And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city.
Genesis 8: 4-8
At the very heart of Theodore James Ryken’s founding vision for his community was a desire to gather “a band of brothers (and today we’d add sisters) who mutually help, encourage, and edify one another, and who work together.” Ryken had spent the early years of his life trying to find his own way and call; he had even traveled to the frontiers of the United States to serve as a catechist to the Native Americans. In the course of his experience he came to two insights: one was that he would like to be part of a brotherhood that would serve as “helpers” to the work of the priest missionaries. Perhaps too often overlooked is the radically humble and obedient nature of this aspect of the charism. The second insight is contained in the phrase we repeat in the Fundamental Principles even to today: that as a “band of brothers [and sisters] . . . who work together” much more is possible than working as individuals.
In today’s reading from Genesis we see the effects of pride and individualism. As the story begins “the whole earth was of one language and speech.” All human beings were able to communicate with and understand each other. it is as the desire to be builders overtakes them, to create memorials to themselves, that communication breaks down, that collaboration becomes impossible. As symbolized in the confounding of language, human relations now become relations of force, of pride, of power, of ego-enhancement, of manipulation and dominance. Others become the means of serving our projects and are no longer equals whose needs and desires deserve our respect and service. What we want to accomplish becomes primary, while what the other is going through becomes, at best, secondary. And so, we are scattered and dispersed, from each other and from ourselves, as we compulsively leave off our care for each other “to build the city.”
At the danger of over-reading Ryken’s sense of his brothers’ mission as helpers, I would suggest that this expresses a profound spiritual insight. In a very hierarchical, clerical, and power-obsessed ecclesial environment, Ryken desires to gather a band, as did Francis of Assisi well before, who will be “friars minor.” His brothers are not to be part of a power structure but are to understand themselves as humble helpers. This is both for the sake of their service and of their own deep spiritual identity. A story is told of one of our former Headmasters who, when stopped for speeding by a police officer, asked him “Do you know who I am?” Ryken’s insight, for whatever struggles he personally may have had in living it out, was that we become whom we are called to be when we realize that of ourselves we are nothing and nobody. It is as helpers and as servants of God and of God’s loving will in the world that we become the one God calls us to be.
This is a very difficult spiritual lesson. We all want to be somebody. We all want to be recognized. I must admit that in my own life experience of changing roles in life and work, I find it very difficult to go from a situation where I am recognized and appreciated in a certain way to one in which I am constantly reminded of my own powerlessness and insignificance. To be but a helper is very mortifying. It is a constant struggle with the fear of insignificance that forever lurks under the surface of life. Yet, Jesus says that to die to self and to be of service is the true call. It is in our smallness and our nothingness that God’s light and love can begin to shine through. “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” (Luke 17:10)
Ryken also realized that “brotherhood” also required a true spirit of collaboration, a realization that to “work together” is always more fruitful than separate individual efforts. Genesis, however, reminds us that real collaboration is not natural for us. At the level of the majestic ego, collaboration means others serving our project. We want the help of others, but we also want the outcomes we desire. The creation of a truly shared or collaborative project requires a level of generosity that is not easy for us. It requires of us that we offer everything we have, including our ideas, hopes and aspirations and then willingly submit them to the ideas, hopes, and aspirations of others. The collaborative and shared work that results well may not correspond only to my own most strongly held ideas and expectations. To be a helper and a servant of a task, of a work that is ours and not merely or even primarily mine is, in truth, among life’s most difficult challenges.
There is a profound insight in the symbolism of the story of Babel in Genesis. If there was once an innocent time when we effortlessly heard and understood each other, when we “spoke the same language,” that time is certainly for us lost in the mist of a mythical past. Even those of us who speak the same native language, do not at all really understand what the other person means and is going through. We hear a word we share in common and we parse its meaning based on our own experience. We are the filter through which the life of every other person we encounter must pass. Ryken’s vision for his brotherhood was that persons would come together in such a way as to work at putting the other person first. One would measure one’s life by how much he [or she] would “help, encourage, and edify” the others. By so doing, the apparently impossible would slowly become possible, that is an ability “to work together.”
We live in a world where it is the vehement assertion of ego that holds sway. We presume that good will happen only if things work out in accord with our designs. We want to be the architects of the city that we build, and we shall value the work of the others to the degree that it fulfills our plans. In Ryken’s vision, the brotherhood and sisterhood come first. As we are transformed from a collection of “I’s” to a “we,” our capacity to “work together” deepens. We learn, once again, to speak the same language. Not to agree about everything but rather to understand each other deeply enough so that we can find together the common call and common work, as helpers and servants of God, that is ours.
But I should like to explain that the soul is not the mind, nor is the will directed by thinking, for this would be vey unfortunate. Hence, the soul’s progress does not lie in thinking much but in loving much.
How does one acquire this love? By being determined to work and to suffer, and to do so when the occasion arises. It is indeed true that by thinking of what we owe the Lord, of who He is, and what we are, a soul’s determination grows, and that this thinking is very meritorious and appropriate for beginners. but it must be understood that this is true provided that nothing interferes with obedience or benefit to one’s neighbor. When either of these two things presents itself, time is demanded, and also the abandonment of what we so much desire to give God, which, in our opinion, is to be alone thinking of Him and delighting in the delights that He gives us. To leave aside these delights for either of these other two things is to give delight to Him and do the work for Him, as He Himself said: “What you did for one of these little ones you did for Me.” And in matters touching on obedience He doesn’t want the soul who truly loves Him to take any other path than the one He did: “obediens usque ad mortem.”
St. Teresa of Avila, The Foundations, Chapter 5, 2-3