Humankind cannot bear very much reality

The title above is taken from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton.” It came to mind the other day when I heard the reading from the Gospel of John in which Jesus says to his disciples at the Last Supper:

I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.

I found this reading especially poignant because we were getting near the end of the semester – that point when, no matter how much I’ve managed to cover during the semester, it’s time to let my students go. This always depresses me, both because I know I’ll miss them and because I always feel as though I haven’t done enough. If only I’d taught them this, or spent more time going over that.

Just as you suspect that maybe, just maybe, some of them are actually starting to “get it,” it’s time for them to go. Time’s up. You had your chance. That’s it. It doesn’t seem fair somehow.

There have been semesters when my anxiety produces a final lecture on the last day of class, which I describe as “stuffing an elephant into a box.” I try to take several weeks’ worth of material and squeeze it all into a single magnificent lecture. It’s a desperate act that says: “Here are about two dozen more things I want you to know so that I won’t feel so guilty about not teaching you enough, and I’m going to jam it all into the next thirty minutes by speaking very fast and writing at a furious pace on the board.”

It’s actually fairly stupid. You can’t jam more than a certain amount into people’s heads in a short space of time. So I should simply admit to the students that, as Jesus says to his disciples: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.”

Christ, I hardly need mention, was much wiser than I am. Instead of trying to turn the Last Supper into a last, desperate information dump; instead of trying to take them through the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church in three hours; He told them that although there was much more to know, they weren’t ready, but that the Holy Spirit would come and guide them.

Pentecost by El Greco, 1600 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]
Pentecost by El Greco, 1600 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]
And then there’s this question: What would you be doing with your closest friends if you had only a few hours to live? Filling their heads with more information? Even Socrates didn’t do that. He spent his last hours in the kind of conversation he had spent his life engaged in. But his friends understood this to be a sign of his love for them. He didn’t merely lecture. There was the usual Socratic dialogue. Two his students even challenged his arguments about the afterlife right up until the end. This might seem a little harsh, but I cannot imagine a devoted teacher could wish for anything better.

So we might want to ask: How would you want your best friends to remember your last moments? Even if you were teaching them, what would you want those last memories to be? Of a man in love with his calling? Of someone in love with those he was speaking with? Or as a man desperate to get in a final few instructions before the executioner arrived?

There was simply no way for Jesus to tell his apostles everything they needed to know – everything we need to know. Which is why it is so important as we approach the Feast of Pentecost that we realize how necessary the Holy Spirit has been and continues to be in the life of the Church.

We can find the foundations of all that would come later already present in the Scriptures and in the teaching of the early apostles. But there was no way we could have sorted through all those potentially confusing teachings to clarify that the Son is “one in Being” with the Father, that in the Trinity there are “three persons in one Being,” or that in Christ, there are “two natures in one Person” without the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And how in heaven’s name could the Church have survived spiritually in the midst of all the persecutions, not to mention its own corruption, over the years without the continual protection of the Holy Spirit?

How I wish I could send out a little “spiritual me” to remind my students of the things I’ve taught them when they need it most. But I can’t. All parents and teachers can do is hope that they’ll carry the wisdom and love we tried to share out into the world with them.

What Jesus can do is actually send His wisdom and love – the wisdom and love He shares with the Father – out into the world with us; the love which is also a Person, the Holy Spirit. God is really smart that way sometimes.

And yet, we are a society that wants to know everything and know it right now. Try to do this, and it will crack your brain and break your heart. Relationships are developed over time, and wisdom can only be gained over time. Humankind cannot bear very much reality. God has to parcel it out, in small doses, or else it would overwhelm us.

It’s hard sometimes to understand what the Spirit is doing, where He is leading us, and what He is trying to teach us. If we could understand it all, I suppose He would have already told us. In the meantime, we’ll just have to be patient, as annoying as that is. We walk by faith and not by sight, trusting that the Spirit will guide us even through the darkness.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.