“I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
That’s coming later. But to start with, I think many of us will have felt that the opening of our Old Testament reading today strikes a chord: the word of the Lord was scarce in those days, visions were not widespread – or, indeed, as the King James Bible translates it, there was no open vision. At the moment, it seems that we are living in a time that fits that description. Things look very dark and very unclear – and while we have cause to be thankful, from the bottom of our hearts, for all the progress that’s being made with new treatments and new vaccines effective against Covid, people still wonder – particularly if they work in health or in education – how much longer they can struggle on before things improve. It’s hard to encourage yourself by picturing a better future. Even the light at the end of the tunnel might turn out to be an approaching train.
And yet one thing that emerges from today’s readings is that it can be at a time of darkness, or perplexity, or struggle, that God – in various different ways – calls people. What sort of people? Well, all sorts really – Samuel, a little boy living away from home; eager searchers like Andrew and his friend; people who introduce, people who get introduced; people whose background is entirely local, like Simon; people like Philip whose Greek name suggests that he may have had wider contacts; people who come along immediately, or people like Nathanael, very possibly the same person as St Bartholomew, who are fairly sceptical and won’t be rushed – especially as Nathanael’s home town is Cana, about 4 miles from Nazareth, and he knows that anything to do with Nazareth is probably a waste of space.
It must be about 40 years ago that my then parish priest pointed out, in a sermon, that the first disciples our Lord called were, by occupation, fishermen – men who had a hard life – and that it was still His habit to call people when life was difficult. Some time later, when my own life was very difficult and I also had a feeling that God was not going to leave me alone, though I wasn’t at all clear what was going on, I talked to my parish priest about it and – in the course of the conversation – remembered aloud what he’d said about how difficulty and calling could often occur together. He grunted and said, “That’s the usual method, I’m afraid.” He ended up as a bishop, and that was absolutely the last thing he wanted.
Nathanael probably was a fisherman – he certainly goes out fishing with St Peter and the others at the end of John’s gospel, and perhaps his first conversation with our Lord took place near the lakeside – but when our Lord speaks to him, we catch a glimpse of the Nathanael our Lord already knows, even though they appear never to have met before. “I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you.” For this fisherman, life at the moment isn’t only an outward struggle; there’s been an inward struggle going on as well, and our Lord is aware of that, even at what seems to have been a first meeting. Here is truly an Israelite – or indeed an Israelite worthy of the name. One of the stained glass windows in this church illustrates the story to which those words refer: Jacob wrestled with an invisible figure all night and received the name of Israel because he had striven with God and prevailed. And – something you couldn’t say of Jacob – Nathanael (whose name means Gift of God) is a man in whom there is no deceit. We know he says just what he thinks – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And no doubt he was already saying that to himself, and struggling with it, before Philip arrived and really started something. Many people probably saw Nathanael as rather an awkward character. But awkwardness, too, can be a gift. Let’s remember: there are kinds of awkwardness that our Lord values, and can use.
Back to the fig tree. If you lived in the Mediterranean world – indeed, if you live in it now, and have a house rather than a flat – and you need some fresh air and time to yourself, you go out into your courtyard, or if the house isn’t big enough for that, there is probably a space outside the door. Either way, there will be a vine trained over it to give you shade – or, still better, there will be a fig tree. If you are having an inward struggle, that’s where you’ll go to have it. And while Nathanael was under the fig tree, our Lord – saw him. In his mind’s eye? In some moment of supernatural vision? It doesn’t really matter. The more we look at the Gospels, the more conscious we are, and the more it matters, that when our Lord sees someone, he isn’t just a spectator. He always enters into what he sees. He may see to respond directly – he sees the crowds and has compassion on them, because they’re like sheep without a shepherd. Or he sees in order to enlarge the vision of others – he sees the poor widow putting her two mites into the treasury and says that she has put in more than anyone else. Or he sees in order to engage or challenge – he looks at the rich young man, loves him, and invites him to give his money to the poor – and grieves when the young man can’t bring himself to do it. So when our Lord says he saw Nathanael under the fig tree, the point isn’t just some display of clairvoyance – the point is that he entered into what he saw. He has, in a sense, been there alongside Nathanael. Or, in a very extended sense, you could even say he’s been part of the wrestling match, like the invisible wrestler who wrestled with Jacob. Will Nathanael continue to write this new teacher off as a waste of space because he comes from Nazareth, or will Nathanael himself – when it comes to the point – Come and see?
Well, he comes and sees, and when it comes to the point, Nathanael the wrestler doesn’t wait to be asked “Follow me” – he takes the plunge and commits himself before he’s asked, in a way that our Lord finds quite entertaining. “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he refers to another story about Jacob – one that curiously enough isn’t illustrated here in our angel windows – Jacob’s vision of the ladder joining heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending, and God standing beside it. Nathanael is promised that he himself will come to see heaven joined to earth, with Our Lord Himself as the Ladder. And no doubt the Evangelist is reflecting, as he writes, that, in the light of the passion and resurrection of Christ, that’s what any Christian may hope to see with the eye of faith – and that however bad the visibility may sometimes be, it’s still a fact.
It’s worth noticing that the fig-tree sort of experience doesn’t stop at Nathanael. It’s been happening to inward wrestlers ever since. Just to use one example, it happened to St Augustine. Augustine describes how, in a spiritual turmoil that was approaching a crisis, wanting to leave his old chaotic life behind, but doubtful if he could really make the break, he rushed out of the house into the garden, and finished up flinging himself down under – yes – a fig tree. It was while he was there on the ground that he heard a childlike voice, apparently in a neighbouring house, chanting, “Take up and read, take up and read” – and so he got up and went over to the garden bench where he had left a volume of St Paul’s Epistles, and opened it at random: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh…” And that did it. Augustine seems at this point to have been wrestling with his worse self – but he hadn’t been wrestling on his own. He too, quite certainly, was being seen by our Lord under the fig tree.
Now St Augustine was called, in the end, to be a bishop and one of the greatest teachers of the church. Nathanael was called to be one of our Lord’s first apostles. Not all of us are called, all the time, to this kind of life-changing role, that changes countless other lives as well – though you never know, and in any case even Nathanael and Augustine weren’t told their whole story at the start. Cardinal – now Saint – John Henry Newman, who certainly had a lot of fig-tree times in his life, was nonetheless sure that God had given to him, and to everyone else (young people, this may be important for you one day), God has given to every single person something to do that no other single person was made to do; and he added, “I have my mission; I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.” Certainly he knows the whole story now.
And as for ourselves: at this time of great difficulty, when the word of the Lord sometimes does seem scarce, when visions are not widespread, when we don’t get immediate answers, and when perhaps our faith in God is tested, we may find ourselves being called by him to do some very simple things. Simple, though they may still be accompanied by a struggle, in or out of doors. We may be called to pray more, and use this lockdown to spend extra time with God. We may be called to do something for someone who is experiencing more difficulty than we are – just look at our Mothers’ Union members who have been making twiddle muffs for residents in our local care homes, and other St Michael’s people who have been responding to a call of that kind that can make all the difference. We may be called to pick up the telephone, or send a card. And these things, too, can indeed change lives and lead to results that are for the time being known only to God – and in the providence of God they may change our lives too. When people talk about vocation, just as when they talk about conversion, they sometimes make the mistake of talking about it as if it worked to a kind of standard pattern or recipe. It doesn’t. It can be a dramatic all-at-once process, or a gradual bit-by-bit process, or very clear and direct, or very obscure. But it’s certainly not uncommon for signs of it to emerge when life is difficult. I’ll leave you, though, with a couple of lines from Thomas Merton, who, as a Cistercian monk, had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the process that had led him to that monastery:
“Vocation does not come from a voice out there calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice in here calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfil the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”