Into the mystic with John: An interview with Demetrius Dumm, O.S.B.

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Article Scripture and Theology

You've taught scripture for virtually all of your adult life. What led you to devote your life to it?

When I was growing up, the Bible was not an honored book in our household. We kept it in the attic. My mother was convinced that reading the Bible had caused her uncle Gus to leave the church, so that was the end of that. Nothing in my early life moved me toward studying the Bible. I was chosen to study scripture when I made my vows in the monastery in 1943, and I was delighted.

When I came back to the monastery in 1952 after getting my degree, one of our scripture professors had died, and all the scripture classes were dumped on me-Old Testament, New Testament, everything. In retrospect it was a blessing. Many Bible scholars get much too narrow. It was providential that I was forced to study all parts of the scripture, because I was able to see the larger context. Eventually I moved into the New Testament, which I preferred.

Back when I was a student, I dreamed of going into my monastic cell and studying tomes and writing learned articles.

Then reality set in. But I must confess, teaching and preaching in parishes helped me to know what the questions are. So many scholars know the answers, but they haven't found the questions-they're answering questions people aren't asking. My pastoral work helped me see the Bible as a guide for people's lives that helps us deal with the real problems of life.

So how can the Gospel of John guide our lives and help us to deal with real problems?

The more I taught John's gospel, the more I realized how different it is from what we call the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Most commentaries on John are devoted to the historical-critical method. Although this scholarship is absolutely essential to lay the basis for an interpretation of John, you need to go farther than that.

Why?

The Gospel of John is powerfully symbolic and mystical. You need to get beyond those historical questions to appreciate the symbolism.

What do you mean when you call it "symbolic"?

Sandra Schneiders recently wrote a book on John's gospel in which she says we have a real problem with symbolism. We think that what is symbolic is not real. But symbolic is not opposed to real. Symbolic is opposed to meaningless. The symbolic takes human words, human persons, and human events and gives them wings so they can dare to talk about the divine-which, of course, is beyond human words.

Can you give an example?

My favorite Old Testament character is King David, who is both an historical and a symbolic figure. In order to bring out the symbolism, the Bible gives us Saul. I don't think Saul was as bad as he looks, nor do I think David was as good as he looks. But the Bible makes them bigger than life because the author wants us to see the contrast in the quality of David's faith and Saul's faith.

The symbolic is very close to the mystical, which goes beyond the everyday part of life. Mysticism finds the presence of God everywhere. It's like turning the slats on a venetian blind, and suddenly you see beyond the facade. I think the reason the Gospel of John is so different from the other gospels is that the beloved disciple was a great mystic. This led him and his community into a deeper appreciation of the life and ministry and death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Where can you find John's mystical perspective?

One classic example is the story of the raising of Lazarus-in which Lazarus, first of all, never gets a word in edgewise. I think Lazarus was Everyman, representing the problem of human mortality. The author wants to show us how Jesus handled this universal problem of mortality and grief.

The two principals are Martha and Mary. Martha is the one who clamors for reasons. She rushes out to meet Jesus and wonders why he didn't come sooner. She attacks the problem, attacks death. She's like most of us, asking, "Why did that have to happen? Why so soon?"

She tells Jesus, "I know my brother is going to rise up at the end of the world, but I'm worried about tomorrow." Jesus says, "I am the Resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, yet dies, shall live." Then he goes even farther, saying, "He who lives and believes in me shall never die," one of the most profound theological statements you'll find in any gospel.

Doesn't that satisfy Martha?

What Jesus says is important, but it's only a statement. It doesn't solve Martha's problem. Then Jesus says, "Do you believe this?"

Unfortunately, Martha gives the catechism answer. She should have answered,

"Yes, I believe," or at least " I hope so." But she says, "Yes I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world," almost like a memorized answer. So in response to a theological statement, she gives a theological answer, but ideas and thoughts don't solve the problem of death.

Then we come to Mary, who is sitting at home. There's something about Mary that makes Martha quiet down, and she whispers, "The master is asking for you."

Mary goes out to meet Jesus, and when he sees her weeping, he begins to weep. Then he says, "Where have you laid him?" Notice the reaction of Mary-totally different, not a theoretical reaction.

In response, the Greek text says, "He was deeply moved," but the verb is almost impossible to put into English. Its literal meaning is "to snort with rage like a horse." Jesus is angry and deeply moved at what death has done to his friend. Then he goes into action. He goes to the graveyard and calls Lazarus forth.

Why did Jesus respond so differently to Mary?

First of all, I think it was her vulnerability. She wasn't afraid to weep. And second, her trust. She knew Jesus was good, and she trusted in him. What does that tell us? That those two qualities are essential in our relationship with God. Those are mystical qualities.

I don't want to beat on Martha because "Mary has chosen the better part," but John's gospel does emphasize that contrast.

Why was the author so interested in contrasting the two approaches?

The community of the beloved disciple contrasted itself to the other Christian communities, which all had proper rituals, structure, authority, and orthodoxy but were lacking in Christian practice.

We humans need ritual, of course, but the danger is that people get so involved in the ritual they don't realize that its purpose is to lead us to experience. You can always have better music and better preaching, but when you go home you're the same person you were before you celebrated the ritual. There's no conversion. The ritual is dangerous in some ways. Better not to have it if you're not going to change your life.

This is what John's gospel offers in relation to the others, and that is why it is so precious. One scholar said that if it stood alone as the only gospel, it would have been declared heretical because of its focus on Jesus' divinity and its downplaying of his human nature. But it is balanced by the synoptic gospels and by the letters of John, which reinforce Jesus' humanity.

Who exactly is the beloved disciple?

Most of us assume it is the apostle John.We don't know who the beloved disciple is. The identity of that disciple is never mentioned, nor is John mentioned in this gospel. I do think the gospel comes from the community of the beloved disciple, but it's unlikely that disciple was the apostle John, brother of James.

Why not? Primarily because most of John's gospel takes place in Judea, and you can find subtle but telling indications that the beloved disciple lived in Judea. And, of course, John the apostle, brother of James, was from Galilee. So it's unlikely that John was the author.

How does the uniqueness of John's gospel show up in the Passion and Resurrection stories?

For one thing, the author takes the Eucharist out of the Last Supper. This is incredible, isn't it? And he replaces it with the foot-washing.

Why? Because the major problem with ritual religion is focused on the Eucharist, the ritual of all rituals. My interpretation is that the author of this gospel needed room to explain this adequately and so moved it elsewhere to give it more attention.

In some ways the foot-washing is almost more powerful than what Jesus does with the bread and wine, because foot-washing comes right out and explicitly states that what counts is serving others. As a matter of fact, I've often wondered if foot-washing could have become one of the sacraments.

I was at a foot-washing once, and the person who was to wash my feet was a Church of the Brethren minister, many of whom are not sympathetic to Catholic traditions, to say the least. As he was about to wash my feet, he looks up at me and says, "I never thought I'd wash the feet of a Catholic priest." Then I had to wash his feet as well. I'll tell you, it does something to you.

Peter doesn't like the foot-washing either, does he?

Imagine that Peter has been waiting and waiting to become a rabbi. The day before graduation, Jesus tells him, "We're going to change the rules. From now on, rabbis wash feet." Peter sensed what this meant-that this serving stuff was never going to end. And, of course, that's exactly what Jesus is saying: "You must be the servant of all, and you're never going to graduate from being a loving, caring person."

Peter is so attractive because he has no unpublished thoughts. When Jesus tells the apostles that the flock will be scattered, Peter says, "Well, I can't speak for the rest of these guys, but as for me, I will never abandon you." Jesus must have smiled, but he probably also liked to hear him say that. That same love that prompted Peter to exaggerate in the first place also prompted him to go to Jesus for forgiveness later on.

Aren't some of John's other Passion episodes very different as well?

In John there's no trial before Caiaphas. There's no agony in the garden. Jesus is captured in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he is totally in charge; the soldiers fall back before him. His divinity is clear.

What does this all mean? The community of the beloved disciple was being persecuted. They didn't need to hear about the human suffering of Jesus but about his divinity.

Then eventually we find Jesus before Pilate. When he and Pilate are talking about whether Jesus is a king, they're really talking about power, because Pilate understands power. Imagine, on the one hand you have Pilate, dressed like a king, probably wearing a crown, soldiers all around him, the power of the Roman empire behind him. And on the other side is Jesus, miserable, rejected, abandoned by his friends, turned over to this pagan by his own people. Who has power in this situation? It's pretty obvious.

But John says no, please understand what constitutes real power: being a loving, caring person in all circumstances of your life. Jesus showed his power by dying for others, but we weren't saved just because he died. We weren't even saved because he suffered. We were saved because he loved, and that involves suffering and sometimes death.

When we love, we die a little bit, long before we die. If you die to yourself enough, then real dying won't be a problem, just more of the same. But if you're always protecting yourself, always clinging, then it's going to be tough. Life will have to be torn out of your grasp.

Did Jesus die differently in John's gospel?

Even when he is on the cross, we read almost nothing about Jesus' suffering. He's thinking of the church, of the followers who are to come. We find at the foot of the cross the two great unnamed people in John's gospel. One is the beloved disciple, and the other is Mary, who throughout this gospel is never called "Mary," always "the mother of Jesus."

At Cana, he had told her, "My hour has not yet come." It was almost as if he was saying, "You are my physical mother, but you are not yet my mother in the fullest sense." But at the foot of the cross, where she is suffering with him, she becomes the mother of the church. That's why he calls her "Woman," because she is the new Eve. And the unknown, unnamed beloved disciple represents the church and is the model for all of us.

What about the role of another woman, Mary Magdalene, in John's Resurrection story?

That is another classic example of the mystical sensitivity of this gospel. In the synoptics, the women come to the tomb and are told by the angels that Jesus is risen. That doesn't happen in John. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and finds the angels there, who tell her nothing.

She meets Jesus in the garden and doesn't recognize him at first. Then he says to her, "Mary," and she realizes it is he.

The mystical connection with Jesus does not require an intermediary, does not need an angel to explain what is going on. It is personal, unmediated contact with Jesus.

Mysticism is a word that scares a lot of people off, isn't it?

Plenty of people are mystical and don't know it. They'd be surprised if you told them, because the tradition of mysticism is esoteric, unusual, supposedly reserved for Carmelite nuns. But every single person has the possibility of entering into this wonderful union with God and Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit.

Evil and good are all around us. We have to learn to let the evil go and gather in the good, to say "thank you, Lord" every time something good happens. That "thank you" enables us to digest that goodness, make it part of ourselves. So the best witness, the best advertisement of mysticism is to be a joyful person. Mysticism is just the appreciation of the presence of God.

How can we truly grasp the Resurrection and have it make a difference in our lives?

Holy Week is a drama in three acts. You can't just come in on Easter Sunday, because without the first two acts, it doesn't make any sense. The first two acts require our decisions. First, Holy Thursday, which is Jesus' last attempt to tell us that living unselfishly is the only way to achieve happiness.

Good Friday tells us that this is not going to be easy; it will involve suffering. But don't feel sorry for those who suffer because they love. Feel sorry for those who suffer because they don't love, because they are proud, stubborn people who don't get their way. That suffering has nothing to do with Jesus' Passion.

The Resurrection is God's third act, where we witness what God can do for those who dare to love as Jesus loved and who suffer because they love.

Don't forget that every single word of the New Testament was written after the Resurrection, the central event, just as every word of the Old Testament was written after the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, the central event of the Old Testament. The two are connected. In Exodus, God loved the slaves into freedom and gave them a purpose in life. Jesus brings us the second Exodus by taking on our bondage freely. His challenge is, "I'm giving my life for you so that you will dare to give your life for others."

The only purpose of freedom, the only responsible use of freedom, is to love others, that they too may be free. Now, we all have ways of loving others that may or may not lead to their freedom. In fact, I think in the Last Judgment, there will be one big question: Did you let my people go? What was the impact of your life on the people you knew, especially your family?

I wonder whether most Catholics think of the church as bringing them freedom.

Everyone's experience is different. But I think when the church is true to herself she is an instrument of liberation. The sacrament of Penance is a powerful sacrament of liberation. Preaching and education, when they're done well, are powerful instruments of liberation: liberating people from a sense of alienation, from ignorance. Ignorance is a terrible burden. I see my students saying, "I never thought of that!" and it's like a new world opening up.

Sure, we often have the other image of the church as a mother forbidding us to do certain things, but I think the dimensions of liberation are still very much in operation. When I hear Confessions, I am more edified than anyone by people's sense of honesty and genuine sense of relief at having the church tell them officially, "You're forgiven." I do think, however, that we can always do a lot more to make the church seem more like a mother who nurtures her children into maturity. 

Dumm's books:
Flowers in the Desert: A Spirituality of the Bible
A Mystical Portrait of Jesus: New Perspectives on John's Gospel

Cherish Christ Above All: The Bible in the Rule of Benedict