Two college students drive into the mountains for a weekend hiking trip. Perhaps because they were up late writing term papers the night before, both of them are tired. During the long afternoon drive, even cups of coffee fail to keep them fully alert. As the road winds in and out of canyons, rising rock walls deflect the low sun and create deep shadows. Coming around one particularly sharp turn in a switch-back, the SUV skids on gravel, and the vehicle veers off the road. Down an embankment they slide, and slam into a tree. Suddenly everything is white and dusty – the airbags have exploded, saving them from serious injury.
Now they have a real problem. They are in a remote area where cell phones don’t work; the SUV is ruined; and it’s getting dark. Of course, they could just stay where they are, surviving on their packed food and water, and could sleep in what’s left of their vehicle. But neither of them wants to do that. The alternative is to walk out, and try to find a way back to a main road. Aside from food and bottled water they stuff into their day-packs, they have two things that can help them. They have an accurate map, and a working compass, the right tools for them to hike out safely.
But this is where things go from bad to worse. In this moment, each of them has a strong idea about the right way out of this remote place. The problem is, they do not agree about the way forward. Being tired and stressed, and having contrasting personalities, they respond to their situation in very different ways. As a result, they head off in separate directions, one with the map, the other holding the compass.
Initially, this seems like a sensible solution for two people who disagree about their predicament. But the decision proves near-fatal for both of them. Of course, a good map and a working compass are valuable in a situation like this. But, paradoxically, neither tool is of real use without the other. This is why: A good map shows where everything is, including ways in and out of the area. But it does not tell you where you should go. Whereas a working compass always points to magnetic north, and therefore provides direction. But it won’t tell you where you are.
Most of all, refusing collaboration with the other person reading the map or holding the compass diminishes each of their prospects. For both of them are likely to remain lost while, on their own, trying to interpret what can be learned from a map or a compass.
At the Last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples something like a map, a map formed by the memory of his sayings and his works. He who is The Way, gives them a map of The Way. This map reminds them of their relationship with him, and of his relationship with what God has been doing through both him and them. Their challenge is to connect this map of his sayings and works, with the unfamiliar terrain of the new world around them.
But as he has promised, Jesus also gives his disciples something like a compass, which is the guiding Holy Spirit, who always points in the same unwavering and godly direction. Like a compass, the Holy Spirit will help them follow a straight path. But, they still need to know The Way on which they are to head, and the route they need to follow.
And so, like them, we need to rely upon the teaching Scriptures, as well as upon the guiding Holy Spirit, in order to find our way forward in life. For Jesus has given us two intertwined and inseparable gifts that come together as one: this is ‘the Scripture-shaped Tradition of Spirit-guided reasoning.’
The images above are James Tissot’s paintings, The Last Sermon of our Lord, and The Last Supper. This post is based on my homily for Easter 6, May 26, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.