Every man holds the faith only as a symbolon, a broken, incomplete piece that can only obtain unity and completeness when it is laid together with the others.
~Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger~
In the 19th century, there was kind of a “big deal” philosopher named Hegel. Hegel was brilliant, German, and in my own personal estimation, insanely difficult to read. Famously, Hegel painted history as a series of struggles between opposing ideas or movements: thesis and antithesis, which in their struggle and opposition yield synthesis, and thus history progresses. This idea was then applied to men, and produced what Hegel called the master-slave dialectic. In this view, what we’re all really after is basically ourselves; we may like other people, but in truth what we want is to be gods (Augustine and Genesis 3:5 would agree with that point), or masters, with those around us reduced to being our slaves.
There is real truth in what Hegel was saying, Aristotle’s comments on flattery would seem to run parallel: “Most people seem, owing to ambition, wish to be loved rather than to love; which is why most men love flattery; for the flatterer is a friend in an inferior position, or pretends to be such and to love more than he is loved; and being loved seems to be akin to being honored, and this is what most people aim at.” Ouch!! I don’t know about you, but that line really gets me – mostly because I see it in myself. This seems to be built into us – the desire to be exalted, not so much to love as to be loved, but this dynamic dead-ends every time. Ratzinger comments on this with his usual eloquence: “Where each person wants to be a god, that is, to be so adult and independent that he owes himself to no one but determines his own destiny simply and solely for himself, then every other person becomes for him an anti-god, and communication between them becomes a contradiction in itself.” Do you desire to “owe yourself” to no one? I so often lie to myself about this, I want to look so good, to be so intelligent, fit, on top of things, that everyone will be amazed.
This is not the path to communion with others. If all of us are so busy impressing everyone else, we miss the chance to actually love another human being, instead of communion, we seek dominance (think for just a moment about the spirit that animates pop culture). This is why Ratzinger says: “Without conversion, without a radical inner change in our thinking and being, we cannot draw closer to one another. For even the simplest intelligence must realize that barbarization cannot be the path to humanization.” Power plays and self-aggrandizement, we all have seen them in ourselves and others, and this whole attitude and outlook reeks of that most basic and awful of human sins: pride. If we live this way, we will never have real friendship, real communion; if we are to love authentically we must learn to think and see in a new way.
Communion with others is denied to those who cannot surrender their pride. In a certain sense, the hallmark of authentic friendship is vulnerability. This has taken me years to come to, and I owe it to my priestly community that I understand it at all. In our rule of life, our community wrote this about vulnerability: “…in the risk of rejection, he gains the possibility of communion.” When I am vulnerable, I reveal what I wish others not to see, and I risk what I perhaps fear the most – rejection. It is only in vulnerability however that I attain a real depth of communion. Those who have no weaknesses, who need no one else, cannot be broken pieces of the symbolon, they already possess everything in themselves – or so they think.
I spend a lot of time trying to be perfect; and while Jesus indeed calls us to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48), I have enough self-knowledge to see that He probably means a different sort of perfection than the efficient and flashy American ideal of perfection. I don’t think perfection means “being good at everything” – Jesus’ admonition to be perfect comes as the summary of his commandment to love our enemies (Mt. 5:43-48). The word used here for perfection is teleios – which signifies completion; this is the same word that Jesus uses on the cross in Matthew’s Gospel as his dying breath: tetelestai – “it is finished” (John 19:30). This was completion, perfection – the laying down of one’s life, and not even for friends but for enemies (Romans 5:8). This means that having an empty in-box in your e-mail, the perfect house with spotless carpet, and yes, washboard abs – is not what perfection means.
I say all this because a major temptation in my life is to be “good at everything”: to know the answer to every question anyone could ever have about God, to be a good preacher, a social and friendly pastor, a great fundraiser and administrator, and to be able to run a 5 minute mile and bench press 300 pounds. I am good at certain things, and I am not good at others – and I think God made us this way intentionally. My weaknesses mean that I need other people, that I am not supposed to be able to do it all on my own, but rather will be drawn to others for a fullness of communion.
In some ways this is the meaning of the symbolon image; we need each other. Yes we do need to overcome our sinful and broken tendencies, but only in such a way that we recognize that we were made for communion with others. Only in authentic communion with others who love God do I understand what it means to be a Christian.
Finally, I ask for your prayers for what is perhaps the most important expression of communion in my life; The Companions of Christ. Many priests seem to think that everyone is called to deep communion with others, except for priests. There’s some sort of unwritten rule out there which says priests are supposed to be “lone-rangers”, that they forego intimacy so they can serve. I believe this false belief is the source of a great many problems in the church today. Many priests know everyone and become pseudo-celebrities in the Catholic world, yet at the same time really know no one. Priests can enjoy the admiration of many, and meanwhile lack any real friendships, the kinds of friends who aren’t impressed by your preaching, or the fact that you know how many chapters are in Galatians, but rather who just love you as a brother. I am privileged to have some friends of this type, and I can’t imagine what priesthood would be like without them.
I have so many thoughts around this topic, I had better cut myself off, but here’s our website, and a final quote from St. Augustine; may we find our love for each other in the love of the Holy Trinity.
Blessed are those who love you, O God, and love their friends in you and their enemies for your sake. They alone will never lose those who are dear to them, for they love them in one who is never lost.