The Presumption of Knowing

Jesus came to his native place and taught the people in their synagogue. They were astonished and said, “Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds? Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Are not his sisters all with us? Where did this man get all this?
Matthew 13:54-6

 

What is our greatest obstacle to change, reformation, and transformation in both our personal and shared lives? In today’s gospel from Matthew we hear of the refusal of those who knew Jesus best to really recognize him for who he really was. Even with the evidence of words and deeds to the contrary, they cannot overcome their own arrogance born of their “common sense” of him. A teacher of ours used to speak frequently of “the subject presumed to know.” One of the ways we navigate the mystery of life is by an arrogant presumption that we know and understand. This is most at work in us in the most familiar settings of our lives. So hardened is our view and presumed knowledge of those who are always around us that there is little space in us for whatever is of mystery, of whatever is “more than” in them. This same arrogance and presumption is at work in ourselves, and so we mistake the habits we have developed for the core of our being, for our original calling. If we already know, then it is quite difficult if not impossible for something new and different to break through.

Pope Francis speaks of life together as “a sacred pilgrimage.” His view of life with family, friends, or in community is of a journeying together into the Mystery. The metaphor of pilgrimage suggests that we are not standing still or staying in the same place, but we are rather together moving more and more deeply into the fullness of life that God desires for us and that Jesus promises. Francis says that it is “the mystique of living together” that makes our life such a pilgrimage. And, always for Francis, it is living with an openness to “a culture of encounter” that makes of our living together a continual opening to Mystery and to the Divine call at its heart.

Pope Francis is fond of quoting Pope Paul VI who said that “dialogue is the new name for love.” Unfortunately, dialogue has often been reduced to meaning “talk.” Its root meaning, however, is “to speak across.” It is not to speak to, and certainly not to speak at. Rather, it is a way of speaking that crosses the boundaries and the barriers that we have unconsciously established to limit our self-expression and our receptivity to the unknown, the mystery, of the other. The call to true encounter and to meaningful dialogue is, first of all, a call to radical reformation and transformation, personally and communally.

If we honestly reflect on our childhood, we can recall from quite early on our desire both to be known and to be hidden. Just recently, as I was reading from the novel Larchfield by Polly Clark, I found myself thinking about how unknown I was to my own parents. We often hear in the news of young men and women behaving in ways that seem so surprising to their parents. At times, it is easy to be judgmental of those parents, feeling as if they should have known. In truth, however, if we reflect on our own lives, we must readily admit that there were and are significant aspects of ourselves which our parents never knew. Similarly as adults, for all our attempts in our closest relationships to be honest with each other, we are never “open books,” even to those who are closest to us. Living together is an ongoing negotiation, where we are ever finding new ways of being together which, hopefully, allow for increasing openness and intimacy over time but which will always, rightfully, defend and protect aspects of our own unique core, even from those we love.

True encounter and dialogue spring from the awareness that the other is always much more than we see and know. It is openness to receive and understand that more, while at the same time it is grounded in a respect and reverence for what must always be beyond our knowledge and understanding. This is the relationship that Martin Buber terms the “I-Thou.”

As we recognize from our earliest experiences in our own family, we are, as human, limited openness. For good reason, we need and desire to be both known and unknown. We create apparent forms of life out of that which is known to us, in ourselves and in those with whom we share our lives. Yet, the possibility of more, of change, of transformation comes out of what we do not know. Every meeting with another is potentially an encounter with the Mystery of the other. It is our relationship to that Mystery that is determinative of our capacity to be reformed and transformed, individually and together. As Elijah, we are most apt to encounter the Mystery, to discover the truly new and different, in the still small voice.

As the citizens of Nazareth, we shall fail to recognize the Mystery as long as we presume that we know already who the other is. The bad name that dialogue has in many community situations is because we confuse dialogue with mere expression. When we have known people for a long time, when we live with people day to day, we may not really know them, but we do know their opinions. After a fairly short time, most pundits and opinion writers become quite tedious because their ideologies and opinions are so fixed that we know what they will say about any given topic in advance. So, too, in families and communities. We know the reactions of the habitual selves of each other. As long as we are living, without reflection, only out of those old and established habits of mind, our reactions to life will remain predictable and stale. It is as if we are together but only sharing together the surface of our lives. If our speaking and our communication remain at that level, then nothing new can happen.

Every good counselor or therapist knows that the problems that people in relationships suffer are almost always due to the small and impoverished worlds that they inhabit. In those small worlds of conflicting opinions and experiences, there may be no possibility of encounter or meeting. The “task” lies in expanding those worlds, in recognizing what a very small part of our being and of the other’s being we are inhabiting.

When we are suffering or stuck, we want things to be made better by reality’s accommodating itself to our needs and demands. We think the answer lies in the world and the Mystery shrinking down to our size. “Is he not the carpenter’s son?” In our arrogance and presumption to know, we want everything else to change while we don’t.

Reformation and transformation may sound ethereal and trendy, but, finally, they are but different words for profound change. Because our own life as well as the life of all others and of the world abide in the Mystery, life to the full is always “more than.” As Psalm 96:1 reminds us, we are at each moment to “Sing to the Lord a new song.” To be honest, we must admit that our ordinary experience of life is not newness at each moment. We need habits to live, habits of mind and body. We need to assume a current and apparent form of life in order that life is manageable and bearable for us. To be truly and distinctively human, however, we must continually pass from one current form of life to another. If we harden one current form, we cease to live. We opt for death-in-life.

The way that we humans deeply change and grow is by human relationships. It is in a real dialogue and encounter with another who embodies the love of the Mystery for us that we are drawn out into a new form of life that more faithfully incarnates our unique life call. This is true of individuals, and it is also true of families and communities. When I ponder the truth of how much I was unknown to my parents, I feel sad. Although there may be some anger, resentment, and guilt, these are not the heart of the experience. For, I understand that my experience is the truth of the human condition. The suffering that comes from the limitations of our knowing and being known not only applies to our life with our parents but to all our significant relationships.

Many years ago, one of our brothers died who had spent most of his life as a manual laborer. Unlike most members of the community, he was not a teacher but was involved in construction, electrical work, and maintenance. At his funeral, the person offering the eulogy read from a notebook of poetry that this brother had kept throughout his life. I did not know this brother well, only by work and reputation (a very appreciated reputation at that). I was astounded to realize, however, that this was a person with the heart and soul of a poet. We in the Congregation knew him in a certain way, and yet what he lived and went through in his life was so much more. If more of us had known him as he was in himself, what difference would that have made for all of us? What did this brother’s participation in the Mystery have to teach us about our identity as religious and as a religious congregation, beyond the identity of “teaching brother”? What did he know from his lived experience about our Congregation’s charismatic call and identity that the rest of us never heard?

We are all very much like the citizens of Nazareth in the face of the Mystery. We prefer to keep it at bay because, of its very nature, it is always calling us to conversion, to change, to reformation and transformation. We have so many excuses for preferring the security of worn out routines and lifeless habits. Yet, the summons of the Mystery is as near to us as Jesus was when he taught in the synagogue in Nazareth. What it asks of us is the courage to detach from our presumption of knowing and to encounter the others with open minds and hearts.

Communion is lived first and foremost within the respective communities of each Institute. To this end, I would ask you to think about my frequent comments about criticism, gossip, envy, jealousy, hostility as ways of acting which have no place in our houses. This being the case, the path of charity open before us is almost infinite, since it entails mutual acceptance and concern, practicing a communion of goods both material and spiritual, fraternal correction and respect for those who are weak … it is the “mystique of living together” which makes our life “a sacred pilgrimage”. We need to ask ourselves about the way we relate to persons from different cultures, as our communities become increasingly international. How can we enable each member to say freely what he or she thinks, to be accepted with his or her particular gifts, and to become fully co-responsible?
Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter, II,8

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