In his book, What Is the Point of Being a Christian? Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe tells the story of a famous rabbi who received a letter from a man in deep distress. “I ask for your help,” the man wrote. “I wake up every day sad and apprehensive. I can’t pray. I find it impossible to concentrate. I keep the commandments, but I feel no spiritual satisfaction. I go to the synagogue, but I feel alone. I don’t know what life is all about. I need your help.” The rabbi returned the letter to the man, underlining the most prominent word in each sentence: I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I.
The writer Alice Camille says that we humans sometimes have an “I problem.” We focus too much on ourselves in isolation from the rest of humanity and the rest of the world. “I” statements can be adversarial, she says. If there is an “I,” then “there has to be a ‘you’ on the other side of the table.” Camille concludes: “The cure for ending the battle between ‘you’ and ‘I’ is finding the way to ‘we.’”
Finding the way to we… That phrase really touched me. Aren’t some of the critical issues today really an “I-You” problem? If we’re racist, it’s because we separate a particular race from ourselves. We “I’s” against you “you’s.” If we’re sexist, it’s because we separate one gender from another. We hold one gender superior to the other. If we’re ultra-nationalistic, then it can be we Americans (or we Canadians or we Australians) against you the rest of the world.
It seems to me that the great challenge is to “widen our we.” We are called to become more and more inclusive in our awareness and in our love. Every now and then, we have experiences that show us we are not separate “I’s” and “you’s.” We are all one. Sadly, it is often tragedy that dispels the illusion of our separateness. A devastating hurricane, a mass shooting, a flu epidemic—all can unite us in the shared experience of human vulnerability, suffering, and pain.
Fortunately there are positive events that can dispel the illusion of our separateness too. A couple of months ago vast parts of the U.S. experienced a total eclipse. Millions of people witnessed this incredible phenomenon firsthand or via TV or the web. Huge groups of people (and I!) were united in awe at the great mystery we were experiencing. Some people clapped and cheered. Some even wept. All those “I’s” had become a “we.”
Other experiences can makes us more appreciative of our “we”: a wedding, a birthday party, a concert. A sporting event can be a powerful experience of our “we-ness,” where total strangers hug and high-five each another, united in their shared devotion to a team.
On a deeper level, how do we encourage our awareness of our oneness? As Christians we celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday. Pope Francis has said, “The Eucharist is the sacrament which brings us out of our individualism.” We gather together to worship. Says Camille, when a person says, “I don’t get anything out of Mass,” one reason is they are attempting to do the unlikely: “to have a solitary experience in the midst of a party.”
At Mass, I am often aware of our “we.” The welcoming usher, the robed presider, the altar server with her bobbing pony tail, the reader with the mellow voice, the talented organist, the lively choir, the 100-year-old woman sitting in the first pew, the toddler asleep on his father’s shoulder—we are one with each other. We are all “I’s” on our way to becoming a “we.”
When do you experience your oneness with others, with all of creation?
St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said the primary “illness” in the United States is loneliness. What are some ways we can help ourselves and/or others who have this “illness”?
Today’s song is “One Bread, One Body” written by John Foley, SJ. It is based on: 1 Cor 10:16-17; 12:4, 12-13, 20; Gal 3:28; Eph 4:4-6.
I welcome your responses to this reflection and/or song!
PS: Thank you for your prayers for my two presentations in Thousand Oaks, CA. I really enjoyed interacting with the faculty and staff of La Reina High School and Middle School. What great people! And on Saturday we had 50 SND’s, their associates, friends, and a few other sisters at our mini-retreat on “Wonder, Courage, and Hope: Three Essentials of the Spiritual Life.” I really enjoyed my time with them too!
My next presentation is on Dec. 2: “Unwrapping the Gifts of Advent” at the Marillac Center in Leavenworth, Kansas. Check the website for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth for more information.