FROM THE PASTOR – August 16, 2009
As human beings, we are social animals. We are “hard wired” for community. We see this at the beginning of the book of Genesis when the Lord God, having molded Adam out of clay and breathed life into him, looks at the first man and declares: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him” (2:18). God then proceeds to fashion – also from clay – “various wild animals and various birds of the air” (v. 19) and to let the man name them; but “none prove[s] to be [a] suitable partner for the man” (v. 20). So God puts Adam into a deep sleep, extracts one of the man’s ribs, and builds it up into the first woman. “When God [brings] her to the man, the man [says]: ‘This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’” (vv. 22-23).
The problem in the modern “civilized” West is that we seem almost to have forgotten our communal nature and all that it implies. We have become so focused on individual rights and freedoms that we sometimes forget that “my” choices have an impact on others. So, for instance, we want more and more services from local, state, and national governments; but we don’t expect to have to fund those services through our tax dollars. Also, many of our neighbors proclaim themselves to be “spiritual, not religious” – I suspect because membership in a church means that one will be expected to contribute one’s time, talent, and treasure. Affiliation with an organized church also means having to rub elbows with real people, many of whom I may not particularly like; and it may mean having to struggle with certain church teachings and positions which I disagree with, or which at least make me uncomfortable.
Ironically, our unfettered individualism nudges us more and more toward increased isolation and loneliness. Anthropologists of speech argue that we talk about and yearn for community and connectedness in direct proportion to our progressive loss of any sense of how to achieve those things. Yet participation in a culture – i.e., a system of shared meaning – remains essential to rooting us and grounding us and giving us a sense of security and identity. It was John Donne – poet and Anglican priest of the late 16th and early 17th centuries – who affirmed our common nature and our shared mortality when he wrote, in his Meditation XVII: “No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Lucky for Donne, he lived in an age when that all seemed much clearer. We denizens of post-modernity are far more apt to wonder whether as humans, we really are like one another in any meaningful sense. We wonder, for instance, if there really is a “Mr. or Ms. Right” out there for me; we wonder, in fact, if anyone really can or will ever truly “get” me. Perhaps we are tempted to escape by distracting ourselves, believing that we have “no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry” (Ecclesiastes 8:15, KJV). Scratch the surface deeply enough, however, and the old communal nature will still reveal itself.
I learned this in my own life through a particularly powerful human experience which I shared with strangers. I was working on the staff of a summer family retreat program; and one day a week, it was part of our routine to pack the participating families into vans and transport them to a lake in a nearby state park for an afternoon of swimming and relaxing on the beach. All was going well until I noticed the lifeguards walking along, speaking quietly in turn to each adult they came to. When they reached me, they explained that a small boy – maybe five or six years old, as I remember it – had gone missing. They were asking for adults to volunteer to join hands in a human chain and to slowly walk the entire roped off swimming area to be sure that the boy was not under water somewhere – unconscious or worse.
And so, we did. We joined hands and walked side by side through the murky water, feeling our way in front of us with our feet. I recall vividly that absolute silence reigned while we did this – not only among us who were part of the chain, but also among all those observing from the beach, from oldest grandmother down to youngest toddler. It was solemn work, imbued with a strong sense of shared purpose. We had a clear sense that together we were more effective than any one or two of us could ever have been alone. At the same time, we held our collective breaths – searchers and observers alike – hoping against hope that no one of us would step on anything other than sand or seaweed. And you certainly could feel the collective exhale of relief when our search turned up nothing.
Suddenly we all found ourselves chattering with the strangers next to us as if we were old friends, releasing our nervous energy, comforting the family, and so on. Thanks be to God, the little boy showed up shortly afterwards – I don’t exactly remember, but I think he had wandered off in search of a restroom or some such thing. Anyway, everyone applauded and cheered. We all rejoiced with the family, as if the child had been our own; and in some way, maybe he was. Isn’t that the point? “No longer strangers,” says a contemporary hymn by my friend, Catholic singer-songwriter David Haas. “No longer lost and alone. No longer strangers – now we are saints! We are one in the love of the Lord!”
©2009 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.