Community and Formation

Jesus said, “Amen I say to you, there is no one who left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or land for my sake and for the gospel’s sake who will not receive now in this age a hundredfold houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and land, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. Many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Mark 10:29-31

 

Today’s gospel passage reminds us of a requirement for discipleship to which we don’t often advert. It is the call to “leave behind.” To turn to the Lord requires a turning away from many of our taken for granted ways of being, from the habitual stances of what is for us the “common sense” way of living into which our families and societies have formed us. There is something radically new and different about the ways that Jesus calls us to live with each other, a difference which is a scandal to the unconscious modes of living that many of our traditions, including religious traditions, establish and support.

In their commentary on this passage, John R. Donoghue and Daniel J. Harrington note the radical change in human relationships that the gospel describes.

The family that has been left behind will be replaced by a new family. The hundredfold that the Markan reader knows from Mark 4:7, 20 is the fruit of hearing and doing the word of God in a new family based not on natural kinship but on the power of God. . . . The omission of “fathers” in Mark’s list of rewards is evidence for many scholars that Mark’s house churches also challenged the dominant patriarchal model of family life. (The Gospel of Mark, p. 308)

Most of the societal structures of human family and community are based on conscious and unconscious power dynamics. When Jesus says that “Many who are first will be last, and the last first,” he is overturning all of our presumptions about how society is to be ordered. Jesus says that to follow him and to be a disciple it is necessary to leave behind all of our attachments, not only to possessions and other persons but especially to our own taken-for-granted modes of consciousness. It is a strange paradox of human experience that those who claim to be the authorities for Christian teaching and teachers of Jesus’ way so often become the defenders of power, hierarchy, and patriarchy.

The “new family” model of Jesus, as described by Mark, is, according to Donohue and Harrington, “based . . . on the power of God.” That power, however, is received by the core disposition of discipleship. The “new family” is a gathering of disciples. What does this mean in practice?

A disciple is a student, and the student is committed to learning in every moment and from every situation. Adrian van Kaam says that to be truly human is to be “always and everywhere in formation.” Perhaps there is no “father” listed in the new community because for Jesus there is only one Father, that is God. And, as he tells the disciples, “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters.” (Matthew 23: 8) Those who have left the world of a hierarchical and patriarchal society behind for Jesus’ sake are to learn a new mode of relating to each other, based not on power, office, or status, but rather on shared discipleship, on the commitment to learn from everyone else their true identity and to be formed continually into the image of Christ that they are.

While this may sound, in one respect, beautifully egalitarian and fantastically utopian, in practice it is quite immediate and difficult. How do we live in relationship to others in such a way that we practice being last instead of first? One way is to be a true disciple of what the other members of our “community” teach us. Our unconscious mode of acting out is always in service of the pleasure principle. We move toward pleasure and away from pain. Without thinking, we are always reacting to others based on whether their presence, words, and actions gratify our own current self image or not. We move towards those who confirm what we already think, feel, and desire and move against those who do not. We structure life together in such a way as to manage as smoothly as possible the “competing gratifications” that are constantly reacting against each other. What if instead we were to listen attentively to ourselves and to the constant reactions that others evoke in us and in this way allow them to teach us, to form, reform, and perhaps finally transform us?

Many years ago, someone pointed out to me that, in her words, “You don’t like to be countered.” As I took this unpleasant comment in, I realized that I not only didn’t like it but that I became very angry when another disagreed with or contradicted me. As received the comment even more deeply, I realized that I reacted not even merely with anger but with infantile rage. Slowly and painfully, I began to learn how fragile was my own sense of self. No matter how trivial the disagreement with another, it was enough to challenge my very sense of self-worth. For me, the conflict was not merely one of differing ideas or points of view, but rather the very sense of my being accepted and respected. And so caught was I in this inner turmoil, that I, in return, was unable to respect and accept the other.

To live in the community Jesus offers is to be willing to give form to and to receive form from each other. Such a way of living together is not only counter-cultural; it is also counter to the movements of our id and ego. It is community grounded not on our strength but on the power of God. It requires of us a vulnerability and openness, a willingness and docility to live from the level not of id or ego but of spirit. We are a capacity for love and for communion, but we are only that at the deepest level of our being. To live from this place we must leave behind all of those “common sense” ways of being with others that we have developed over a lifetime. We must learn to go against our desire to have power over others, including over their view of us, so that we can learn the freedom that comes with becoming last.

If discipleship is to find its way into our everyday and relational lives, we must be willing to work hard. We do not become disciples by a cognitive adherence to certain doctrines and moral principles. We do not belong to the new community that Jesus offers by belonging to one social club or another, to one ethnic or racial group or another, to one nation or another, to one religion or another. To identify ourselves in this way is but another ratification of power dynamics and patriarchy. To stand apart and aloof and to judge others is, whatever its trappings, but a refusal of the call to be a disciple, to be the last in service to the others.

Catholic belief contains a theological construct we call purgatory. We are taught that it is the place where we go after death in order to become purified so that we might become ready to see and enjoy the life of God. It is a place of purgation and suffering, but a place of joy for all that, as its inhabitants are being reformed and transformed for eternal life with God. For the disciple, this place of purgation and purification is but an extension of this life we share each day with others. It is a description of daily life in community with others as Jesus calls us to live it.

To truly live in community and communion with others is a difficult and painful place. The pain is due to the constant realization of one’s own self-centeredness. It is painful to live and know the gap between our possibilities for love and communion and our own fear of and refusal to love. Yet, it is also an experience of hope and joy, as the purification attests to the more that we are, to the Divine life in which we share. The purgation and purification of formative community is also the deepest form of communion we can know in this life. We are already one; we are brothers and sisters not because of our external similitude but because of our shared origin and home. The way to that knowledge and experience, however, is a way of purging and purification of all that is false in us, of all the self-illusions we carry that keep us hidden and separate from each other.

When I was in the navy, I was taught to give orders to others. That came quite naturally to me! All my life I had been taught to climb the ladder, to seek promotion, to compete, to be the best, to win prizes. This is what society teaches us. In doing so, we lose community and communion. It was not natural or easy for me to live in communion with people, just to be with them. How much more difficult it was for me to be in communion with people who could hardly speak or had little to speak about.

Communion did not come easily to me. I had to change and to change quite radically. When you have been taught from an early age to be first, to win, and then suddenly you sense that you are being called by Jesus to go down the ladder and to share your life with those who have little culture, who are poor and marginalized, a real struggle breaks out within oneself. As I began living with people like Raphael and Philip, I began to see all the hardness of my heart. It is painful to discover the hardness in one’s own heart. Raphael and the others were crying out simply for friendship and I did not quite know how to respond because of the other forces within me, pulling me to go up the ladder. But over the years, the people I live with in L’Arche have been teaching and healing me.

They have been teaching me that behind the need for me to win, there are my own fears and anguish, the fear of being devalued or pushed aside, the fear of opening up my heart and of being vulnerable or of feeling helpless in front of others in pain; there is the pain and brokenness of my own heart.

Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community, pp.18-9

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