Didn’t the one who made the outside also make the inside? So instead, give that which is inside as alms.
Luke 11: 40-41
Yesterday I was in communication with a former student who has spent his life’s work in education, as a teacher and researcher. We had asked him to reflect on the influence on his life of his volunteering as a high school student in a program for those who are seen as mentally disabled. He wrote in part: “I was changed by that experience – going on to a career in special education and psychology that I never expected and in some small way hoping my work helped to blur the artificial boundaries we create around human potential.”
Ever since receiving this email I have found myself pondering his words: “and in some small way hoping my work helped to blur the artificial boundaries we create around human potential.” Our earliest life formation is essentially conformation. That is, we form an “outside” which is acceptable to and confirmed by the world in which we live. The directives we receive from our families and cultures help us to develop an adequate sense of self-definition based on what that culture values. But they also impose “the artificial boundaries we create around human potential.” This remains true throughout the phases and stages of our lives. As in our highly mobile world we change sub-cultures, we learn who to be in these new situations in order to be respected and confirmed by the others who constitute this world.
Jesus is often calling us to attend to the greatest “human potential” that lies within by blurring or relativizing the “artificial boundaries” that our socio-historical and cultural biases create. Often in the gospels, it is those who for one reason or another are unacceptable and marginal who reflect most clearly the distinctively “human potential” that is our spiritual core.
Luke Timothy Johnson’s unfamiliar translation of Luke 11: 41 awakens us to the radical spiritual nature of Jesus’ message. “So instead, give that which is inside as alms.” One of the more insidious effects of our non-transcendent culture is that even our religious sensibilities have become largely materialistic. Often, despite our desires to believe otherwise, we give a passing acknowledgment to the gift of the other’s unique presence and prayer, but feel that it is really the material gift that matters. Value is largely constituted by cultural consensus, and almost exclusively functional and materialistic. In this sense “give that which is inside as alms” is a profoundly challenging statement.
When I find myself in a situation where I feel incompetent or insignificant, I tend defensively to withdraw within myself. My energy is focused on “not making a fool of myself,” of not being recognized as deficient, rather than on attending to where there may be a call to me to offer “that which is inside as alms” to another. At this moment I experience that my presence in the world is being dictated by the outside rather than the inside. It is the nature of cultural consciousness to judge worth by what measures up “on the outside” to its standards. But the call of Jesus and of the Gospel is rather to recognize in oneself and others and, by a welcoming hospitable presence to evoke in oneself and others, the unique “human potential” that is within. This will first of all require of us to “blur the artificial boundaries” to human potential by which we unconsciously live, that is in our hearts to detach from the “values” of “the world” and, in the words of St. John of the Cross, “to attend to what is within.”
The way towards union with God’s Will in dialogue with daily life must be simple. I may be blind to this way, not because God made it difficult, but because my vision is obscured by the sinfulness that came into the world with the fall.
Still there must be a simple way back. A way that demands no gross departure from the common ways. A way that does not diminish my effectiveness, but instead enhances my capacity to know, to achieve, to enjoy. A way that fills a void, a need felt by people everywhere. A simple way of communion with my Divine Origin as originating me and others and my life situation here and now.
This way is the path to the kingdom within that our Lord spoke about. A Christian, who has discovered this way and strives to live it, will radiate the peace of at-oneness with the Father. This peace fills the atmosphere around such a person and may communicate itself to those this person meets. This is the peace of an integrated life, the wisdom of at-oneness with the Divine Will, which manifests itself in such persons and in all around them.
Adrian van Kaam, On Being Yourself, p. 135