“If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works of Abraham. But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God; Abraham did not do this. You are doing the works of your father!”John 8: 39-41
Yesterday I experienced one of those exceptional and, in a good way, disturbing moments in life. A very good friend said to me: “As a religious community in the Church, you guys don’t have the right to just say who you are on your own. You have a responsibility to us, and you need to dialogue with us who we need you to be.”
Our Congregation is currently in the midst of preparation for what we call a General Chapter, an every six year event at which we look at who we are as a group and how we are to become more faithful to our call. Yet, much of the conversation around this event has, so far, been quite intramural in nature. As has been true for so much of my religious life since the second Vatican Council, we have been struggling to discover where God is leading us and what the world is asking of the inheritance we have received from Brother Ryken and his first followers. At times this happens harmoniously and at other times in rancor and conflict. Yet, too often, it happens in forgetfulness of the challenge that my friend posed to me.
Now this admittedly is a very unique reading of today’s gospel passage. Yet, it has, I think, universal implications. One of the great mistakes we make from the point of view of our pride form of life, of our illusory sense of separateness, is that our lives are own own. While, of course, we have the absolute right to self-interpretation regarding our lives and life-direction, the “self” who interprets must never forget that in our very being we are a “field of formation.” We are not just our own inner life of feelings, thoughts, and imaginings, but we are also our relationships with others, our daily life situation, and our insertion in the wider world. And at the heart of all of this is the Divine presence that is always calling us to realize the unique image of Christ we are called to be.
So, Jesus tells his listeners that if they were truly Abraham’s children, they would be doing Abraham’s works. Since they are not, whatever they say they cannot claim to be children of Abraham. If they do the works of the evil one, they are the children of the evil one. We are known for who we are by the “works” that we do. We discover what our works are to be through an ever-growing attention and meditative reflection on the field of formation that is our life.
And so, when my friends says to me that we need to listen to the needs of the Church and the world, to what they need of us, not what we are telling them they need, he is teaching us about how to discern God’s will for us. My friend, who is married and awaiting the birth of his first child, is well aware that he and his wife live out their love and commitment to each other and the generativity that love enables, not only for each other and their own children but for the sake of the world. They deepen in their commitment to each other and grow in love because the Church and the world needs them to realize together who they are called to be, that Christ may continue to be manifest and realized uniquely in them. And for us who have professed to live a life that makes no sense if God is not the ultimate source and goal of life, what does the Church need from us? It is to live together in such a way that our common life may be a living reminder of the ultimacy of God. It is to witness to the truth that in spite of and even because of human frailty finally the mercy and love of God will prevail, in our individual lives, in our human relationships, and in our global reality.
I think my friend was saying that he and the Church need the witness of our poverty as a sign that human fulfillment lies not in status and consumption, of our chaste celibacy as a sign that love of the other is first and foremost a profound and abiding respect for the unique life and call of all others, and of our obedience as a witness to the truth that in our loving and doing of God’s will is our and the world’s peace. My friend’s observation challenged me to acknowledge a difficult and painful truth. We are not to reframe the contours of our way of life in order to justify our own desires for comfort and complacence, for status and success as the world measures it, but rather to challenge our infidelities to our call and our deficiencies in loving and caring. Our lives in continuing formation are to be lives that call for a constant conversion and recommitment to the way to which we have been called and to the witness that our brothers and sisters need from us.
We must acknowledge that in some cases, it is a matter of being unable to pass from an ordinary administration (management) to a guide who measures up to the new situation in which it is important to act wisely. It is not an easy task to go from the simple administration of a well-known situation to leading others towards unknown destinations and ideals with a conviction that generates real trust. It is not enough to focus on strategies of mere survival, but requires the necessary freedom to launch processes, as Pope Francis continues to remind us. A ministry to lead that can solicit real synodality by fostering a dynamism of synergy is becoming ever more necessary. Only in this communion of intents will it be possible to manage the transition with patience, wisdom and foresight.New Wine in New Wineskins, p. 26