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The Secret Revelation of John: Certainty of Compassion in Uncertain Times

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Woman sitting in front of a desolate landscape

I live in Chicago – or at least nearby. Another child was shot and killed this week. Our collective anguish overflows with nowhere to go. Maybe it’s a symptom of the unnamed anxiety and agitation these days. Parents can’t get back to work. Kids can’t go back to school. My neighbors are terrified about the general election coming up. Nobody knows what’s next. We can be excused for referring a bit excessively to this pandemic-induced life as “these uncertain times.”

But every time I hear another example of our uncertain times, I can’t help but look for evidence of some kind of certainty. I’ve heard it said that the only certainty is the fact of uncertainty. But I don’t think so. If that’s all we had to live by, we’d all be stuck with no incentive to keep moving.

I’ve been working on writing a book this summer on the Secret Revelation of John. Those of you who have read this blog for a while know it’s one of my favorite extracanonical texts, and I’ll be eager to share my book about it with you shortly. Here’s a passage near the end of the text that speaks to me about my hope for certainty.

A person wept and shed tears. Bitter tears the person wiped away, and said, “Who is calling my name? From where has my hope come as I dwell in the bondage of prison?”

I said, I am the Forethought of pure light, I am the thought of the Virgin Spirit, who raises you to a place of honor. Arise, remember that you have heard and trace your root, which is I, the compassionate” (31).

I feel the tears in my city and from people everywhere who have become untethered from the promise of security. “Bitter tears.” And in the midst of this darkness a voice is speaking. “It is I, the compassionate.”

I recognize that voice is the source of hope, because it “is calling my name.” Compassion, or love, must be the certainty in uncertain times.

It is the voice that knows who we are. Each one. Each Black, White, Brown, Indigenous, Protester, Police, LGBTQIA+, Republican, Democrat, child, educator, parent, business owner, worker, incarcerated, first responder, disabled, doctor, unemployed, sick, poor, wealthy, religious person’s name is called.

Most of us don’t use the ancient terminology to identify the source of this compassion, but I might paraphrase this verse in a modern context this way:

I know the pain. We are all weeping. Sometimes aloud, sometimes deep inside. From beyond the darkness of confusion, anger, and fear, I hear my own name.  Not a case number, not a policy that may fit my demographic. My name. Where does this voice of hope come from?

I said, I am the certainty of light. I am the thought of the spirit who uplifts and honors you. Get up, and remember your own origin in innocence and goodness.

Wisdom from this ancient text cuts through the multiple forms of impasse we run into today. It’s trustworthy, because it reminds us of the security of our own worth and identity. It guides us to our own roots in the source of infinite good.

Years ago, I had a chance to work with underprivileged children in an inner city. I was a volunteer and was assigned to the library, where I could meet with the kids who needed the most help, one-on-one. These were elementary school children who had failed to pass at least three grades by the time I met them.

We sat in a far corner of the library, but I cringed every time a new class was ushered into the library for an excursion outside their classroom. “Shut up!,” the librarian yelled at them, while they tried to find their place in the single-file line. “You’ll never amount to anything if you can’t learn to behave!” The speech was always the same and lasted at least a full minute or two.  I heard the fear in her voice. Her kids were going to fail, and she desperately wanted to stop the free fall into ‘certain’ failure. I saw the kids take it in: yes, they were going to fail. They were assured repeatedly they did not know how to behave.

But I had a chance to know the names of some. I learned why school was so hard for them and why everyone around them reminded them that they were failing. I also learned more about their ‘roots’ – why each one was special. In fact, during the years we became acquainted, I would know them as truly precious. They all had a chance to regroup and start to succeed.

I couldn’t meet with all those kids who were yelled at, but I did learn the certainty of compassion. Each one had a name. Each one was deeply important. Each one deserved to be reminded of his or her origin in innocence and goodness. Acknowledging and acting on this love is the certainty I will never let go of, even in these uncertain times.