Being Separated and United

When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or sisters or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Luke 14: 12-14

For me personally, one of the most difficult and least understood of the demands of Jesus is his overturning of the taken for granted experience we have of human relationship. We are naturally drawn to others by affinity, that is, to those who are like us and who like us. We feel “at home” with those who share with us bonds of blood and tribe. We long to make our life with another or others who are like us in various ways and who gratify us by their response to and care of us. And then we read the gospel, and Jesus says these are not whom we are to invite to dinner, but rather those who cannot in any way gratify us. We are to live in such a way that our transcendent capacity for love is to be realized and released in us, to know a possibility of love in us that is free of its demands for mutuality and reciprocity.

As I write this morning, my closest friend and companion and colleague of many years is preparing to return to his work in Rome after some weeks back in the United States. As always when facing separation after time together, I feel a deep sense of sadness, loneliness, and loss. Yet, I have slowly over time come to realize that remaining together is not an alternative, for he has his work to do, as I do mine.

The other day some of us were speaking about how often surnames have their root in the work that our ancestors were engaged in. So we have Carpenters, Coopers, Plumbers, Barbers, etc. Prior to the advent of the production line, there was a sense of identification between who we were and the work we did as both a means of livelihood and our contribution to society. It is an unfortunate aspect of life in the developed world that our sense of our “work” is too often merely the often dreaded task of earning what we must to survive and provide for our families. Yet, for us as for our ancestors, there is a deeper sense of “our work.” It is what we term in religious language our “vocation.”

There is a level of life and of soul in which our lives are a unique work, a call of unique service to life and world. This is the work of which Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel: “I have finished the work you have given me to do” (John 17:4). This “work” is our work of love in the world; it is the one thing necessary for us to accomplish. It is our responsibility above all others, even above our necessary and good commitments to particular and familial relationships.

Relationships become problematic at so many levels often because they become an obstacle to rather than a condition of our living out of our unique life call and vocation. So often we use relationships to avoid the responsibility and solitariness of our call; the singular duty of our vocation. And, conversely, often the demands of relationship become distractions or seductions away from the one we are called to be and what we are called to do. In the gospel, Jesus calls one of his closest companions “Satan” when Peter attempts to stand in the way of Jesus’ resolutely following his call to travel on to Jerusalem and the fulfillment of his call that awaits him there. He, in what seems cruel to us, tells the crowd, when they point out to him that his mother and brothers are outside, that it is the one who does his Father’s will who is brother, and sister, and mother to him. The deepest relationships, he seems to say, are among those who are related by their shared commitment to living out their unique call and mission from God and to serving that fidelity in each other.

One of, if not the most powerful of, creative tensions in our lives is that we are both separated from and united with others. Our life’s work and life’s call is unique and we alone bear responsibility for it. Yet, we also deeply desire and need connection and communion with others. Jesus’ difficult teaching is that true communion cannot be found by dissolving this tension in favor of denying our own responsibility to respond to our call. Communion lies, rather, in our living out of that call in service to the world. Our experience on the way to doing so might well seem painful in its detachment and solitariness. Yet, when our call is realized we discover, in what Jan van Ruusbroec calls our “ordinariness,” that what seems like an isolating uniqueness is really our share in the “life that is common to all.”

All of this is no great consolation at the moments of sadness and loneliness that come with separation. Yet, at such a “negative moment” we also experience an intimation of who we really are and what our life is “for.” Beyond all our cravings for acceptance and relationship, there is our summons to a unique way of living out our share of the common life of humanity. It is by fidelity to the work we have been given to do. Such single-mindedness of intention has the potential to re-orient all of our relationships in its light. We may find each other in a new and deeper way in the light of our fidelity to our unique call. As we do the work that only we can do, we realize that we are one body of different parts and with different tasks. Our very lives, at the point of their deepest call, are lives with and for all the others. We do not lose our blood brothers and sisters or our friends, rather we rediscover our communion with them and with all members of the human family. The solitariness of our unique call and work for the world is not loneliness and isolation; it is rather a life that is “common to all.”

Michael was a journalist, too, and understood what September 11 meant for me. “So when are you flying to Pakistan?” he asked.

I needed to call SABA, my photo agency, and offer to go to Pakistan. I had watched the most historic event of my lifetime on a borrowed television set in Mexico City, and I wasn’t about to miss the second half of the story.

“I have to leave,” Uxval said flatly, and with an uncharacteristic peck on the cheek, he left Marion’s apartment, left me sitting in front of the TV, left me transfixed, as I had been since the early morning. I hated myself for being so driven. I wanted to plead with him to stay, but I needed to concentrate. I had calls to make. All flights into New York City were canceled, and I had to figure out how to get to New York and to Pakistan. Though I was young and terribly inexperienced, few photographers had worked in Afghanistan under the Taliban as I had. I wasn’t considering that I might be going to war but was instead worrying about what would happen to the civilians, to the women I had photographed sequestered in their homes in Kabul, Ghazni, and Logar.

This was the first time I had to decide between my personal and professional lives. Some part of me knew, or hoped, that real love should complement my work, not take away from it.

Lynsey Addario, It’s What I do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, p. 65

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