Today is the feast of St. John, the beloved disciple, who leaned on Jesus’ breast at the last supper, who witnessed the Lord’s sufferings perhaps more than any other disciple, and to whom the Lord committed the care of his mother. In his homily for this feast day, the Venerable Bede comments on John 21:18-24, in which Jesus has forgiven Peter for his betrayal, speaks of Peter’s death, and also speaks of John.
“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.
Bede believed that Jesus’ words reveal how Peter and John would die, but also how the two disciples revealed and exemplified two different states of life: the active and contemplative.
The active life is Christ’s zealous servant devoting himself to righteous works: first to keeping himself unspotted by this world (Jam. 1:27), keeping his mind, hand, tongue, and the other members of his body from every stain of tempting fault (2 Cor. 7:1), and to perpetually subjugating himself to divine service; and then also to coming to the aid of his neighbour in need, according to his ability, by ministering with food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to those who feel the cold, by receiving the needy and the wandering into his house, by visiting the sick and burying the dead (Matt. 25:35-36; Isa. 58:7; Sir. 7:32-35), by snatching a destitute man from the hand of one stronger than he, and a poor and needy man from those laying hold of him (Ps. 35:10); and also by showing the way of truth to the erring (Jam. 5:19-20), by delivering himself up for others in services of brotherly love, and by struggling, moreover, for justice even to the point of death.
The contemplative life, however, is when one who has been taught by the long practice of good actions, instructed by the sweetness of prolonged prayer, and habituated by the frequent sting of tears, learns to be free of all affairs of the world and to direct the eye of his mind towards love alone; and he begins, even in the present life, to gain a foretaste of the joy of the perpetual blessedness which he is to attain in the future, by ardently desiring it, and even sometimes, insofar as is permitted to mortals, by contemplating it sublimely in mental ecstasy. This life of divine contemplation especially takes in those who, after long practice in the rudiments of monastic virtue, spend their lives cut off from human beings, knowing that they will have a mind which is freer for meditating on heavenly things inasmuch as it has been separated form earthly tumults.
Now the active life is proposed as something to be entered into not only by monks in community, but, as we have said, also by all the people of God in general. And although it is a fact that both apostles (namely, both Peter and John) held a high place among human beings for their outstanding grace, and each was perfect in both ways of life, nevertheless, one life is designated by Peter and the other by John. For what the Lord said to Peter, “You will extend your hands, and another will gird you and lead you where you do not wish,” represented the perfection of the active way of life, which is normally proven by the fire of temptations. Hence elsewhere he says more clearly about this, “Blessed are you who suffer persecution on account of justice” (Matt. 5:10). To Peter he properly adds. “Follow me,” because undoubtedly, according to the words of the same Peter, “Christ has suffered for us, leaving us an example that we may follow in his footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21).
Christ’s saying about John, “I wish him to remain thus until I come,” suggests the state of contemplative virtue, which is not to be ended through death, as the active life is, but after death contemplation is to be more perfectly completed with the coming of the Lord …. For who gives bread to the hungry in that life where no one hungers? Who gives water to the thirsty where no one thirsts? Who buries the dead where it is the “land of the living” (Ps. 27:13)? Who carries out the rest of the works of mercy where no one is found to be in need of mercy? And so no laborious action will be there, but only the everlasting fruit of past action. Contemplative happiness, however, which commences here, will there be made perfect without end when the presence of the heavenly citizens and of the Lord himself will be seen, not through a mirror and in a dark manner as now, but face to face (1 Cor. 13:12).