To Moses they said, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you must lead us out to die in the wilderness? What good have you done us, bringing us out of Egypt? We spoke of this in Egypt, did we not? Leave us alone, we said, we would rather work for the Egyptians! Better to work for the Egyptians than die in the wilderness!”
Adrian van Kaam speaks of our true spiritual identity as our “original calling.” Our origin, however, is also originating, that is, we come to be the person we are called to be through the process of human formation. “If you allow yourself to be formed by God through the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life, you will gradually experience a liberation and a freedom never before imagined.” Our original calling is seminal, and it can only come to its full expression through an unending process of formation, which occurs in dialogue with our everyday experience and by trial and error.
Today, we see in both the reading from Exodus and in Matthew’s gospel how a wholehearted giving of oneself to one’s formation throughout all of life is not for the faint of heart. In the gospel we hear Jesus rebuke the scribes and Pharisees for their refusal to change, for their inability to take even the first step toward repentance which is the recognition that what they know and who they take themselves to be is both partial and mistaken. In Exodus we hear the Israelites put their resistance to formation even more starkly: “Leave us alone, we said, we would rather work for the Egyptians! Better to work for the Egyptians than die in the wilderness!” For all of us it is very much the case that we would quite often prefer to remain enslaved than face the uncertainty and fear of possible liberation and freedom.
Last evening I saw a reference to an article in L’Osservatore Romano that speaks of what is most inhibiting the conversion to which Pope Francis is calling the Church. “The main obstacle that stands in the way of the conversion that Pope Francis wants to bring to the Church is constituted, in some measure, by the attitude of a good part of the clergy, at levels high and low … an attitude, at times, of closure if not hostility,” writes Father Giulio Cirignano. The title of the essay is “The Conversion Asked By Pope Francis: Habit Is Not Fidelity.” Cirignano describes what he means by habit as follows: “. . . an old horizon, the horizon of habitual practices, of language out of fashion, of repetitive thinking without vitality . . . .”
It is difficult to see our life as a life that is always in formation, always called to become increasingly, but only gradually and tentatively, the unique image of Christ we are called to realize. The difficult part of this process is that it requires a continual detaching from any fixed sense of identity if we are to enter the process of continual formation, reformation, and transformation. There is no certitude in our life in formation, for we can only learn who we truly are by trial and error. In short, along life’s path we develop an identity, but fidelity means not fixing that identity but always being willing to recognize its incompleteness and to let it go in service of a deeper realization and manifestation of our original calling.
Thus, it is not surprising that those whose identity is most associated with a fixed and habitual sense of “church” would have the most difficulty in entering into its reformation and transformation. It is very human to confuse habit with fidelity. There is a security in living habitually. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Yet “traditions” and “tradition,” in the deepest sense, are not the same. A great wisdom and faith tradition develops traditions over time as a way of expressing the “original” identity of that tradition. In our personal lives we develop habits suitable to a particular current form of our originality and to the time and place in which we are living. Those habits and traditions are but temporary expressions and servants of the original calling of each of us and of those great traditions. Of their very nature, however, these habits are contingent and temporary. Each of us, and each great tradition, is always far more than our and their current form.
We all tend to think that we seek above all the “liberation and freedom never before imagined” of which the Fundamental Principles speak. Yet, that aspiration is in tension with our deep need and desire for security. “Better to work for the Egyptians than die in the wilderness.” The process of formation requires, in its very initial steps, our dying to whom we are sure we are. As the Israelites, we must risk what seems to us to be death, if we are to enter the path of liberation and freedom, if we are to continue to live faithfully our “original calling.” In the striking paradox of which Jesus speaks in the gospel, it is when we think we have found our life that we have lost it, and it is when we think we have lost our life that we find it.
Openness to reformation and transformation for us requires that we honestly experience not only what is consonant in our current life but also what is dissonant. As no form is ever the “final form,” both elements will always be present. Where there is certainty and complaisance there is always a dead form. Where there is uncertainty and an inner unease that all is not what it must be, there is the possibility of life. If we are to be formed and reformed by trial and error, we must be able to recognize the errors as they occur.
The Church has, in large part, ceased to speak in a meaningful way to young people. As long as any fault lies only externally, in the people, in the culture, in the external world, there can be no possibility of conversion, reformation, and transformation in the Church. Not until those “within” the Church ask ourselves the question of why the vibrant living word of the gospels has ceased to be spoken effectively through us is new life possible. Not until our communities and congregations ask ourselves why the way we live is not appealing to those who aspire to deeper life can we begin to enter the way of transformation. Not until, in our own lives, we honestly face and appropriate both what is consonant and what is dissonant in the way we are living can we become open to a more faithful living of our original calling.
Van Kaam points out that formation is not “spontaneous unfolding.” We can make the choice to remain slaves in Egypt rather than to risk the death in the wilderness of the one we take ourselves to be. In fact, it well may be that throughout life we choose to stay enslaved more often than we choose liberation and freedom. Far too often we confuse habit for fidelity. That to which we must be faithful is always mystery to us. Fidelity to God means fidelity to the one whom we are called to be, to our originality. This is largely a way of unknowing for us. It requires of us that we commit ourselves, “in the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life,” to a humble and docile living out of our call by means of trial and error, attempt and failure. Individuals and the human institutions we create must be willing to be mistaken and to learn our way by recognizing and acknowledging our mistakes. Any security based on certainty and on our own rectitude is a sign of lack of faith. As Cardinal Newman writes: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
But whatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. It is elicited and expanded by trial, and battles into perfection and supremacy. Nor does it escape the collision of opinion even in its earlier years, nor does it remain truer to itself, and with a better claim to be considered one and the same, though externally protected from vicissitude and change. It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.
John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, I,i,7