The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the Apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.
Acts 4: 32-35
“But they had everything in common.” As I heard these words read on Sunday and again today, I experienced the truth that the call to live a life in common is a call to integrity, yet, it is also a teaching that is among the most difficult to accept and practice.
Then, last night I read, on the recommendation of a friend, a personal essay by the writer Junot Diaz. In this essay Diaz writes of the block to communication and intimacy with others that was the result for much of his life of the repression and silence that was the outcome of his being raped as an eight year old child. In his writings he would often create characters that were close to his own experience, yet, when readers of his who had suffered the trauma of abuse would speak to him of their experience, he would literally run from them. Precisely what was the greatest threat to him was what he held “in common” with them.
I wonder if having “everything in common” is so difficult for us because the truth that we hold one life in common is an affront to our pride form. Societal identity is built on our difference from and superiority to at least some others and often most other persons. It is our “exceptionalism” that makes us worthwhile. Thus, it may, in fact, be the most miraculous result of the resurrection of Jesus that the community of believers share a life in common. Specifically, those believers who hold assets put them at the feet of the Apostles for the sake of those in need. For them, another’s need is their need, another’s want is their want, another’s pain is their pain. The transformation that occurs in the resurrected life is a living out the truth that the love of God is, as Russbroec says, “common to all.”
From the very beginning of our introduction to religious life in community, we were told that the greatest asceticism of the religious life is community life. One not be called to religious life to appreciate this truth, however. For all shared life is difficult for us. What always “stands out” to us about others are the ways they are different from us. The more hidden and protective we are, the greater the personal secrets we hold, the “more different” we become. It is our demands for secrecy and autonomy that make community impossible.
To the degree that we live in fear or rejection of our lives and our life experiences, we must build an alternate identity constituted by externals. Diaz writes of how in his young life he was unable to have sexual relationships at all, and then as he grew older he became sexually promiscuous. Both were means of avoiding the intimacy that he so feared. Most of all he feared others who knew the experience of abuse that was his as a child. He could not live a common life because it was our common experience of our suffering humanity that he most had to avoid.
According to the passage from Acts, there is a great power that the resurrection of Jesus has brought to the disciples. It is the power to dare to live out in practice our common life. It is to know that our significance and worth does not come from what we have or from our superiority over others. It is the power of a transformed consciousness that can dare to live the truth of our, at once, common poverty and common wealth. It is the power to live intimately with others by living out and expressing in common the truth of who we are.
The great “problem” in religious life, and for that matter perhaps in all social and political life, is community. As believers and ministers, we spend our lives preaching and teaching the call to recognize and to make real our common life as human persons. At the same time, we resist and reject the work that it takes to actually create a life in common with others. We “buy” and promote the idea, but we avoid and rationalize our way out of the practice. At least for my own part, this is due to my sense that life together is just too much work. To truly attempt to share life, in our pride and brokenness, is to always be encountering in ourselves and others the gap between what we teach and preach and who we (individually and collectively) are.
Perhaps our basic mistake is that we are always trying to build a life in common with others based on what we perceive to be our strengths. Junot Diaz writes of attempting to build a life and identity that is a kind of superstructure over the abyss of his own pain and shame. When the pain and shame of others is expressed to him, he flees them in fear that his own will become exposed and so his “self,” as he has come to create it, will be lost. As he now writes of that which he had so long worked to keep hidden, he experiences the very connection and intimacy, not only with individuals but with the larger world, that he, from the age of 8, has lacked.
Some weeks ago one of our brothers from Congo told me about an experience of community that he had known and that he longed to live out through the rest of his life. His example of what made that community so rich for him was of the school director coming to the community to ask their help with something he was unable to do himself. The result was that the work was accomplished even better than it could have been by any one person because it was the community’s work. What was most affecting for him was the humility of the brother who came to the others willing to say that he was not able by himself to accomplish the task. It was this humility that made the experience of “working together” possible.
The Fundamental Principles speak of the vision of our Founder as:
A band of brothers,
who mutually help, encourage,
and edify one another,
and who work together.
To truly work together requires that we come to realize that the work to which we are called is not mine but ours. So, it is not shameful that as individuals we experience our own poverty and limit regarding the work to which we are called. In fact, it is the very sharing of that poverty and even shame that brings us to the realization of our common life.
Community breaks down because in our attempts to be and portray ourselves as what we are not, we deepen our secrets and we increase our distance from each other. The more we distance from ourselves through our secrets, the more we distance from each other in our judgments. Be it family or community, we can gather as collectives in secrecy and silence, but we cannot be community without expression and sharing in humility and truth. The power of the resurrection of Jesus to create the community of Acts springs from the pain and humiliation of the passion and death of Jesus. The very same Apostles who bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus “with great power” are the ones who prior to his death had abandoned and denied him.
It is by the creative power and wisdom of God that the life of each of us is a life common to all. The common life, life in community is not a personal option; it is our reality. Our independence, separateness, and autonomy are the illusion. It is possible to live a life based on our culturally formed desires for personal comfort and autarchic freedom. Such a life has its benefits. Yet, it is not the life to the full that Jesus promises. It comes from an option for obliviousness to the realities of the world and the sufferings of others, which we can never escape because they are ours as well. Despite the deformed tenets of some religious traditions, the love of God is not parceled out to some rather than others. There are not especially loved nations, or races, or religions, or individual persons. The love of God is a love “common to all.” As John F. Kennedy said to the United Nations in 1961: “Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall die in its flames.”
Over the last weeks, that gnawing sense of something undone has only grown, along with the old fear—the fear that someone might find out I’d been raped as a child. It’s no coincidence that I recently began a tour for a children’s book I’ve published and suddenly I’m surrounded by kids all the time and I’ve had to discuss my childhood more than I ever have in my life. I’ve found myself telling lies, talking about a kid that never was. He never checks the locks on the bedroom doors four times a night, doesn’t bite clean through his tongue. The cover stories are returning. There are even mornings when my face feels stiff.
And then at one of my events, another signing line—this one at the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge—a young woman walked up and started to thank me for my novel, for one of its protagonists, Beli. Beli, the tough-love Dominican mother who suffered catastrophic sexual abuse throughout her life.
I had a life a lot like Beli’s, the young woman said, and then, without warning, she choked into tears. She wanted to say more to me, but before she could she was overwhelmed and fled. I could have tried to stop her. I could have called after her me too me too. I could have said the words: I was also raped.
But I didn’t have the courage. I turned to the next person in line and smiled.
And you know what? It felt good to be behind the mask. It felt like home.
Junot Diaz, The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma, The New Yorker, April 16, 2018