25 September 2014

On Belonging vs Fitting In

One of the questions I get asked in various ways has to do with "fitting in". Some wonder if a hermit could really fit in with other parishioners, and, if the hermit is a consecrated hermit with public vows, if they can fit in with lay people. Recently the question came up in a rather humorous way when one blogger opined that perhaps it is harder for a hermit to "fit in" if no one knows she is a hermit; if, the blogger suggested, one is known to others as a hermit then folks can accommodate her a little better; one wondered if this meant making allowances for the hermit's  eccentricities (it sounded that way to me); it certainly meant, as was explicitly suggested, that folks could consider the hermit's "differences" to be part and parcel of belonging to a different vocational category within the Church. In any case what was at least implicit in all of the comments I read, including these, was the fact that this blogger believed hermits are really kind of strange folks who are different from ordinary people and really do not "fit in" unless helped along in some significant way! So, last Friday as I was having coffee with some of the folks who attend daily Mass and get together on Fridays after the service, I asked if they had been accommodating me (cutting me some slack was the way I put it) for the past seven or eight years because they know I am a diocesan hermit! This got a great and gratifying round of laughter. One person pointed out she thought it was often the other way around! And of course the mutuality of all this is exactly the point (more about that later!).

The question of "fitting in" is a serious one and though I am speaking mainly about hermits here this is true for everyone. In this blogger's piece (and others written in the same vein), being a hermit is also linked to the idea that stands on the other end of the "fitting in "pendulum, namely, the idea not that a hermit is eccentric and needs to be accommodated for her various personal quirks and deficiencies, but that they are spiritually superior in some way. (Of course the two could -- and in this same blogger's view --- do coincide if the hermit is given to unusual "spiritual" experiences AND thought she was somehow superior because of this.)

A corollary for those holding this side of the question (the hermit is spiritually superior)  is the suggestion that a parish is no fit place for religious or even lay hermits whose primary community would ordinarily be the parish. This is supposedly so because of the (mistaken) notion that a parish is tailored to the lowest spiritual denominator or is a place where folks don't want "more" or are not particularly hungry for the nourishment of the Gospel and a serious spirituality. While it IS true that not everyone attending necessarily wants what is offered and some are definitely only nominal Christians, I don't think we can draw such simplistic conclusions, especially when they are given a kind of Gnostic or elitist cast. In that case, the question can be an even more seriously misguided one than the notion of parishes accommodating the supposed weirdnesses of individual hermits! Both conclusions build on stereotypes and both mistake the place and the challenge of any Christian in a faith community. After all, life in community of ANY sort but especially that of Christian community is not primarily about "fitting in" but BELONGING and making others aware that they too belong or are welcome to belong. Again, this is, of course, true for anyone --- not just hermits.

My own sense is that truly "fitting in" is a function of and always follows belonging, not (at least in an authentically Christian community!) the other way around!  It occurs to me that when we think about the ways of the Kingdom vs the ways of " the world" we really are talking about which of these terms has priority, fitting in or belonging. In the Kingdom one belongs because God has freely invited, initiated, and welcomed one into the Kingdom; God has, in the process, changed the way we think, feel, perceive and relate to reality --- especially to others we might otherwise consider different, "alien," or strangers -- but we ALL belong because God has welcomed us.

The change that occurs in us then, it seems to me, has occurred through our belonging -- belonging to God, to one another, and no longer exclusively to ourselves. A Kingdom identity is familial; it is rooted in a love which embraces all differences and diversity. How often does Paul speak about this to his troublesome Corinthian community? But putting the accent on "fitting in," making that a precondition for belonging is a matter of what ancient writer would call "worldly thinking." It is other things too: elitist, self-aggrandizing or arrogant (one's own nature, attributes, preferences, etc are made the criterion for approval of others; if they are not like you, then woe in the form of a blackball unto them), and of course it is selfish, exclusionary, uncharitable, unjust (remember that love does justice!)  and simply contrary to the Gospel Jesus proclaimed with his life, sinful death, resurrection and ascension.

In some ways, although belonging is a gift we give to and receive from others, belonging is more challenging than fitting in. Belonging is deeply and personally costly, fitting in is less so. The expense of fitting in is altogether more superficial and less personally demanding (costly) --- unless of course we are speaking of the costliness of losing our true selves and embracing our false selves. When we belong it is our whole selves that are implicated, not a single set of interests or values, for instance. When we affirm another as belonging we open ourselves to the whole of that person and, at least potentially, must deal with, accept and love the whole of them --- even if they don't "fit" or even believe they can! At the same time, if we choose to belong, we will be obligated to love others in the same way! We can't be elitist ourselves, we can't judge others on the basis of characteristics, attributes, and preferences we find attractive or unattractive. If we belong, belonging is a gift we will give others as well, a quality we will empower in them rooted in our openness to them and our commitment to love them as fully as we are able.

While we invite people to belong, we cannot make it happen. To accept the invitation to belong means to accept the invitation to love and be loved. Many would rather fit in (or insist they never can!) when the real problem, the true issue is these persons refusal to love or be loved. They wrap themselves in their differences and eccentricities like a cloak or a shield marking either their supposed "superiority" (including "spiritual superiority") or their fear of vulnerability and lack of generosity. Belonging requires a real humility which cannot be faked (cf. Abba Motius on Humility); it is this fundamentally honest sense of self in relation to God and others which grounds and allows both vulnerability and generosity. At the same time then belonging --- or encouraging another to allow themselves to belong is not the same as saying, "Anything goes," or "The sky's the limit!" It is not the same as saying, "You need do nothing at all!" To belong and invite another to belong is to say, "Whatever ways you 'fit in' in "worldly" terms, and whatever ways you don't, what is critical here is to love and to allow yourself to be loved by others. Nothing else works in a Christian community."

In my parish I think there is no doubt that folks accommodate me in some ways and I them in others (not least re the length of the reflections I occasionally do for them -- they are very patient --- and (sometimes) the degree of conversation and noise that can occur before Mass! --- I am not always so patient with them in this matter). But this has nothing to do with the fact they know I am a hermit. It has to do with the fact that we love one another and accept each other as equally significant members of the community. (By the way, I would personally argue it is charitable for a hermit, no matter whether lay or consecrated, to let others in her faith community know this because the eremitical vocation involves limitations that all in a community need to be aware of lest misunderstandings occur. In the case of a publicly professed hermit, she has embraced an ecclesial vocation with public rights, obligations, and necessary expectations on the part of those who know her and her public commitment. In short it is God's gift to this community and the Church as a whole. It would be irresponsible and more than a little uncharitable to keep her status hidden even if, in the main, her life is essentially so.) 

The bottom line in the discussion at hand however is that we accommodate one another because we are family; we belong to this community and, in a certain sense, to one another. Because of this, any "accommodation" that occurs is not simply a superficial toleration of the person's differences or eccentricities nor is acceptance based on superficial likenesses. Instead accommodation will represent a mutual process involving more profound change on behalf of the other. This kind of accommodation involves changing ourselves so the other CAN belong just as it involves the other in the same conversion and transformation of heart and mind out of love for us. So long as we love one another our differences will be transcended and every diversity can contribute to the sense of the richness and giftedness of this community.