state even tells against the effort of making the trek up out of the cave. Why would you bother trying if you are just going to end up so debilitated? Plato finishes the story by stating that the cave-dwellers end up killing the freed person because of all this.
In this allegory, Plato recounts the struggle that is education, both the suffering involved in real learning, and the real vulnerability that is involved in sharing the deep truths with those who do not know them. In fact, the very word education, in its Latin root, means “a leading out”, a leading out from close horizons to larger horizons, a leading out from hesitant steps to confident and joyful leaps, a leading out from necessity to freedom. The benefit of Plato’s picture, though, is that it understands that to be lead out, one needs a guide. And the life of a guide can be extremely precarious.
I find it impossible not to think about all this when I hear today’s gospel.
When we hear of the Greeks stating that they want to see Jesus, and Jesus declaring in response that his hour has come, not only is it impossible not to see his passion and death as the fulfilment of Greek philosophy’s picture of human development, but also we see what it missed. We see what only God could show us: the love that frees. The love that not only goes down into the cave, but also the love that accepts death as the cost of being with us, the love that alone sheds light in the darkness. The love that can cause us to wonder like the Good Thief, wonder about Jesus: why is he here? The love that can cause us, again like the Good Thief, to start to believe in what Jesus tells us about the kingdom of God, and to turn to him and ask him to take us with him.
We see in Christ the willingness to accept the weakness, the willingness to accept the humiliation, the willingness to accept the violence and death, if he can just be with us and so perhaps shed his light in our hearts. He really is the seed that is planted deep in the earth, the seed that must die; but the seed that thereby grows into the tree of life, to bear fruit in the soul of humanity. As we hear in today’s gospel, he knows what is coming, and he suffers it terribly. And yet he chooses it anyway for our sakes, and so illuminates our lives, and the whole of creation, with the fire of infinite suns.
And this is our call too.
We must allow ourselves to be dragged up into the light. We must suffer the pains of spiritual growth. As St Paul says, we must become grown-up children of God, for our brothers and sisters. Our hearts must grow to such an extent that we too can be planted back down into the world, deep down into suffering humanity. We must do this because our world, like the Greeks, desperately wants to see Jesus. It’s crying out for him, and for him alone. Our world doesn’t want to see its own phony solutions. And our world does not want to see our watered-down version of religion, or our personal selections from the Church’s teachings. Our world wants Jesus in all his glory, the way he gives himself to the Church. And the only way to him is the Cross.
Let’s pray for the grace to be real Christians, the most noble of all vocations.