. . . to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.
1 Corinthians 1: 2
Every day I will bless you
and I will praise your name for ever and ever.
Great is the Lord and highly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
Psalm 145: 2-3
Those of us raised in the Christian faith tradition have known that, as Paul says to the Corinthians, we are “called to be holy.” Yet, what does it mean “to be holy”? Paul says that, among other things, it means to “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . .”
For much of human history, the human person was essentially social. We had no identity outside of the group, the people, tribe, race, nation of which we were a part. At least in the West, Christianity unleashed a slow but inexorable revolution, at least from the point of view of religious faith traditions, in this sense of ourselves. Particularly following the Reformation and building through the Enlightenment and then the insights of Freud and psychoanalysis, our consciousness increasingly became of ourselves as separate, unique, and self-enclosed. From this perspective, be it psychological, philosophical, theological, or sociological, community is distinct from collectivity. It is not a gathering in which the uniqueness of each member is subsumed and merely in service to the tribal, racial, national or corporate identity, but it is rather the oneness of heart and mind that comes when each member is faithful to his or her own deepest originality, his or her faithful living out of the unique form of Christ which she or he is. It is a harmonious blending together of the distinct and unique parts. As the motto of the Xaverian Brothers says: “In harmony small things grow.”
How much our consciousness has changed even in a few generations was brought home to me this morning as I read of the devastation of the earthquake in central Italy. Many of the destroyed towns were not far from the homes of my maternal grandparents. I am certain that I must have blood relatives in those towns. And yet, I do not know any of them or experience any connection with them. For the generations preceding my grandparents, such separation and disconnection would have been, I am sure, unthinkable. Because of this event, I found myself called and moved to pray for all who have died and are suffering there, including those who may be blood relatives of mine and yet are totally unknown to me.
As all limited human understandings, our consciousness has about it both formative and deformative tendencies. On the formative side, it increases our sense of personal responsibility for our own lives, work, and relationships. It allows for a greater expression in the world of the unique life and call, the unique Christ form, that each of us is. On the deformative side, it creates in us a propensity, very powerful in our own time, toward solipsism and isolation. Attention to “self” has a tendency to become lonely and self-absorbed. Thus, Paul’s words to the Corinthians have a special potency for us: “. . . with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” We tend to live so much in an interior monologue that we forget that our life is essentially a dialogue with the One who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
Yesterday I was speaking with a friend and we were both speaking of how much of our own lives are lived within the boundaries of our own thoughts. So often we do not even really inhabit our surroundings. We can have lived or worked someplace for many years and at a given moment be surprised by a new discovery or awareness of something that surrounds us. For us, Jesus’ admonition in today’s gospel to “Stay awake!” means to break through the mental, emotional, and spiritual enclosure of our own self-preoccupation and to “wake up” to the Reality in which we live.
The question always before us is “Whose are we?” Holiness is to realize and to form our life in accordance with the truth that we belong to Jesus and so to God — and not to ourselves. As the Psalmist says: “Every day I will bless you and I will praise your name for ever and ever.”
What we tend to forget in our moments of self-absorption is that our true identity is that of a “faithful and prudent servant.” It is our lifelong formative task to realize the unique way we are called to be that servant. Yet, as we do so, our attention is not to be self-directed but rather, as the Psalmist writes: “Like the eyes of a servant are on the hands of her mistress, so our eyes are on the Lord our God till he show us his mercy” (Psalm 123: 2). Holiness consists, then, in knowing to whom we belong, in living not for ourselves but for God and in giving away all, as limited as it is, of what we are and have.
This is precisely the order and way of eternal life: that you are his and not your own and that you live for him and not for yourself, just as he became yours and lives for you and remains yours for all eternity. You must therefore live for, praise, serve, and intend his eternal glory rather than any reward, comfort, savor, consolation, or anything else which could accrue to you from such behavior, for genuine love does not seek its own advantage; it thereby possesses both God and everything else, since it overcomes nature through grace. Therefore give to Christ your Bridegroom all that you are and all that you have and are capable of, and do so with a free and generous heart. He will then give you in return all that he is and all that lies in his power. Never will you have seen a more joyful day than that. He will open for you his glorious and loving heart and the inmost part of his soul, all full of glory, grace, joy, and faithfulness. There you will find your joy and will grow and increase in heartfelt affection.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, Introduction