I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4: 1-3
For a long time I have struggled with the following words of our Fundamental Principles:
As a follower of Jesus
and a brother of your brothers,
keep ever before you
the motto of the congregation:
Concordia res parvæ crescunt.
In harmony small things grow.
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.
My difficulty with these words is no doubt the result of my own misunderstanding of harmony, as I tend to understand it in the practical living out of daily life. My struggle with them is the same as my struggle with the beautiful passage from Ephesians we read today. Ephesians calls us to live with humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another through love and striving to preserve unity. Now all of these dispositions, at least in the common understanding I carry of them, imply a “bearing with’ that receives or absorbs whatever the other directs at us. They seem, in my miscomprehension, to exclude expression, firmness, challenge, aggression, and conflict. In the same way, the repeated call for “harmony” in the Fundamental Principles seems in experience to be an encouragement to “peace at all cost.”
In our actual experience of community, it seems that our desire to preserve harmony comes at the cost of real relationship and intimacy. The author of Ephesians, perhaps, understands that true gentleness requires firmness and true patience, courage, and a willingness to use one’s aggression in service to others. At least myself, however, and from experience I would say many if not most of those with whom I have lived over the years fail to understand that a community that does not allow for and foster the appropriate and proper expression of aggression with each other becomes controlled by manipulation and passive aggression. “Bearing with one another through love” is far different from putting up with others by distancing from them.
Back in the mid 1960’s when my initiation into religious life began, in what we called the “novitiate,” we would, more than occasionally, experience explosions of anger on the sports field or court. Those who had lived together apparently harmoniously for some time would, it seemed out of nowhere, wind up raging and fighting, verbally or physically, with each other. The way in which we dealt with these experiences then was to accuse ourselves of this sinful behavior before the community. We interpreted these outbreaks as sinful aberrations which could be eliminated in us through confession and repentance. What we received no formation in was how to confront each other directly and to honestly speak about our difficulties with each other.
“The unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” describes a relationship that is based on our shared comprehension and understanding of our common humanity in all its “sinful and graced humanity.” We only achieve that comprehension and understanding, however, by the very hard work of learning how to relate to each other, to listen and speak to each other in humility our unique experience of and perspective on ourselves and each other. Harmony can only be realized by risking conflict, by not avoiding but by entering into a conversation with each other that cares enough to speak out the difficult and challenging aspects of our personalities.
Pope Francis often speaks of how damaging gossip and slander are to religious life and community. I often ask myself why we spend so much of our time gossiping about others and their faults, complaining about how others are failing or hurting the community. Why when with others do we speak about those not present instead of speaking to each other? The unity of which Ephesians speaks cannot be attained by a surface and false harmony. We long to be known and to be accepted and loved as we are. This is the longing of all of us. And yet, what we most long for is also what we most fear. Whenever we are speaking of one who is not present, we can be certain we are evading the call to speak to the one to whom we are present. The anger that is released in complaining about another is the energy that is pushing us to relate more deeply to the one before us — and probably as well to the one about whom we are speaking.
It is not a rare thing in community to hear someone decrying the faults of another who sees that person as a close friend. We call ourselves friends, yet we fail to be honest with each other about what we find difficult, painful, or even sinful in each other. The only kind of harmony in which we will grow, the community will grow, and the love of God will be more fully expressed is a harmony built on expression, trust, honesty, and courage.
One of the great blocks to true community, at any level and in any form of life, is our anger and even rage at each other. At least for those of us formed with a fear of our own aggression, this is an almost debilitating experience. We are not closer to each other and do not share life more deeply with each other because we fear our own anger. In the novitiate the outlet was the soccer field or the basketball court. In later life the outlet becomes distance, manipulation, gossip and slander. Bearing with each other as Ephesians describes requires of us that we learn how to use our aggression and anger as a way to better and closer relationship, to deeper intimacy. This is not an asceticism that most of us have learned or whose place in the spiritual life has even been acknowledged.
Be it in the early stages of infatuation with our spouse or in the aspiration for the harmonious religious community, we often find ourselves hoping for that relationship or setting that will allow us to evade the messiness of our own anger and aggression. We fail to recognize that to stifle our aggression is to stifle our own original calling. When we do this, we cannot grow in love and harmony with others but only in resentment. I often ask myself why in so many are there hidden and not so hidden resentful feelings. Slowly I am coming to realize that this is due, at least in part, to the mistaken notion that there can only be community and harmony by repressing what is most unique and individual in each member.
True harmony, however, requires the unique sounding of each individual person. I wonder if the doctrine of the Trinity, unity in individual distinction, did not arise from the experience and understanding of what constitutes true friendship and community in the human sphere. There can be no communion and no harmony without the sounding together of the unique and distinct parts. This requires expression and at times conflict. Ironically, it requires of us that we love enough to risk disharmony for a while, as we learn to contend with each other in service of the deeper truth of who we are and whose we are. We are told that our unity must be a unity of the spirit, of that which is truest and deepest in each of us. This is never attainable on our own terms, yet we make a space for it through our efforts to become students and disciples of the ways of our inner summons and God’s call to living and loving in truth.
Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together