So I went up to the angel and told him to give me the small scroll. He said to me, “Take and swallow it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will taste as sweet as honey.” I took the small scroll from the angel’s hand and swallowed it. In my mouth it was like sweet honey, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour.
Revelation 10: 9-10
Jesus entered the temple area and proceeded to drive out those who were selling things, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.’”
Luke 19: 45-46
The readings for today are far from an expression of “sweetness and light.” There is a beauty in the sacred words, but when we attempt to digest them, that is to make them real and live them out, our desire for a complacent and sweet existence may well turn sour. When we awaken, as Jesus is awake, we well may discover that all kinds of human behavior that we have accepted, normalized and settled for is, in fact, false and intolerable. We might well experience that the harmony of our relationships and of our communal experiences are but covers for what Erich Fromm calls “égoïsme à deux,” a masquerade of love that is but an alliance with another against all that is other than us.
We live in a time of self-assertion and individualism. As we readily see in our political life, but also in our personal lives, we suffer a kind of “atomization” of experience in which we socialize but do not really relate. Because our sense of self is that it is inner and contained, delimited by the boundaries of our own bodies and psyches, we are hesitant to enter into true conversation. We find it difficult to believe that we truly “are” only in relationship, and that we discover this deeper reality of being in real conversation. Rowan Williams quotes from Richard Sennett who believes that what we often call the rise of tribalism in our cultures is due to our failure to understand that who we truly are is located, and so discovered, only “outside the object of . . .[our] understanding.”
Decades ago now after the Second Vatican Council, religious communities like my own entered into a somewhat tortured search for their own identity. The Council had recognized that the Church was the “people of God.” It was not a possession of the “privileged” clergy and religious. And so, some interpreted this as the end of the religious life form. It was often said that the life form we had lived was now dead, as this was “the age of the lay person in the Church.” This very articulation betrayed the fact that somehow we had come to see our life as part of the clerical structure, when it was not. It was another way of lay persons living out their baptismal call through commitment to each other in community and in the community’s mission.
Over time I have wondered if the sense of death of our life form that many were experiencing was not rather the insight that although called communities, we were but structures to maximize functional efficiency, to make the service projects possible. Although living a forced communal structure based on rule and common day order, we were not at all in conversation with each other. Thus, it was very easy to just move more and more toward an individualized experience, to free each other of the structures that were all that held us together and to maximize individuality and autonomy. What continued to make one a part of the “community” was to financially contribute and to occasionally socialize and celebrate with other “members.”
Somehow, about two decades after the end of the Second Vatican Council, a group of four brothers from different provinces were brought together to re-write the Rule of Life. They produced what we have come to call the Fundamental Principles. It is not a set of rules in the conventional sense but rather an attempt to describe as challenge and call the core reality of our Founder’s vision for his Congregation. It includes those words of the Founder that describe his aspiration for the Congregation:
A band of brothers
who mutually help,
and edify one another,
and who work together.
Somehow there remained in us the dangerous memory of our Founder’s desire that his “band of brothers” be a real community who shared life in such a way that it gave rise to a common and shared task of evangelization to the world. It was not a mere aggregate of individuals who would be tied together by structure and mandate in order to accomplish a task assigned it by the Church’s hierarchical structure. Rather, it was to be a place, a space in time, in which those called would encounter the mystery of each other through a dynamic conversation that would reveal a call both unique and common. Through such conversation these brothers would learn to work together in such a way that they called forth from each other the unique life and gift that was, in the understanding of Jan van Ruusbroec, the “ordinary” life of each, the unique gift and call from God that each person had always been.
In recent months, the question of the reality or unreality of this vision has become focal. Is it actually possible or even desirable to attempt to become that reality the Founder had envisioned? As inserted in Roman Catholic culture and structure, the vision had been subsumed by a hierarchical understanding of church and world. “Community” was structured around rules and customs ordained by leaders and enforced by “superiors.” It was the “superiors” who were responsible for “the life and works fo the Congregation,” and it was the task of the ordinary member to work, pray, and obey. Such “enforcement,” however, can never result in community. Only true conversation that leads to insight, understanding, and care can do that.
So, perhaps feebly, we have attempted to begin to learn how to have such a conversation with each other. This effort, however, has not been all “sweetness and light.” The attempt has tapped in a good number of members a desire to be in conversation with each other, to see if it is possible to become truly the “band of brothers who mutually help, encourage, and edify one another, and who work together.” On the other hand, it has revealed that some, including those who have been at the center of the Congregation’s life, if not often at the top of its hierarchy, do not have a desire to be in conversation with the others. The factions, cliques, and closed circles that have been mistaken as brotherhood have shown themselves. The process has begun “to overturn the tables” of dissonant ways of being that are judgmental and exclusive.
The result of our long refusal to be in conversation with each other, especially with those who are very different from us, is well described by Richard Sennett. He speaks of an alienation from each other that “seems the perfect recipe for complacency. You take for granted people like yourself and simply don’t care about those who aren’t like you. More, whatever their problems are, it’s their problem. Individualism and indifference become twins.” The gospel makes clear that true community can never be discovered either by the imposition of rules, on the one hand, or a gathering merely of the like-minded, on the other. It is really difficult, especially for us who have been formed as individualists, to really engage in a conversation with those who are very different. And yet, I have learned already that those I have constituted as so different (and even, regrettably at times, inferior) are more like me than I ever realized. And, I am painfully becoming aware that some whom I took to be kindred spirits do not really share at all my own deepest desires.
Complacency is an illusory “sweetness.” Reality is, as the scroll, both sweet and sour. As a very young person, I think I was, at least in part, attracted to religious life because I romantically saw it as a place of constant sweetness, of harmony without discord. Often through history, we have tried to produce, even at the cost of integrity, such a life together. Somehow we knew that the only way to perpetuate this illusion was to hide ourselves from each other, to bring to light only those things that would serve the illusion of harmony in the moment. As a result, we came to believe that the Founder’s vision was a nice ideal, but that it was, in practice, impossible and unrealizable. Our options, thus, were to maximize our autonomy and independence of each other and/or to create little communities of the like-minded.
Now we are attempting to “digest” the words and spirit of the Founder. There is an excitement and a sweetness in the taste of them, but as we attempt to incarnate them in practice there is lot of sourness. Formation, reformation, and transformation, as Adrian van Kaam always pointed out, “is sheer work.” There is something in us human beings that would rather hold on to what is lifeless and false in us rather than dare to change. It is difficult to see that perhaps the faithful and the money changers are not who we thought they were. The Lord may once again be overturning the tables that we have set up. Yet, unlike with us, he is always doing this in service of inviting us all to integrity, to relationship, and into the conversation that is the way of life for us.
Here Richard Sennett is speaking about this question and quoting from the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin: “A conversation affirms one’s faith in one’s own experience. For creative understanding it is immensely important for the person to be located outside the object of his or her understanding.”
Instead of trying to absorb things into ourselves, or to be absorbed into things outside ourselves, we seek to engage. We seek to set up a relationship; and this is a venture of courage which requires self-confidence, not in the terms of being assured that there is something solid inside us, but to be assured that we are related already to something that holds us, engages us and carries us through. Without that we end up with what Sennett elsewhere speaks of in terms of alienation from others, an individualized withdrawal, which, he says, “seems the perfect recipe for complacency. You take for granted people like yourself and simply don’t care about those who aren’t like you. More, whatever their problems are, it’s their problem. Individualism and indifference become twins.” And he quotes from the great nineteenth-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who in his second volume of Democracy in America, published in 1840, wrote, “Each person, withdrawn into himself behaves as though he is a stranger to the destiny of all the others.”
Rowan Williams, Being Human, pp. 40-41