The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not. Cain greatly resented this and was crestfallen. So the Lord said to Cain: “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.”Genesis 4: 4-7
Adrian van Kaam defines Christian spiritual formation in the following way:
A graced process of a prayerful search for and of a tentative gradual incarnation in all dimensions of life of the unique image of Christ one is called to realize. It is guided by a divine direction which is gradually disclosed by the Holy Spirit as speaking in the Church, in the life situation, in the formation tradition and in one’s own soul.
In his view our basic human task in life is to seek and then give form gradually and tentatively, in dialogue with our world and our times, to “the unique image of Christ [we] are called to realize.” Integrity, meaning, purpose, and consonance flow from our faithfulness to this life task.
In today’s reading from Genesis we hear of the birth of envy and resentment in our world. There are minimal details in the story of Cain and Abel, but it is strongly implied that God’s problem with Cain is that is yet to “do well.” God tells Cain that if he does well he will be able to hold up his own head, and thus will not feel such envy and resentment of his brother and God’s acceptance of Abel’s gift. So what does “doing well’ mean? If van Kaam is correct, it means throughout life, from the time we are able to be reflective until death, that we continuously work to give tentative and gradual form to our own unique life call in the world as it is revealed to us. From the height of our functional powers in our twenties and thirties all the way to our physical and perhaps cognitive diminishment near life’s end, we are to do what we can to bring our original self and calling into the world in service to the unique task and mission that is ours.
If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit to being readily able to identify with Cain. We all know the experience of feeling envy and resentment and even rage when another or others are clearly living out their call with greater integrity and dedication than we ourselves. Our culture has only fed our tendency to live by comparison and competition. We want to be better than those around us. We want to stand above them. It is a threat to us to experience their superiority to us in any form. For many years I was privileged and blessed to work collaboratively with a very close friend. That collaborative work involved both preparing and delivering our material together. While I often felt fortunate that I could hear my friend teach and so almost always learn something knew from his reading and reflection, I also at times felt twinges of envy and a sense of competition. I would at times push myself to try more to model the way that he prepared and taught.
At some point, however, probably several years into our work and I suspect as I became more and more aware of myself and my own unique way of doing things, I experienced a falling away of the competitive feelings. With that experience came an awareness that did things that I never could. He could often unearth the deeper structures of experience that seemed, at least for a while, inaccessible to me. But, I also realized that I need not feel diminished by this, but rather I could grow in gratitude for our differences and for the gift those differences were to us and to those whom we taught.
One of the more surprising revelations about human life and relationship that has occurred to me as I’ve aged is how much resentment there is all around us. As member of a community, I often feel as if one of the greatest obstacles to our living more fully our call and mission to the world is the level of resentment and envy that burdens us. Our rule calls us to confirm each other in our gifts, and yet we seem to find it so hard to do this in practice. Instead we far too often experience the weight that comes from our ceaseless competition, which is often manifest in our diminishment of each other. The result of this is that instead of our mutual encouragement of each other to more fully realize our unique call, we rather tend toward leveling the energy, drive, and zeal of each other through our envious comparisons and judgments.
We live in a culture that fosters our already powerful human tendencies to live by comparison and competition rather than living out the call to giving form to our life and in our world of the unique image of Christ each of us is called to realize. For all my personal efforts to grow in this regard, I remain amazed at my own preoccupations with what and how others are doing. At some point in life, however, I discovered that when I am attending “to the Father’s business” which is really my own business of formation, then I cease to be troubled by how others are doing. To live out our own formation and call with integrity and devotion is plenty occupying enough. When I am doing all I can to do what is mine to do, the rest is not my business.
As van Kaam says our giving form to the unique image of Christ that we are called to realize is always gradual and tentative. We shall never accomplish it in this life. The reason for this is that our unique image of Christ, our unique life call, cannot be reified. As life, history, situations, and circumstances change, the call to us varies and so the realization of our originality will take on different forms. In short, originality and integrity are not a static goal to be reached and realized. At every moment we are living a gradual and tentative incarnation of our call. Thus, we must be in formation “always and everywhere.”
This is not a convenient truth for a functionalized culture. It is painful and at times humiliating to realize that no matter our age we are always and only on the path. Yet, the more that we appropriate this truth, the more that the originality of the other becomes not a threat but a gift. The other’s originality summons us to a deeper commitment to search ever more deeply for and to work to give form to our own original calling.
One of the ways that a community differs from a collective is that the collective gathers for a specific function or purpose. A community, on the other hand, gathers to serve each members’ discovery and ongoing gradual and tentative incarnation of his or her uniqueness. Since our originality is, as van Kaam says, a unique “task, assignment, and mysterious call,” the community animated by this goal will do great things together. But what they do will be a response to who they most deeply are. And because this work is a response to the task or call they are given to do by God, they will realize that they need the differing gifts of each member’s original calling. The administrator’s role is vital, but not any more vital than the teacher’s or the manual laborer’s. Decades ago my own community had teaching brothers and brothers who did manual labor. The latter were some of our most holy and inspirational members. And yet, almost all suffered from self-depreciation. Likewise, over time those who were administrators began to assume a role and status in the community that was considered superior to those who taught. Communities readily devolve into cliques and classes, into accepted distinctions between the more and less significant members. The incursion of such pulsations into community may well account for the degree of resentment that seems to pervade the environment in so many of them.
We are all Cain. We know his feelings and experience all too well. Although, by God’s grace, most of us do not kill our brother or sister, we often may kill the possibility for life giving relationship and love with others. For me, the best counter to the constant temptation to envy, comparison, and competition is to focus on God’s own business for me. It is to walk the path of a formation that challenges me constantly to discover more fully the unique image of Christ that I am and to gradually and tentatively, at each moment and in every circumstance, attempt to realize that image by incarnating it in experience. From this place the originality of the other is a gift to me. We become grateful that the other can be and do what we cannot. This is how we come to know and to realize that the life and the love is common to all.
To recognize fully my envy of originality would mean to recognize that I am different and perhaps in some ways inferior to the envied person. I can admit this to the degree that I have found and accepted my own uniqueness, whether or not I can express it in a performance that is striking and impressive.Adrian van Kaam, Living Creatively, pp. 70-71
If I can work this envy of mine through, it can become respect. Envy of originality presupposes the discovery of the original value of another. If I feel no longer threatened or diminished by this value, I may come to respect it. Envy is potential respect. Respect, in turn, can initiate an enriching interaction between me and the other valuable people loyal to their uniqueness. The opposite is true too: respect is potential envy. Respect is the acknowledgement of an original value in the other as value. At the moment that this acknowledgment begins to threaten me and to make me feel inferior, respect may turn to envy.
Envy of originality is thus related to the way I feel about myself. My self-esteem is at stake. I want to assert myself because somehow the original presence of the other has shaken my feeling of worth.