“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”
One of the greatest dangers inherent in a capitalist and consumerist culture is the commodification of our relationships. Without realizing it, our relationship to others is influenced, if not determined, by what they are worth in light of whatever value or project we are engaged in. Our pursuit of the next urgent demand or requirement of our seeking and acquisitiveness gives us no time for mere presence and no space for the vulnerability required for friendship.
During the weekend a friend and I were speaking of the deep desire that human beings have to know others and to be known by them. We were also aware, however, that despite this desire we are mightily invested in our secrets. Jesus says, “I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” The key word here seems to be “everything.” That is, Jesus withholds nothing from his friends, even those truths about himself that would, at least initially, lead them to feel suspicion or doubt about him.
Our experience of relating is that it is a continual negotiation of expressing and withholding and of trust and mistrust. This is true both of our relationships with those around us, but also with God and with ourselves. What are the terms of this negotiation and what do those terms tell us about our developing human and spiritual maturity?
I wrote on Friday of a gathering of members of the community in which many of us experienced the realization that we were learning very new and different truths about each other, despite the fact that we had been in the community with each other for almost all of our lives and had been certain we already knew each other. What was the nature of the interpersonal contract or negotiation that had, for over 50 years, kept us strangers to each other? Perhaps the words of Jesus afford us insight. He contrasts being friends with being slaves. The slave does not know what the master is doing. But the friend knows everything.
Although we’ve suggested that the danger of objectifying or commodifying others is great in consumerist cultures, it clearly has always been a universal danger for human beings. We are always in danger of living our lives not from our heart and spirit but from our pride form which totalizes the place of our rational-functional dimension or ego. We then negotiate our various relationships with others in light of their use or usefulness in our own life projects. That is we reduce them to the role of “slave,” to our agenda. When a culture’s basic view of the human person is as a consumer, it becomes all the more difficult to be conscious and aware of when we are relating to others as commodities rather than as mystery.
When the other is a “slave” to our agenda, we negotiate our expression, listening, and communication in accord with the goal we are seeking, that is, the person’s place in the furtherance of our project. Rather than telling them everything the Father is doing in us and between us, we keep secret anything that might complicate achieving the end to which they are the means.
These projects of ours can be both utilitarian and personal. We can want a person to help us achieve the accomplishment of a goal of ours, or we can engage in an even more common form of manipulation which is the attempt to get a personal response from another that we desire, for example, that the other feel sorry for or take care of us, or that the other see us as important or superior to him or her.
The Fundamental Principles describe to us a way of being with and for each other that is the mode of friendship. They tell us that we are to learn how to be friends by practices of trust and openness, or receptivity and listening, with our Brothers. It is in this way that our community becomes what St Benedict described: “a school for the service of God.” The Rule reminds us, in the words of the Founder, “that nothing special is achieved without much labor, effort, and zeal.” John’s gospel makes clear to us that learning to “befriend” in the deepest sense is a requisite for discipleship. To learn this is very difficult. It requires dedication and practice, as well as purgation and purification.
At least by the time we are adults, we do not spontaneously befriend others. We do not pass over to them, leaving our own obsession with possession behind. We tend to give others the place in life we desire them to have. This can even be true in our attempts at ministry. We can make of others the objects of our skills and our virtue. It is in learning the ways of friendship that we come to relativize the innate arrogance of our ego. It is in friendship that we come to discover our place in God’s world, instead of managing the world and those in it as if we were God.
In our ego or managing mode of relating, we not only stifle the deeper truth of the other but of ourselves as well. We not only try to control the other for our ends, but we also are controlling ourselves for the sake of our own self-image. Without friends with whom we share everything, we continue to keep secrets, not only from others but from ourselves. It is the truth of who we are that is the greatest threat to our projects of control and manipulation. So, ultimately, it is not only others we commodify, but ourselves. We attempt to create and present someone “who will sell.” We hide from others and ourselves what we take to be the blemishes in the object we are promoting. Strangely enough, quite often what we take to be blemishes are really pointers to our greatest gifts and deepest call. This is the risk Jesus takes as he shares his own Divine identity with his disciples. As we see in John 6, at such moments many walk away.
Collectives of persons, and religious communities are no exception, have a tendency to overvalue conformity and thus to stifle the originality of their members. In the joy that comes as we begin to know each other again (for the first time), there is also a sense of sadness and pathos. For, in some cases at least, the true gifts and call in people has not been given the necessary space and place to grow and flourish. For all the good that has been in our common life, I have often been mystified by the level of anger and resentment that lurked just under the surface in so many of us. We had learned early on that such feelings were evil and sinful, and so we would often displace them onto surprisingly insignificant events. Yet, perhaps, if we are to become friends, we must allow and fully attend to these feelings. For, they may be the expression of the desire for a fuller life, for a more authentic expression of one’s true mission and call. Despite the pathos in the thought that the community has not given a place for the uniqueness of each member to be expressed and to flourish, it is not too late.
As I mentioned on Friday, at our gathering last week one brother, thinking of our young Brothers in Africa, said: “If we had learned to be with each other in this way when we were younger, do you think some things would have been different.” This question has continued to reverberate in my consciousness. We know the answer is “Yes,” but that yes must, now in the present, become the change we are imagining.
“I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” There is a wonderful heritage that is left from the work of the religious communities of the 19th century. So many who were on the margins of their societies were educated, healed, and evangelized and have become now not the margins but the center of their societies. And now, many of these communities, their ostensible reason for being no longer needed in those places where they flourished, have greatly diminished and appear to be disappearing. In a sense, their work goes on in their institutions, now in the hands of others, but their way of life seems to be ending. Might it be in part because in their zeal for their work, they forgot that they are not slaves, but friends. The Fundamental Principles tell us that it is “in the shared faith of the community / you will experience / the ongoing revelation of Jesus,
‘I no longer call you slaves,
for a master does not confide in his slaves;
now I call you friends.’”
Certainly, there is today in developed societies a need for schools “for the service of God.” There is, perhaps especially in cultures that have lost the relational as the distinctive aspect of our humanity, the need to learn how to become human so as to realize that we truly are not slaves but friends. It might be that one of the changes learning to be with each other more as friends might result in is a new form of living together in community which is actually as old as that Jesus and the disciples.
Companionship was at the top of Epicurus’s list of life’s pleasures. He wrote, “Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.”
It may come as a shock to the well-heeled members of the New England Epicurean Society, an exclusive dining club that favors caviar and oysters at its black-tie dinners, but Epicurus believed that choosing with whom one eats dinner is far more significant than choosing what the menu should be. “Before you eat or drink anything, carefully consider with whom you eat or drink rather than what you eat or drink, because eating without a friend is the life of the lion or the wolf.”
By the joys of friendship, Epicurus meant a full range of human interactions ranging from intimate and often philosophical discussions with his dearest companions—the kind he enjoyed at the long dining table in the Garden—to impromptu exchanges with people, known and unknown, in the street. The education or social status of those with whom he conversed mattered not a whit; in fact the height of true friendship was to be accepted and loved for who one was, not what station in life one had achieved. Loving and being loved affirmed one’s sense of self and conquered feelings of loneliness and alienation. It kept one sane.
Daniel Klein, Travels With Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life, p. 30