Listening and Responding

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Laborers mowed your fields, and you cheated them—listen to the wages that you kept back, calling out; realize that the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. On earth you have had a life of comfort and luxury; in the time of slaughter you went on eating to your heart’s content. It was you who condemned the innocent and killed them; they offered you no resistance.

James 5:4-6

We distinguish as separate the evangelical counsels of poverty, chaste love, and obedience. In truth, however, they are but varying dimensions of the same reality, the ways of living out a truth of the fundamental connectedness and communion we have with all human persons and with our world. The “Mystical Body” is not merely an analogy; it is a reality.

We speak here not of the vows which consecrated religious take but rather of the counsels in their foundational applicability to the lives of all persons. In his very direct and challenging letter, James describes the effects of human selfishness and greed. There is no human thought, word, action or work that does not impact others and the world as a whole.

The a significant part of the economy of the new nation of the United States was built on the institution of slavery. “Laborers mowed your fields, and you cheated them—listen to the wages that you kept back, calling out; realize that the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” To the present moment, one of the most powerful and wealthy nations in the history of the world is unable to breach its social and political divisions, perhaps, in no small part, because it has yet to “listen to the wages” that have been “kept back.” When we listen, we shall always hear the results of our choices and actions, and, if we reply we shall be taught obedience.

It is impossible to act without reference to the social impact of our actions with impunity. In our closest relationships with spouse or partner, family, community, and on to the local, national, and international levels, we live constantly with the effects of our words and actions, our way of living, on others. In international relations, we have experienced powerfully in the last decade, as always, the “blowback” from aggression and invasion of other countries. In the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, we continue to experience the terrible effects on the indigenous populations of their subjugation and colonization in the age of western exploration. At the planetary level, we are on the verge of catastrophic effects from climate change due to unbridled and unreflective industrialization and consumerism. At the personal and inter-relational levels, we, at least in western society, are experiencing a crisis of community and intimacy.

While relatedness and communion are the reality, the truth is that it is an alternative “reality” that has the greater hold on us. The ideologies that govern our self-understanding and our behaviors, especially in the west but increasingly globally, spring from a perception that we are separate and fragmented individuals. This perspective is not new, but perhaps has just grown over time. We seek to maximize our personal wealth and comfort with no reference to the impact of that on others. We tend increasingly to see others as means for our own self-actualization and gratification. We aspire to an independence and what we see as “freedom” that fails to appreciate the creative dialectic between rights and responsibility to and for others.

It is in this light that we can begin to see the evangelical counsels as the practicing of “right relationship” to others and to the planet. If all creation is a gift to all of us, then poverty requires of us that, in every aspect of our lives, we use no more than what is truly needed. Nothing is one’s own in that sense, but we each share in what is God’s gift to all of us.

Others are not means to and even less obstacles to one’s own “self-actualization.” Rather they and I are one body. I am healthy, in large part, to the extent that the body is healthy, and I am sick as the body is sick. Chastity requires of us that respect and care for the other, as other, is at the heart of our relating to them. Because we are one body, because we are branches of the one vine, the other’s significance does not lie merely in the place that we give them in our lives and projects, but in the One who is the source of life in all of us. While our mode of sexual expression and relationship is a significant aspect of chastity, it is not the whole of it. Chaste love is a love marked by the reverence and respect for the other, as child of God, as brother or sister, that is due them.

Obedience requires of us that our relationship to the world be ordered by reality and not by our own ideas, ideologies, preferences, and illusions. As Pope Francis describes it in Laudato Si, “Paying attention to this manifestation [of God in creation], we learn to see ourselves in relation to all other creatures: ‘I express myself in expressing the world; in my effort to decipher the sacredness of the world, I explore my own.” (#85) If we truly try to listen, to practice obedience, we shall see how our lack of poverty and chastity are hurting God’s creation around us — and so ourselves as well. We shall come to realize that to take and to use more than is ours is hurtful, towards the other persons, our world and ourselves. We shall experience, in the pain we inflict on each other by our lack of reverence and respect, the sufferings of the body of which we are a part.

Obediential listening requires a true practice of prayer on our part. It is in prayer that we experience the calls to deeper poverty and chastity. When we eat or drink too much, when we watch too much television or consume too much news, we cannot pray. When we fail to respect and revere another, we become obsessed with thoughts of self-justification and cannot pray. When we do anything that diminishes or dilutes our consciousness, prayer is impossible. Adrian van Kaam writes that “we must listen to the message that every pain conceals.” To take time to be still, especially in its painful and difficult moments, will offer a call to deeper obedience to reality, the reality that is God’s creation and not ours.

God has written a precious book, “whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe”. The Canadian bishops rightly pointed out that no creature is excluded from this manifestation of God: “From panoramic vistas to the tiniest living form, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe. It is also a continuing revelation of the divine”. The bishops of Japan, for their part, made a thought-provoking observation: “To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope”. This contemplation of creation allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us, since “for the believer, to contemplate creation is to hear a message, to listen to a paradoxical and silent voice”. We can say that “alongside revelation properly so-called, contained in sacred Scripture, there is a divine manifestation in the blaze of the sun and the fall of night”. Paying attention to this manifestation, we learn to see ourselves in relation to all other creatures: “I express myself in expressing the world; in my effort to decipher the sacredness of the world, I explore my own”.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, #85

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