Now there were in the Church at Antioch prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Symeon who was called NIger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who was a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, completing their fasting and prayer, they laid hands on them and sent them off.
One of the results of humanity’s fall, as its depiction in Genesis tells us, is:
With sweat on your brow
shall you eat your bread,
until you return to the soil,
as you were taken from it.
For dust you are
and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3:19)
From all indications, despite the early promise of technology to increase leisure and to eliminate work as requiring the sweat of our brows, this is not at all our contemporary experience. By every measure, there is far less satisfaction in work today than there was some two or three generations ago. Both of my parents worked and, at least a good amount of the time, they enjoyed and were committed to their work and to their employers. They were proud of what their worked produced, in my father’s case as difficult and backbreaking as the work was.
As the degree of profit taking and corporatism increases, along with the increase in any sense of power and collective bargaining in the labor force, many if not most of the laborers in so-called developed countries find themselves overworked, overstressed and underpaid. Even more, many are forced to do a work that is uncongenial and unsatisfying. The corporate structures of our economy have little or no place for engaging persons in work that somehow is an expression of their own deepest identity. Even so-called professionals, medical doctors for example, are often discouraged and depressed by the demands of systems that force them to become increasingly distant from their patients and clients.
It is apparently paradoxical that those technological advances of ours as a race that were supposed to give us more time for distinctively human and humane leisure and activity have instead made it possible to “work,” in the self-alienating sense, 24 hours a day. Corporations often make clear to their workers that they are to be available at any hour of the day or night. As a result one’s labor and activity is not the fruit of one’s deeper identity and call, but rather further alienates us from ourselves.
In today’s passage from Acts for the Feast of St. Barnabas, we read that the Church in Antioch was gifted with persons of unique personalities and talents. The “gathering” that was the Church is gathered around the Lord, but in light of the gifts given to each of the members for the sake of the Church and the world. They understand that their work and the direction they are to take as a gathering is to be discerned from the gifts that God has given each of them. And so, they are told by the Holy Spirit to set apart Saul and Barnabas “for the work to which I have called them.”
By the description of what happens after the fall of Adam and Eve, we can presume that something about the very nature of human work changes. It would seem that before, when they walked with God, the bread they required to live did not have to come out of the sweat of their brow. There was, somehow, a harmony that had now been lost. Is this the harmony of which the Fundamental Principles speak?
For it is only in harmony
That you will grow
That your community will grow,
That the love of God will grow in your world,
And that the kingdom of God will grow to completeness.
Although it may seem paradoxical that the greater our so-called advances the less harmony we experience between our life and our work, as well as between ourselves and the earth, our faith tradition suggests it is perfectly understandable. Harmony emerges out of the primary human disposition of awe. As we come from God and are created for communion with God, every effort we make to be self-actualized is but a greater distance from that harmony. When our awe is distorted and becomes directed toward our own power and glory, it becomes what Adrian van Kaam calls “inverted awe.” As we become more selfish and self-absorbed, we become more and more engaged in a fruitless attempt to create our own harmony, to make ourselves happy. The harder we work the more we become self-alienated, and the more alienated we become the harder we work.
So, in the perhaps somewhat idealized early Church, as Acts presents it, we have a return to the primordial harmony before the fall. The members of the Church live in awe of God, and so in respectful awe of the gifts given to each person by the Holy Spirit. Harmony results as the unique call of each person “sounds” out in the expression of his or her life and work. A true community is a place in which its members live in awe of God and God’s work in the world and who attempt, as the Church of Antioch did, to listen to the Spirit’s call through the unique gifts of each member.
Now, all of this sounds nice. But it also in our time sounds totally impractical. Yet, we mustn’t think it came spontaneously or easily to those in Antioch either. The text makes clear that before they can know the Spirit’s call to set Barnabas and Saul apart for the work God had given them, they needed to devote themselves to fasting and prayer. If one thing distinguishes my experience as a so-called “active” religious over the decades, it is that my and our basic attitude is that we do not have the time to live discerningly. Yet, in so living what are we saying? We are saying that the primary place of awe in our hearts has been replaced by “inverted awe,” our awe of our own efforts and our own products and institutions.
Fasting and prayer are not a luxury. They are not what we do when we finally have the time from our efforts to do “our” work. Rather, they must precede our efforts. We must still our pride form and inverted awe and restless anxiety long enough to create a clearing in and among us to begin to hear the Spirit’s call. We must take the time with each other to come to a place of respectful presence where we can begin to know and to reverence the unique call of the other. For, this call is the Spirit’s direction for our life and work.
Respect and reverence are a rare commodity in our consumerist and corporatist societies. It is even far too often a rarity in so-called religious community. Over the years I have grown to recognize how many members of the community have experienced a lack of respect for themselves and their own unique call. For the sake of efficiency and false harmony, far too often leaders fail to take the time to respect each and every person as the unique child of God that she or he is. It is much later in my life that I am learning how much our own community has lost by failing to respectfully draw out from many the unique contribution and work to which the Spirit has called them.
As we read today from Acts, we see no indications of hierarchy. They all fast and pray, and as they do so, they realize the call of the Spirit for Barnabas and Saul. Of course, they have a real advantage over us, and it is the advantage of unknowing. Until the Spirit speaks, they do not know what to do. They don’t have the preoccupation of their own ideas and compulsions, and so they are able to wait, to fast, and to pray. In truth, however, we are no different from them. We just think we know; we arrogate to ourselves the call of the Spirit. It is out of our arrogance and knowingness that we feel time pressure and a lack of respect for the mystery of others. We think we know what is the state of things, and we think we know where another fits in our plans.
The great danger of hierarchies is that they reinforce this human pride and arrogance. We designate some as over others, and then we communicate that what they think is worth more than the thoughts and dreams of others. If those we select are meek and humble, then they use their “place” on the hierarchy to listen and to serve. Yet, the human will to power is strong. There is gratification in control and manipulation. There is relief from anxiety in getting one’s projects done, even at the cost of the originality of others.
The Fundamental Principles quote the words of the Founder to describe the community:
A band of brothers
who mutually help,
and edify one another, and who work together.
Jesus tells the disciples, shortly before his death, that they are no longer slaves but friends (John 15:15). An astounding aspect of Christian revelation is its insistence that a human being is a slave to no one. Yet even more, that each person is a friend to the Lord because, if we listen, we all know what Jesus himself has received from the Father. There is a harmony in the universe, but that harmony requires that we become “consonant,” that we “sound with” the call that comes from the One who creates all. The harmony is diminished if even one among us is not sounding his or her unique call.
We are not wasting time in fasting, prayer, worship, listening and attending to God and each other. This is the only way to begin to hear the harmony. Otherwise, as St Paul says, we only hear the “loud gong and clashing cymbals” of our own pride and arrogance (1 Cor. 13:1). The harder we work to create our own harmony, the more distant we become from God’s harmony. it is not easy for us human beings to really believe, not in the sense of notions and creeds but rather in the presence of the Spirit’s voice among us. We must learn how to listen, with awe and respect. When we do act and work in accord with that call of the Spirit, our work becomes not mere sweat and toil, but an experience of consonance and joy. In such harmony we see, albeit perhaps in small and incremental ways, that we, our community, the love of God, and the kingdom of God are growing as God wills it to be.
We are all workmen: prentice, journeyman,
or master, building you—you towering nave.
And sometimes there will come to us a grave
wayfarer, who like a radiance thrills
the souls of all our hundred artisans,
trembling as he shows us a new skill.
We climb up on the rocking scaffolding,
the hammers in our hands swing heavily,
until our foreheads feel the caressing wing
of a radiant hour that knows everything,
and hails from you as wind hails from the sea.
Then hammerstrokes sound, multitudinous,
and through the mountains echoes last on blast.
Only at dusk we yield you up at last:
and slow your shaping contours dawn on us.
God, you are vast.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Poems From The Book of Hours, trans. Babette Deutsh, p. 29