Conformity and Uniqueness

Hear me, O Lord, and listen to what my adversaries say. Must good be repaid with evil that they should dig a pit to take my life?  Remember that I stood before you to speak in their behalf, to turn away your wrath from them.
Jeremiah 18:19-20

But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.
Matthew 20:25-7

Today’s readings draw us into a central Lenten theme. The “journey to Jerusalem” that is Jesus’ public life becomes increasingly conflictual with many of the powerful, especially the religiously powerful, of his time, culminating in his execution. In the life of Jesus in his world and Jeremiah in his, as well as in the “life in common” of all of us, there abides an underlying tension and even violence. If we tap the surface of our life and work with others, we discover that beneath the somewhat placid surface there roils much competition, resistance, and envy.

In 1 Corinthians 1:10, St. Paul writes: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” The Church community of Corinth, as every community of which we are apart, struggled with competition, division, and envy. Jesus’ injunction to his disciples to be servants is a call to move against a very basic human disposition, which is to assert ourselves, to exert our own power and influence even at the cost of “the good work” itself. It is this innate tendency of our “pride form” that leads Jesus to call us to become a servant and a slave of God’s will and work rather than to seek our self-affirmation by power and control over others.

Every exercise of power over another contains within it the seeds of violence. As with the Corinthians, there are divisions among us because we each, in our own way, seek control over our situations in terms of our own lights and needs. There are countless communities, secular and religious, which beneath their harmonic surface are largely constituted by violent power dynamics. When our propensity to such violent self-assertion goes unrecognized, life in common, be it in family or community, becomes stagnant and depressive. The greater work for which we have come together, be it the good formation of children in a family or a religious and spiritual mission, is held hostage by each person’s self-assertion and resistance to the others.

The community of disciples that Jesus calls into being requires a whole-hearted devotion to reformation and transformation of heart. It requires that each member dedicate her or his self to breaking through the innate tendency to “lord it over” others, to stand out by putting down, and then to reverence and to serve the differences and the originality of each person.

As children we are raised in conformity. We learn to survive by adapting to the values and mores of the family and culture that surround us. If our parenting and upbringing is “good enough,” we are also encouraged to foster what is most deeply unique and original in us. However, as religious and cultural form traditions weaken, decay, and become more estranged from the wisdom inherent in their foundations, conformity itself becomes the more dominant value. It can happen that the very sparks of uniqueness and difference in the child, or for that matter in the colleague or community member or citizen, become increasingly threatening to the “body” which has begun to lose contact with its deeper spirit. As the exertion of power on the world becomes more and more the goal, anyone whose personal attributes appear different or contrary to the shared project becomes a threat to be contained or rejected.

As transcendent, human persons are always much more than functionaries. Be it the child or the colleague or the community member who is very different, each one is a summons into a world that greatly exceeds the boundaries we have placed upon it. When groups or communities inhibit the unique potentialities of their members for the sake of their own self-designed projects, they are planting the seeds of their own destruction. Jeremiah and Jesus enter their worlds as persons whose fidelity to the call is a reminder to those around them of the more they are called to be. Unlike the people of Nineveh who deeply hear Jonah’s summons to repentance and greater life, those around Jeremiah and Jesus respond with resentment, anger, and violence. Instead of taking into their minds and hearts, the witness to fidelity to God’s call that these prophets are, they prefer to remain closed within the narrow confines of the worlds they have created.

As companions on the way, we are called to be servants of the human and spiritual unfolding of each other. God calls us to live our own deepest call as fully and faithfully as possible not only for ourselves but to be a servant of that same human flourishing in others. Reciprocally, we are to continually learn to value and to appreciate more wholeheartedly the uniqueness, strength, and fidelity of the other, and to allow their fidelity to form us into the more faithful living out of our own original calling. The “way” for us to come to life is not to level or diminish the other; it is to receive their life and their truth as a call to us. This is the way that we are to “help, encourage, and edify one another and work together.” Communal life, in whatever form, is strengthened to the degree that we become servants of the unique unfolding of each other. Our communal work will flourish to the extent that each person is able to contribute from his or her unique talents, gifts, and weaknesses. Because the work we serve is God’s work, God has brought together the talents necessary for that work. It is God’s project we together are to serve, not ours.

In this light, faith is growing in trust that whatever it is God is asking of us God has given us the ability to do. We are not being asked to do what we are not able to do. That too often seems to us to be the case because we are failing to recognize and to reverence the gifts of each other, and to discern our shared call and direction in light of those gifts. Who we are as a family or as a community is constituted by those whom God has given us; they are not to be constituted by our sense of who we are as a family or community. They are not primarily to conform to the identity the body imposes on them. Rather, they are a gift to the family or community by which it is to come to know its identity and call through the process Pope Francis describes as “accompanying, discerning, and  integrating” the uniqueness of each member. We overcome the violence of competition and envy as we grow in respect and appreciation for our differences. This goes far beyond tolerance. It is the very willingness to be moved and changed by the difference and originality of the other. Such a respect and gratitude can move us both to dedicate ourselves more diligently to the living out of our own originality and to discern and integrate the gifts of each of us into our work of serving God’s will in the world.

The more I become aware of my uniqueness as gift, the more I will be able to appreciate the uniqueness of others. I begin to live in a spirit of gratitude. I live in humble acknowledgment of the undeserved gifts that in various ways and measures are given to different people. Something peculiar happens to my life experience. I come to feel deeply that the personal gift of each person points to a realm of value that surpasses each one of us. Spiritual values are incarnated in concrete persons. These values do not become their property. These persons do not own their personal originality as they own a bicycle, a new car, a bookcase or a French poodle. They truly are these personal values but they are so by participation.

. . . Each unique person is only a limited participation in universal values. In gratitude, I can fully appreciate the manifestation of value in another. In some cases this manifestation may become for me an appeal, a summons,, an invitation to live this same value in my life.

Adrian van Kaam, Living Creatively, p. 152

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