The Common Life

“I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you will deal with me, then please do me the favor of killing me at once, so that I need lo longer face this distress.”

Numbers 11: 14-5

 

A few years ago many Roman Catholics found themselves surprised at a somewhat drastic change in tone, as well as a few surprising changes in substance, of the language of the Eucharistic Liturgy. One of the explanations given for the change was that the language of liturgy and prayer should be more “exalted” in nature. As we read the stories of the great figures of the Torah, however, we discover quite a different perspective on prayer. In today’s reading from Numbers, we hear Moses, who meets God face to face and speaks to God directly, complaining to and arguing with God with very earthy terms. This is quite common in all of the key scriptural figures and of the Jewish tradition of prayer throughout the ages. God is not an exalted figure at a great distance before whom one is to assume the affectations of a royal subject. God is in this place with us, and our right relationship is to be “hammered out” in an authentic and emotionally honest dialogue. Such prayer and dialogue opens us, as we are and not as we pretend to be or would like to be, to be changed and formed by God in the very core of our being and in the depths of our personality.

For most of us who struggle to be responsible and to perform our duties and work in the world faithfully, the words of Moses today sound very familiar. Although we may be much more hesitant to acknowledge it and certainly to express it than Moses is, we often feel as if the “load” which has been laid on us is far too heavy for us. Our work responsibilities, perhaps far too often, evoke such dread in us that we, as Moses, ask, if not to be killed, at least to be rescued from having “to face this distress.” Particularly as Euro-American culture has become more and more work-fixated and product and finance-oriented,  much of our work lives have become more and more burdensome and debilitating. This is true not only in the secular sphere but even in the so-called religious one.

Some decades ago, among many changes in theological perspective, so-called “Kingdom theology” became dominant. Its understanding that the faithful are called in their lives to “build the Kingdom of God” became central in our theological self-understanding. It was a very good corrective to a religious sensibility that had been far too “other-worldly” in its orientation. God’s Kingdom did not just exist in some other place after our death, but it was a summons to create here on earth a “kingdom” in accord with God’s will, a place of justice, peace, and love that was in accord with God’s creative intention. The work of human hands, from this perspective, had a creative potential and significance it had before often seemed to lack.

Every human insight, however, will ultimately run up against our own pride form, our own capacity to an inverted-awe that puts our own works and possibilities ahead of obedience to God’s way and will. It is difficult for us human beings to maintain the role of servant and instrument. Inevitably, we shall arrogate any task, including that of “building the Kingdom,” to ourselves. We shall only recognize that we have done this when we begin to suffer its symptoms. Moses describes the main symptom when he complains to God: “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me.” Being a collaborator with and instrument of God is so difficult for us (as too collaborating with others) that we shall inevitably begin to take on the task as our own alone. At this point, the task always becomes too heavy. Yet, far too often, unlike Moses who has the courage to bring his honest feelings to God, we tend to struggle along on our own, thus diminishing both ourselves and the quality of the work at hand.

For many years during the difficult time of the diminishing of what we call “vocations” to the religious life, I served in the formation of those young people who had been attracted to consider a call to the religious life. In the course of their formation and during the immediate years after leaving formation, the vast majority of those young people withdrew from the Community. Often this was because the appeal of the secular world from which they had come was just far too powerful an attraction for them. Another and perhaps far less analyzed reason, however, is that the life of “active religious communities” had come to be oriented and identified only with its work, its “Kingdom building” and had ceased to be a viable, sustaining, and attractive way of living. While respecting the sincerity and the generosity of the brothers, many young people could not see the quality of their shared lives in community as conducive to their own human growth and flourishing. As the work for the Church, once principally done by members of religious communities, became a work that could be done by all, what then warranted, in their eyes, the apparent “deprivations” of poverty, celibate chastity, and obedience? If these “asceticisms” did not effect a vibrant and dynamic form of human living, then what was the point of them?

Building the “Kingdom of God” must be different from building our own kingdoms. When the way we work to do it is is of the same order as the work we do to build our own legacy, then it will inevitably come to feel “too heavy” for us. What we see as our own task becomes so focal in our consciousness that life and world become reduced to our singular burdens. Throughout humankind’s history and the history of Christianity, Christians’ desire to do God’s work has far too often led them to a dour and depressed place where there seemed to be no joy in living. It is doubtful that it is God’s work being done when we act and communicate gospel values in our workplace but are unable to live them out in our families or communities. At times the young people who entered ministerial communities after initial formation would experience a life which consisted of hard ministerial work during the day followed by passive aggressive and avoidant behavior in the “community” in the evening. Too often there seemed to be a “building of the Kingdom” in the lives of others, but a losing of the presence of God and a sense of joy in one’s own life in community.

In a secularized culture, such a “split” between one’s work and one’s life is a recurrent danger. Interestingly enough, Jesus never uses the term “to build the Kingdom” of Heaven or God. Perhaps he understood that there is always a complexity for us human beings when it comes to building. The metaphors for the “Kingdom” are those of a hidden reality that is to be brought to light, a source of life that is always at work and that requires of us an awakening to its presence and its “way” in the world. Jan van Ruusbroec teaches that the one who has been sent by God in service to the world is one who “seeks nothing of his or her own but only the glory of the one who sent him or her.” The “work” we are to do is given to us. When it becomes distress for us, we are to recognize that we have made the work our own rather than God’s.

Sigmund Freud said: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” We shall always have a tendency to make contraries of complementaries. Ruusbroec says that the height of our humanity lies in discovering and leading “the common life, a life common to all.” A person comes to live “the common life,” what Freud would call “our humanness,” when that person “is equally ready for contemplation or for action and is perfect in both;” that is, when one lives from moment to moment equally ready to love and to work. When our work becomes separated from our love (contemplation), then we have ceased to work as “a willing instrument of God” and have become lost in our own pride form, our own projects. To be aware of and present to what is happening in and to ourselves, and, as Moses, to bring truthfully our experience to prayer is our way back to the discovery that we are not servants but friends. God does not lay unbearable burdens on our shoulders; we do that. In true self-presence and prayer, we can always rediscover God’s will that we have life to the full, that we enjoy our humanness, and that our work spring from our life and union with God.

A person who has been sent down by God from these heights into the world is full of truth and rich in all the virtues. He seeks nothing of his own but only the glory of the one who sent him. He is accordingly righteous and truthful in all things and has a rich and generous foundation which rests on God’s own richness. He will therefore always flow forth to all who need him, for the living spring of the Holy Spirit is so rich that it can never be drained dry. Such a person is a living and willing instrument of God with which God accomplishes what he wishes in the way he wishes. Such a person does not attribute these accomplishments to himself but gives God the glory. He stands ready and willing to do all that God commands and is strong and courageous in suffering and enduring all that God sends him. He therefore leads a common life, for he is equally ready for contemplation or for action and is perfect in both.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, Conclusion

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