Catholics. Disciples. Missionaries – Relationship
by Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
They seem like exceptions to us—people who are unusually connected to others. We often imagine that identical twins can almost feel the same thing at the same time. We marvel when one old person, married to another for decades, suddenly dies; and the spouse dies a few hours later. And we vaguely acknowledge something of the truth that Aristotle talked about—true friendships are like one soul that happens to be in two different bodies.
They seem like exceptions to us because we’ve conditioned ourselves to think in terms of separated people who, with a lot of effort, might somehow find some kind of unity. We inhabit our separate spaces, reinforced by separate rooms and separate bubbles of information. Our earphones and cell phones buttress this sense of isolation. Perhaps, at times, our separation might break down, maybe over a cup of coffee or a beer, and we might be able to connect with another for just a few moments.
We applaud, of course, when people do commit to each other, although the stability of our commitments has grown flimsier over the years. We get used to divorce rates that hover at 40%; this on top of people marrying less and later. When people marry, we hear speeches about enduring love, about love until death. But after the champagne has gone flat, these glowing words can seem empty, almost like a spoof.
More broadly, divisions loom greater than ever, probably enhanced by the prevalence of media which thrives on conflict. Issues about race might get the most attention, given the enormous ambivalence we still feel about the scar of slavery, and its continuing after-effects, in our society. Yet even within races divisions are hyped: blacks from this area are compared with blacks from another; Latinos from one part of the world receive compliments while other Latinos receive sneers. “They’re all lazy,” people say, with a certitude that arises only when someone barely knows the group being critiqued. Phrases like “white trash,” “uptown,” “luxurious,” and “executive,” parse the way we describe and divide each other.
Economic divisions receive growing attention: the 1% as opposed to the 99%; or the 10% as opposed to the 90%. People on the bottom of the pile hurl disdain at those on the top, while those on the top routinely make fun of “welfare mamas who are making out like bandits.” Our economic divisions are carved in stone as real-estate reflects how separated we are. In the city, it’s high-rise dwellers who contrast with tenement-dwellers; in the suburbs, it’s people in newer divisions, with houses nearly four-thousand square feet, driving by older divisions with houses only the poor can afford.
A friend of mine, an American citizen, was talking in Spanish to the cashier at the grocery store. “Go back to your own country,” the next-in-line barked. “I am in my own country,” my friend retorted, taking her groceries and walking away.
It’s comical, and tragic, how, every four years, some politician runs on the slogan, “Let’s take our country back.” Back from whom? I wonder. Whose country is it anyway? Whose city? Whose neighborhood? How easily we reduce our world to what we know, to “our own.” And, from that narrow perspective, proceed to define everyone else.
Even in our own houses, we almost manufacture division. As children enter the tweens, the message they’ve been hearing all their lives about “being your own person” and “finding out who you really” start to manifest themselves in subtle opposition to anyone older than thirty-five. The artificial coherence of a social group (tweens, teens, young adults) gives us some sense of solidarity as we claim our independence. From “I won’t clean my room,” to “I won’t go to church,” children progressively grow away from their parents and their families. We virtually solidify this separation by the institution of college in which our young ones, supported by tens of thousands of dollars of tuition, can grow even further away from their roots.
And yet …
What if all of this is an illusion? What if the whole assumption that we are separate and isolated, and therefore have to struggle to come together, is a distortion of the human, and earthly, reality that we are? What if, at the heart of our deepest truth, we are radically connected? What if no one is able to be him – or herself without being profoundly connected to others and to the earth?
We only have to consider how babies are born. Despite our fantasies about cloning, no human being comes about by the production of someone identical to another. We are the product of the mating of man and woman who, in their differences and their embrace, each contribute the genetic material which ties us to both of them, to their families, to their families’ history, to their cultures, and to their genomes.
No child, further, comes from the womb able to care for itself, communicate, to direct its life. This all comes about through an amazing interaction of relationships. Parents impart to the child the very categories from which the child will interpret the world. Each gesture, particularly on the part of the mother, but also on the father’s side, engenders a reaction in the baby that forms the communal environment out of which a child will feel and act.
A smile—the child smiles back. Baby language and the child “goo goo’s” back. A touch produces a desire to touch back. The feeding and caring for the child, on the most elemental physical level, produce bonds that endure in the child as firmly as the child’s skin and bones.
Our bondedness to each other outranks almost all other instincts. Let a person we love be threatened and, without hesitation, our gut responds, we grow totally alert, and we proceed instinctually into attack mode. We can imagine what a child goes through when she sees mother and father arguing; when he sees his father hit his mother; when she sees daddy moving out of the house. Our fundamental being is attacked. Our foundations turn to jelly. We no longer know to whom or to what we belong.
The same is true for brother and brother, for sister and sister, for siblings, for cousins. A threat to another is a threat to me. And this branches out to close friendships, to the circles in which I travel, to my neighbors and to my community. When the twin towers came down on September 11, 2001, New Yorkers and the nation gasped as one people, reeling in a common hurt, confused in the deep emotions that emerged—and that we dared to share. Those reactions only showed the bondedness that we have, beneath and behind everything—a bondedness which proves more substantial than our sense of isolation.
A friend called me—one of many—on that terrible September day. The whole of New York spun in confusion. Were subways working? Were airports closed? Would the phones work? What attack would come next? “I haven’t heard from my brother and he works in that area,” my friend said. “I just wanted to talk to someone because I’m scared.”
A day later a neighbor called. Did I hear about the prayer service our block was going to have? Well, no I didn’t hear. At six o’clock that evening people were going to gather with candles and pray. Really? I thought to myself. People on our block hardly ever talked, or shared. But here we were, at six in the evening as the sun readied itself for twilight, holding hands and praying, weeping and embracing each other, because the truth was this: we were all at the same wake, and we all felt the same loss. Who said we were not connected? We all died when those buildings came down.
It’s important to underscore this dimension of human experience, not only because we so frequently deny it, but even more because relationship binds us to God, just as it binds us to each other. For the past several centuries, many thinkers have emphasized a separation of humankind and God. Some of them even conceived of things as an opposition, that what we affirmed of God we were only taking away from our own humanity. These were the ones who demanded that God be considered dead, that we stake out on our own as brave humans facing a cold and unloving world.
But this direction was as much illusion as the sense that we are radically separated from each other. Define God as we do as some distant and aloof being, as a “force,” as an impersonal principle, as unknown and unloving—try to define God this way, yet God still remains radically present to us, “more interior to me than I am to myself,” as St. Augustine put it. Our whole experience is based on relationships, and God is the infinite relationship that holds all together in love.
Is there a greater discovery than coming to see God as intimately related to us? Or, perhaps better, is there a greater gift than this discovery of God’s intimate love for all of creation, supremely expressed in us humans who are the consciousness of creation? Creation has come to know itself—in us. As we have come to know, we have also have the possibility of knowing, and relating, to God.
Here’s a passage from the Book of Exodus:
Whenever Moses went out to the tent, the people would all rise and stand at the entrance of their own tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at its entrance while the Lord spoke with Moses. On seeing the column of cloud stand at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down at the entrance of their own tents. The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a person speaks to a friend. Moses would then return to the camp, but his young assistant, Joshua, son of Nun, never left the tent. (Exodus 33:8-11)
We should take a moment to appreciate just how revolutionary this passage is. For much of the Old Testament—the Jewish Scriptures—the thought of seeing God was equivalent to death. In fact, just a little after the passage above, we find God speaking the phrase: ”But you cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live. (Ex. 33:20). These tensions in the Jewish Scriptures show what revelation does for us: it helps us name the un-nameable, relate to the ultimate Mystery of existence, address and have dialogue with the Source of all life and being.
We will see in our next section the importance of revelation, of the Scriptures, in more detail. Here it is essential to see that God enters all our relationships, undertakes relationship with humankind, and invites people to be part of divine life and love. In fact, because of Jesus Christ, we have come to see God as the Relationship that makes all relationships possible, the font of boundless love. In Christ, we come to see God “face to face,” because Jesus is God’s face shown to humankind. “Whoever sees me, has seen the Father,” Jesus says (John 14:9). In Christ, God speaks to us “face to face”—as he did with Moses.
Even more, in Christ we come to see God as a being-in-relationship, which is what we mean by the term “Trinity”—God, in God’s very being, is the fundamental relationship of giving and receiving. Christians believe that the Father lives for the Son (Jesus), and the Son lives for the Father; their love constitutes the reality of the Holy Spirit who is poured upon humankind through the mission of Jesus.
Disciples, then, come to see the essential relationships that form part of being called to follow Jesus: we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who empowers us to love God, to love in God, and to love for God. This love transforms all our relationships, because Jesus and the Spirit, grounding us in the Father’s love, give us the ability to love others as God does—spouses, families, friends, co-workers, members of our communities and societies—indeed, all people.
Pope Pius XII, who died in 1959, loved to talk about the Church as the “Mystical Body of Christ.” This language tried to capture the breadth and depth of the relational basis of a disciple’s life. We are not individuals, somehow trying to connect with other individuals, and occasionally making contact. Rather, existence interconnects us all—with nature and creations, with each other, and with God—and discipleship becomes a way to grasp this truth, live this reality, and find divine love at the center of everything.
Think about the people in your life this past week.
Draw a diagram. Put yourself in the middle and encircle this image of yourself with those people with whom you have interacted this week. Draw a dotted line for people who connected with you incidentally; draw a very thin line for the people you see every day, the ones who are closest to you.
Now draw a circle around all these connections you have depicted. Write “God” on that circle.
Now pray in thanksgiving to God for the people who surround you, and for the way God continues to be revealed in those who surround you. Write down your prayer.
Catholics. Disciples. Missionaries. is an ongoing series on forming missionary disciples in our parishes and community. Follow the series here.