. . . the high priest questioned them, “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the Apostles said in reply, “We must obey God rather than human beings.”
Acts 5: 27-29
An often referenced work of the 17th century poet Angelus Silesius reads:
The rose is without why.
It blows because it blows.
It thinks not of itself,
And no display it shows.
Today’s reading from Acts invites us to ask the question: Why do Peter and the other Apostles keep proclaiming and teaching in the name of Jesus when they have been told, at risk of imprisonment and death, to stop doing so? And then, we ask by extension, why do we do whatever it is that we are doing? Why are we engaged in “the work” that we are performing?
For those of us living in a time in which capitalist-consumerist culture is firmly entrenched, if not in a state of decline, the answer to the question of why we work as we do may seem elusive because our culture takes it so for granted. We work to make money and to produce things. Even in education, we speak of our students as products, or, at best, as consumers and producers of products. Work, for us, is solely a matter of the material, of the functional level of our personality. For the majority of us, it is what we do to survive so that, perhaps, we and our families can have some relatively few moments where we are not controlled and determined by the demands of a capitalist system. Of course, this was and is also true of a communist and collectivist system, at least as practiced in modern times.
In response to the high priest, Peter answers that the reason he and the other Apostles cannot and will not stop teaching of Jesus is because that is who they are. When Peter says they must “obey God rather than human beings,” he is saying that this task is their very life; it is why they are. There is no why for their existence other than to do this work.
In a spiritual anthropology, it is in our actions and our work that we live out our identity. As Adrian van Kaam puts it, “Our life is a task, an assignment, a mysterious call.” In the theology of St. Paul, we hear that God has created each of us as a part of the body of Christ, and so the body is not complete if we are not being that part we are called to be. From the spiritual perspective, a society that demands that the call of the persons who constitute it be stifled in service to its material project is ultimately doomed to failure. Such a culture is inherently soulless.
Recently a confrere and I were speaking about our concern for some of our young members who are being asked to take on tasks within the community that may be contrary to their deeper aspirations and personal gifts. As we spoke, I found myself reflecting on the history of what we call active or mixed religious communities, that is communities that came about to do one or other specific works within the Church. Often the services rendered and the works accomplished by such communities were astounding. For example, within a generation or two at most, an immigrant and marginal population in the United States became the very heart of American society (in both a positive and negative sense). Yet, by any standard, the accomplishment and success of the work is indisputable.
Yet, one result of that successful work appears to be the diminishment and even dissolution of the communities themselves. The life-span of communities devoted to specific works appears to be much shorter, even by centuries, than that of communities with a more open and organic understanding of their task, or what is often termed apostolate. Perhaps this is due to our human tendency to separate our understanding of work from call.
Our conversation began around a specific young brother. He has been asked to take on an administrative role in his region, a role that is vital and central to the region’s life. Yet, my confrere posed the question to me of whether or not this young person had really been consulted and spoken with about this work. What does it mean to him to forego the other possibilities for which he has been educated and trained in order to fill this needed role? What might the cost be to him? How much real heart and enthusiasm is he able to give to the role? Can he find in this role a way to express the mysterious call that he alone is?
The great danger for groups that exist to accomplish a specific task is that efficiency in the completion of the task, of the creation of the product, becomes the primary goal. The way in which this is accomplished becomes secondary. So, there becomes little time and interest in discerning the unique calls of the individual members for fear that those calls may not readily fit into the vision of how to accomplish the goal that the community seeks.
The deepest identity and so direction of the community, however, lies in the unique embodiment of the communal charism that is the call of each member. So often, communities oriented to the carrying out of a specific work will, over time, reduce and reify their understanding of their work and call. Thus, the creativity and potential revisioning of their direction that lie in the unique gifts of those who are given to them is stifled and lost. In the terms of today’s reading from Acts they have unconsciously begun to do the work of human beings rather than of God. The call to conformity and efficiency has robbed at least some of the members from the expression of the work or task that is truly theirs, and as a result, a potentially deep and creative energy has been replaced by passivity and conformity. When one’s heart is not in one’s work, then one becomes merely a laborer in the workplace, a cog in the machine.
In this sense, an active religious community becomes a microcosm of the larger culture. Human beings are “spirit through and through.” When that spirit is stifled in favor of the economic and functional agenda of the rich and powerful, the culture is well on its way to diminishment and destruction. Human beings are not robots. The fact that we face the imminent likelihood of so many persons being replaced in their work by robots is a sign of the degraded understanding of human work with which we live. Robots can function as well as human beings, but they cannot function in an inspirited way. As spirit, each human person is “an assignment, a task, a mysterious call.” There is a work that is a way of being that is each person’s alone. The body of humanity is well to the degree that each member is doing his or her work from his or her true place.
Over the course of a single lifetime, we have witnessed in the society of the United States that our young adults are more indebted and so less free in their possibilities for work and for living out their call than any generation before. Many of them leave school with no future but to struggle to pay off a debt in service to the affluent oligarchy. And so, the greatest gifts to our society and to our world are enslaved to the wealthy and controlling powers of the status quo. For the sake of the inhuman and dysfunctional system, life, spirit, creativity, and future have been mortgaged. The current cultural pulsations make it close to impossible for them to do the work that is theirs, to fulfill the unique call to the world they are.
For authentic and integral living, the functional dimension of our human personalities must always be in service the transcendent or spiritual dimension. The struggle in active religious communities, even as religious communities, is to preserve that proper balance and not let success or efficiency become more important than the fidelity of each member to his or her unique calling. The community, as the larger society, exists to serve the human and spiritual unfolding of its members. When either of these forgets that and rather acts as if the individual persons are servants of the communal or societal ideology and culture, they are doomed to dissolution — but not before harming many individual persons and souls along the way.
More than 50 years ago, in 1964, Joseph Delteil, one of my favorite writers, published a little book called La cuisine paléolithique. It was a time when materialism was in its early days and full of confidence in its capacity to create a better future. Delteil, a bright-eyed old fellow dressed in an ancient, threadbare velvet jacket, who was living a cheerful existence near Montpelier, wrote, in an astoundingly prophetic voice:
Modern civilization: that is the enemy. It is the era of the caricature, the triumph of artifice. An attempt to replace human beings with robots. Everything is corrupted, polluted, false, all nature is distorted. Look at these steel-covered landscapes, the polluted atmosphere of our towns (lungs the color of soot), the skies and their birds riddled with insecticides, the fish poisoned even in the depths of the ocean by nuclear waste, the steady and ubiquitous rise in carcinogenic substances, the unbelievable speed of everything, the hellish din, the tremendous panic of nerves, hearts, minds, mass production, mass production, I tell you . . . This is industrial life, atomic life. The great crime of modern man! Yes, all this is simply a cry: Help! Fire! Madman! Assassin!
Another of my favorite authors, Louis-René des Forêts, had this to say: “Overabundance has nothing to do with fertility.
What more is there to add.
Christophe André, Feelings and Moods, pp. 220-1