Finding common life

Stages of the personal

The woeful present provokes many of us to search for a better, or at least another, life. We long for it in ignorance, at a loss for words, yearning in the gloom. Yet that very confusion, that vertigo at discovering oneself lost, is itself a spark and a light. To recognize that I am disoriented implies that orientation is possible: that the orient exists and I ought direct myself there.

Most of us then begin to see the world with fresh eyes, uncovering the evil obscured in everyday life. If we have any courage at all we begin to fight against that evil. Often we struggle in vain, and too often from vanity. But the fight itself is instructive: even defeat teaches us our capacities and limits. If the confusion above led to self-discovery, social confrontation leads to finding like-minded others.

Now I stand no longer alone but as part of a little band, a we, a force constituted of those with whom I can begin to put my life in common. This is the germ of what could be a movement, in which case the aforementioned confrontation intensifies or extends, or a commune—the vehicle for a life in common over time. Much has been written on the former case, but the latter has so far eluded much attention.

Building the commune is possible only by passing from awakening to conflict to solidarity. Viewed from another angle, the commune may be built by persons who have faced the world, found each other, and hazard themselves for the sake of all. In this important sense the commune is not constituted by individuals, but by persons who freely lay down their individual limits and take up their dividual ties. The free-floating atoms thus agitated form molecular bonds, and by those bonds are no longer free-floating.

In the eyes of the world this is a daunting prospect and deeply problematic. But in truth, freedom is found in passing from potentiality to actuality, from isolation to solidarity, from my life to our life.

This process is common to all humanity, and can be seen in our common beginning. The Lᴏʀᴅ God breathed life into the dust of the Earth and created Adam. Adam was alone, and none of the animals he named was suitable to help him. The Lᴏʀᴅ then put Adam to sleep, took from his body, and made a new person: Eve. Adam and Eve cleaved together as one flesh, dwelling naked in the garden with their Creator—and they were not ashamed. Adam was not a “him” until he had Eve as a “her”. He was not complete as a human individual, he was complete as a human person when he shared a life in common with his wife. Only then did Adam speak, and his first words were an ode to her.

Throughout all the ages of mankind this truth has proven itself. Whether it be men and women marrying to raise up children, or monks banding together to pursue a life of virtue, community has always been central—yes even essential—to human being. One cannot be truly human alone: the human face is made to behold and be beheld by another. Nothing can take the place of this central need in the human soul for common life, for true personality.

And common life must be achieved by common work. Adam was not merely given Eve from the start, he searched and discovered and named all the animals first. The Lᴏʀᴅ put him to sleep and pulled out his rib. Adam sacrificed, in a way he died, he emptied himself. Adam is a type of the Christ who emptied himself, first to be born as a helpless babe, then to sojourn with the lowly, and finally to lay down his life on the Cross. All in order to restore all to communion with God—trampling down death by death. Therefore St. Paul teaches that a man ought love his wife as Christ loves the Church: to die to this world in submission to her so that they might partake of eternal, common life. As the Lord Jesus Christ himself said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. And it was he who also said, “I call you not servants, but friends”. And lest we forget it was on the cross that he announced the creation of true humanity: “it is finished”—ecce homo.

And what truer communion is there than between the fractured God-man on the Holy Table and his saints? The true vine upon which all manner of lost and tormented souls from every tribe and tongue are grafted in agapē love and transfigured by his everlasting glory is the ultimate human community.

Friendship is not the mere affiliation of individuals who serve some self-centered interest, but the relation of mutual self-sacrifice. True friendship is always kenotic: it is always premised on an emptying of the individual into the common life of the friends. The commune is composed of friends who participate in mutual submission, in true love for one another.

The storm and struggle of our age offers event after event—these are often miserable affairs—to find one another in the tumult. We should be wise and know that whatever immediate opportunities any particular moment offers, the greatest prize is one another. A strike or protest are, after all, means to ends. The ultimate end is that tikkun olam, apocatastasis, the universal reconciliation that can only be found in the intimate work of personal commitment. The political looms as a threat insofar as it distracts and entrances the unwary: many are trapped in an endless cycle of conflictuality.

We should remain in this sense apolitical, always a bit aloof, never confounding the personal and the political. To become a “political person”, if not oxymoronic, is at least no substitute for a life in common. The activist, for example, cannot personally relate to impersonal forces, systems, and structures. One may heroically pour one’s life into activism yet never advance as a person toward common life. To recognize this dilemma and evade it in no way diminishes engagement or activity with society—it is in fact a precondition for substantive and meaningful action.

The path to a better world begins by ascetically renouncing it.

More should be written investigating what it means to put our lives in common. But the general outline is clear: fight, find, build. If we remember that we fight first of all to find one another, most of all to build the commune, and above all to repair the world, we shall not fail.