Community and Discernment

I will make a highway of all the mountains, and the high roads shall be banked up. Some are on their way from afar, others from the north and the west, others from the land of Sinim. Shout for joy you heavens; exult, you earth! You mountains, break into happy cries! For Yahweh consoles his people and takes pity on those who are afflicted.

Isaiah 49:11-13

I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.

John 5: 30

 

Recently the New York Times featured a story about groups of individuals and families throughout Canada who together sponsored refugee families, especially from Syria. The motivation of many sprang from the picture they had seen of the young Syrian boy whose body had washed up on the shore after he had drowned while seeking refuge with his family. The boy had relatives in Canada, and many Canadians were shocked at the thought that he had died trying to gain sanctuary in their country. In each case it was actually a community of families and persons that would take on the responsibility of sponsoring a refugee family. The multiple responsibilities would be shared among all, so that, hopefully, in a year’s time, the family would be able to bear much of their own responsibility for their continuing assimilation and contribution to Canadian society. Of course, in many cases, the bonds that developed became those of friendship and even of an extended sense of family, so that there grew an increasing sense of interdependence among hosts and guests.

This Canadian experience stands in stark contrast to at least the position of the governments of the United States and some European countries where the ascendant attitudes seem more to be those of fear and exclusion. All the great wisdom traditions of humanity, including our own scriptures, remind us that it is the quality of our care of and relationship to others, especially the foreigner and stranger, that is the measure of our true humanity. We are truly human and humane to the degree that our hearts grow in their openness to and care for others. The more we are governed by fear and insecurity, the more that we constrict into ways of being that are constituted by the reactivity and instinct of our “animal” natures.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, we hear of God’s will for Israel. As they grow in commitment to their covenant with the Lord, they become more and more a beckoning light to those around them. Those who are scattered will be brought back and those who are afflicted will be healed in the love of the faithful and expanding community. In the gospel from John we hear Jesus tell those who are recriminating him for his healing actions on the sabbath that his authority to act comes not from himself but from the One who sent him. Whatever the reactions to him, Jesus stands secure because he does only what he has been called to do. He is not threatened by the rejection or failure of his efforts because the work is God’s and not his own. For the Israelites, as for Jesus, the measure of fidelity to their “missionary” vocation is their depth of fidelity to the covenant, to the will of God. For us, as for them, to learn and to do the will of God, rather than our own,  and so to become more faithful to our vocation as truly human persons with and for each other requires a lifelong commitment to our formation.

As a citizen of the United States, I find myself called to reflect on how it is that as a people the citizens of Canada can respond to the current refugee crisis in the way they have while we in the United States seem to be driven more by insecurity and fear. Perhaps we live out estrangement in the world because we have become so estranged from each other. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville writes in admiration for what he sees as a uniquely American tendency to form countless voluntary associations.

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

 In de Tocqueville’s view, it is this tendency toward uniting with others in effective and voluntary associations that creates the life, dynamism, and expansion of American culture. What is so inherently effective about humans’ associating in this way? It well may be that it is only in community that we as human beings become reformed and transformed from the arrogance of our limited individuality to a deeper sense of the will of God, of the Reality of the world. Adrian van Kaam points out that it is of our nature as human persons that we are inherently “perspectival.” In the United States we call this “opinion.” Most of our current social and political dialogue is but the “ringing gong and clanging cymbal” of conflicting opinions. There is no measure of the real or the true but only the strength of the loudest and most richly endowed opinion. Our only way to break through our limited, and often arrogant, perspective is through true communication and communion with others. it is in associations and communities where we can, in the words of Jean Vanier, “search for truth together.”

When our own security and our personal enrichment become our sole concerns, we are inexorably on the road to de-humanization. To become truly human and live out the distinctiveness of our humanity requires of us association with others that can form us together into a more inclusive and caring stance toward the world. As made in God’s image, we are to cut roads through the mountains and make the low roads level so that all can increasingly come together. We are to join with others in places of belonging that Jean Vanier calls “places of mediation.” Jesus tells those who threaten him that he is not afraid “because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” We shall always tend to mistake our will, our opinion, for God’s. It is the school of relationship, association, and community with others that reforms our arrogance into discipleship and our insecurity into a shared confidence in the providence of God, trusting that God’s will is being done through us “on earth as it is in heaven.” The individual, the group, or the society that is primarily driven by fear will inevitably turn that fear on itself in self-destruction. It will discover that the walls it builds have left it alone and the victim of its own distorted and selfish designs. Jesus’ confidence comes from his knowledge that in the end the will of God will prevail. For our part, we are called to abandon our desire for our own will and way and join with others in a living and loving discernment of God’s will, something we can only come to realize together.

 

What we have lost, I think, is an understanding of belonging as a place of mediation. 

A place of mediation is that place of belonging where we find structures and discipline, where we can search for truth together, where we find healing for our hearts that are incapable of relating to others in a healthy way, where we learn not to be locked up in our own needs and desires but to welcome others as they are, to accept that they have different gifts and capacities, that they are important and have value. The place of mediation helps us to discover that we are part of something much bigger, that together we can do something beautiful.

How to rekindle motivations that urge us to open up to others and to struggle to make our world a better place for all? Isn’t it the duty of churches, religions, humanitarian organizations, social workers, schools of thought, and local governments to create situations, places of belonging and of dialogue, where we can discover that we can grow in love, find healing for our hearts, and do something worthwhile for others? Isn’t it true that a change in society depends not only on the work of professionals but on each one of us working together? I am not sure what shape society should take in order for more and more people to be able to work tougher in greater mutual love and respect, but I do know that such groups could become a light and hope for the world.

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, pp. 66-7

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