Those of us who live in the West live in cultures that pride themselves on autonomy, individualism, and a will-to-power. According the philosophies that undergird our culture, we as individuals are the harbingers of truth and freedom. We don’t need people. We only allow them into our spheres of influence if they serve some kind of purpose or utility.
That is, if they make us happy or feel good about ourselves in some way. These relationships are easy because we can discard the person once they no longer make us happy or feel good. This is part of the reason that all relationships are in shambles in our culture. It is not only romantic love that suffers, it is familial bonds and friendships that suffer as well.
This belief, predicated upon rugged individualism, has also infected the Mystical Body in the West. Not the Church, not even God, can stand in the way of what I want or how I want to do things. This type of thinking is the antithesis of the Catholic understanding of what the Mystical Body truly is at the deepest levels of reality.
Christ has made it clear to us that we cannot get to heaven alone. Doing things “my” way is not the path to holiness. It is the path to destruction. We are united to one another and meant to walk together. This is a struggle for all of us who have been shaped by this ideology of individualism.
Entering into deeper communion and holy relationships with others is inherently difficult in our Fallen state. It is even harder when we’ve mistakenly been taught to believe that we can go it alone and that we do not need others to walk the path to holiness with us. We may not even be consciously aware that we have absorbed this belief from our culture and allowed it to shape the way we understand the life of faith. If we keep our brothers and sisters in Christ at arms length or we believe that all we need to do is attend Mass on Sunday, then we may have accepted the erroneous tenets of individualism.
When we seek progress in the spiritual life, we are often encouraged to read the lives of the saints. Why? They have paved the way before us by leading lives totally dedicated to God and love of others. They are our heavenly friends who seek to show us the way home. They walk beside us, interceding on our behalf before the Throne of God. We seek communion with them, because it is impossible for us to grow in holiness if we are isolated from others. Our relationship with God and the intimate communion we share with Him is directly tied to our relationships with others. The more we love God, the more we will come to love other people as well.
“Fellowship in the body of Christ and in receiving the Body of Christ means fellowship with one another. This of its very nature includes mutual acceptance, giving and receiving on both sides, and readiness to share one’s goods.”
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion, 69.
As we are more fully integrated into the life of Christ in the Church, we come to understand that we are meant to go deeper into love of one another. This means that we cannot be protectionist with our gifts, time, or our willingness to extend charity towards others who may be different from us. Relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ are not based on a utilitarian desire for our own personal happiness and good feelings, which in reality is nothing more than our own selfishness and pride. Rather, we are meant to give freely to one another to grow in deeper communion in God.
Often we think of receiving Holy Communion as a personal intimate unity with Christ, and this is true, but it is also an intimate encounter with one another. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) explains:
“The Eucharist is never an event involving just two, a dialogue between Christ and me. Eucharistic Communion is aimed at a complete reshaping of my own life. It breaks up man’s entire self and creates a new “we”. Communion with Christ is necessarily also communication with all who belong to him: therein I myself become a part of the new bread that he is creating by the resubstantiation of the whole of earthly reality.”
This understanding is essential for helping us to abandon destructive beliefs that can isolate us from the Mystical Body. We are not meant to be separate from one another as if we are islands solely dependent upon ourselves throughout our lives. We are meant to help one another on the path to heaven and this is impossible it we do not seek to reach out towards others with all of the messiness, vulnerability, pain, betrayal, and rejection that we will face. Love is deepened by the courage to love others knowing the risks. Communion is deepened when we accept the possibilities that others will hurt us, but we move towards them anyway. In fact, in so doing, we will encounter the holy people God specifically puts in our lives to help us become the saints He wants us to be.
We learn from one another. Someone who wants to be a star athlete, actor or actress, businessmen, doctor, etc. learns from other people. That is the beginning of becoming the person we want to become. This is just as true on the path to holiness. By entering into closer relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we will learn how to grow in sanctity, but also come to see those areas of our lives where we need to change and improve. We learn by imitation and watching people who are ardently pursuing sainthood changes our spiritual lives in dramatic ways. They also encourage us and strengthen our own faith.
“As in the questions of everyday, so too in our relationships with God, we can find a path forward only by sharing in the knowledge of others. In our relationship with God, those who see and those who experience are present and we can rely on them in our own faith. In some way, they bestow their own certainty on us. We make up the multitude, but we are not simply blind vis-a-vis God. Relying on those who see, we advance gradually toward him and the buried memory of God, which is written on the heart of every man, awakens more and more to life in the depths of our own being. When we live close to God, our sight is restored: when we use our eyes, they bear witness to this truth.”
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 115-116.
If we focus on trying to work our way toward’s God alone, then we will miss out on the depths that God wants to share with us through holy relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Eucharist binds us to one another, which means that we are already united to each other in charity. We only have to choose to make the movement outward from ourselves towards the other. In so doing, our faith is strengthened and deepened. Our souls become more expansive and the love we have in God grows through learning to love others.
We are meant to walk the pilgrim way together. There is no “me and Jesus” in the Catholic understanding. That is simply individualism run amok in certain forms of Christianity. We are meant to help one another on the path to heaven. God places people in our lives to help us grow in greater love of Him and others. We need to be strengthened through the faith witness of those around us.
All of us must consider what might be holding us back from developing the holy relationships God is calling us to have with one another. If it is fear, then we must rely on the love of God that casts out all fear. If it is selfishness, then we must ask God to help us overcome that selfishness. If there is one thing that rips selfishness out of us, it is relationships with other people.
Let us pray for the courage to seek the holy relationships that will lead us more deeply into the heart of God.
“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”