The Personalist Project

Augustine’s garden

I assembled, in a garden that Valerius had given me, certain brethren of like intentions with my own, who possessed nothing, even as I possessed nothing, and who followed after me.

Saint Augustine, Confessions

I've been mulling over a conversation I had with a Zen devotee this past weekend. Much of our conversation was concerned with the similarities between Zen and Christian mysticism, the way each values asceticism, self-denial, and service, the parallels between the Ten Commandments and religious vows and the Ten (or Five) Moral Precepts and the commitments a Zen monk makes. 

We spoke of the intersection between Christian monastic spiritualities and Zen monasticism and the influence of Christian spirituality on the forms of North American Zen Buddhism. We shared our mutual admiration for Thomas Merton and he told me that a number of the classes he took towards his Masters of Divinity were taught by Catholic religious. 

There is a lot that is attractive in exploring these similarities in spiritual discipline and practice, and it is always refreshing to speak to someone about the kinds of self-discipline and moral law that much of modern secular society finds both off-putting and incomprehensible. But we couldn't avoid running into the difference at the heart of those devotional goals, which seems to me to be centrally important to understanding the foundations of Christian personalism.

My Zen interlocutor was happy to talk about Christ as a metaphor or symbol of the Infinite Mind or the Source, but uncomfortable when I pointed out that Jesus is more than that, that Christian devotion is centred on a distinct person (well, three persons, but I wasn't going to get into that!). He admitted that was a topic they'd all very diplomatically steered clear of in their classes with Christians.

This is the thing that sets Christianity apart: God became man for us

Sometimes I forget how ridiculous and sublime that is. At the apex of all Catholic spiritual practice is the goal of unity with a person. 

A person who first united himself with us by experiencing embodiment, birth, a human home, adolescence, self-discovery, hunger, thirst, friendship, loss, sorrow, pain, betrayal, agony, and death.

A God who became man in all ways but sin, who bore our sins into death and promises to raise us up with him to life through His resurrection. A God who loves us and desires communion with us.

There's a relationship at the heart of Christianity. It's so easy for my faith to become cerebral or habitual and forget that. The goal isn't unity with all, or undifferentiation of self and the universe, or even communion with the Universal, though that last resembles on some level the goal of uniting oneself with the Creator of all.

The goal is falling in love with a person.

Image via Flickr

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Last weekend's conversation clarified something about the unique position of Christianity with regard to Personalism.

Central to Buddhism is the goal of overcoming suffering by overcoming the self. The ultimate goal is not self-realization, but self-extinction. The freedom promised by Zen Buddhist practice sublimation of the self in union with all that is. 

There is a lot that is attractive about this, and there are Christian forms of meditation that resemble the simple awareness and stillness of zazen. There is a long tradition of Christian mysticism that uses similar language, seeking as its goal the "death of self" through union and complete identification with Christ.

But the difference is this:

Ephesians 4:22-24: You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness." 

This “putting on the new self” is not something that can be accomplished passively. It requires that we reach outwards to God, who has created us as distinct from himself so that we can be united to Him in a freely chosen and active relationship. Each person has a unique relationship with Christ; each person’s expression of that relationship will differ.

Each person is destined to enjoy the fullness of the self in communion with God in eternity, and it is this eternal end of each unrepeatable person that stands as the foundation of Personalism. Personalism rests on the conviction that each individual person is of incomparable worth and importance. The personalistic understanding of the subjectivity of the person and the importance of self-determination echoes the Christian affirmation that our individual moral choices have eternal ramifications.

Personalistic ethics rest on the conviction that the person must always be treated as a subject, not an object. The person across from you contains a world of subjectivity that is incommunicable. I am required to treat you ethically, not out of a conviction that the distinction between you and I is a meaningless mental projection covering the reality of the unity of all things, but precisely because there is a distinction between you and I. Personalistic ethics are rooted in the observation that I end where you begin, and that your subjectivity is entirely unique and unrepeatable and distinct from my own. 

In the interview-based book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II explains the conflict between Buddhism and Christianity with his characteristically positive focus on the good of Creation and the centrality of the person:

Therefore, despite similar aspects, there is a fundamental difference. Christian mysticism from every period - beginning with the Fathers of the Eastern and Western Church, to the great theologians of scholasticism (such as Saint Thomas Aquinas), to the northern European mystics, to the Carmelite mystics - is not born of a purely negative "enlightenment". It is not born of an awareness of the evil which exists in man's attachment to the world through the senses, the intellect and the spirit. Instead, Christian mysticism is born of the the Revelation of the living God. This God opens himself to union with man, arousing in him the capacity to be united with Him, especially by means of the theological virtues - faith, hope and, above all, love.

God is Love. Where there is love, there is a Lover and a Beloved.

A man and a woman can only be united in marriage because they are each not the other; his "I" is not her "I," although their union depends upon knowing the other as an "I" like oneself.  

There is mystery here, and there is joy in the mystery: we must possess our selves in order to give our selves, and yet it is in giving that we find our selves. 

Image via Max Pixel

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Here's a clip of a BBC host conversing with--no, debating--no, vainly attempting to shut down--Obianuju Ekeocha, founder of Culture of Life Africa. The subject is African women's access to contraception, or lack thereof. In the end, the BBC lady herself gets shut down, though there's no evidence that she notices that.

It's a tired, old story: Wealthy, western progressive with one-track mind apprises third-world woman of what's good for her, and what's good for her always seems to boil down to her having fewer descendants. Still, it's worth watching.*

For one thing, it's refreshing and encouraging to see somebody fight  back. Talk about unabashed disregard for the lived experience of the other! Such persistent indifference or contempt for the approach, the preferences, the desires, the traditions, the whole range of vision of the African women the host wants to "help"! She tries to erase all that subjectivity in one fell swoop by simply labeling her own culture's perspective a "fact."

"When we talk about contraception," she asserts, "the fact remains that hundreds of millions of women don't have access, and should."

Uju's not about to let this one go by:

You're saying "should," but who are you to decide, if you don't mind my saying? There isn't a popular demand, ma'am, there isn't a popular demand.

The host is incredulous:

But it’s a basic human right to have access to it. That’s why I say that they should have access. 

Now, it's true that some things are basic human rights whether or not they're not valued by a given culture. The question is: Is disrupting the marital act via chemicals and barriers one of them? Many western progressives think so, but that doesn't mean everybody has to.

The host is probably sincere when she pleads her case:

But it is part of that cycle of poverty, and dealing with poverty, and overcoming poverty, is it not?

"Well, that’s kind of a western solution, isn’t it?" retorts Uju, undaunted. Most people would probably concede sheepishly that the timing of pregnancy is one of many factors related to financial success, but that would be missing the point. Why assume that financial success is so desirable that it's worth trading away the integrity of your most intimate relationships? Why assume that contraception is the first thing on poor people's minds? As Uju recalls:

If the Africans are brought to the table, and if the Africans are asked, the ordinary people, not some doctor that works for some western organization that is planted in Africa, if you speak to the ordinary woman...she's asking for work, food, she's asking for water, she's asking for basic health care... Why don’t you listen to the people first?

She also refuses to sugarcoat the side effects of birth control and, most especially the widespread tendency of the "benefactors" to neglect to warn the women about the downside. In the west, people are finally talking about this, but Uju describes how

I found myself consoling these women who had been experiencing this side effect that they had never heard of before. No one had ever told them, but someone from a western organization….came and put IUDs into them and told them, “This is what you need to come out of poverty."...That is not the single indicator...what Africans need is education--

The BBC presenter pounces, apparently agreeing--but revealing an awfully stunted view of education:

They do indeed. It’s about education as well, so that they can understand their basic human rights. It’s not just about the West coming and imposing something…

Refreshingly, Uju pounces right back:

These are colonial thoughts, so you better be careful expressing them! According to whom? ... What children are looking for is a way to get into school….My lifeline out of poverty was education; it was not contraception. And there are so many other women who have walked the same path as I have, without ever having to take recourse to some contraception provided by the British government, or the United States government.

Here the host objects:

So you’re speaking—you’re...generalizing, speaking on behalf of, you know, every woman on the continent.

And again, instead of wilting like a humble and pliable charity case, Uju rejoins:

 Well, so are you! So are you. You’re talking about a general solution, when Africa is actually not a monolithic society.

It's startling to see the progressive woman on the side of fundamental moral principles that take no notice of cultural differences, on the side of treating foreign cultures--an entire continent full of them!--as monolithic, on the side of reducing education to indoctrination in another civilization's putatively superior views on love, sex, money, life and death.

Near the end, the host points out that the United Nation puts the number of women without access to contraception at 200 million. There you go: a prestigious international organization, with a number attached, too. Who can argue against authority, against facts?

But as Uju points out:

These are the calculations by the United Nations, but how many of those 200 million women are actually asking for it? There is a difference between what the United Nations now calls the “unmet need” and the unmet demand ...

It's true: if you were transported to an isolated tropical paradise, you might feel an "unmet need" for wifi or Oreos. But you shouldn't assume the inhabitants of that paradise are pining for the same things. You should at least consult them.

After a little more repartee, the host announces, most unconvincingly,

I’d really like to discuss this further with you…

But alas, she's out of time.


*Caveat: if you're like me, you may need to keep reminding yourself how unimpressive her "arguments" would sound if they were issuing forth from the mouth of an unattractive woman without a British accent.

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A week or so ago, we had an unpleasant encounter with a former friend in a church parking lot. It was a case of us trying to establish and maintain boundaries that she didn't want and saw as scandalous and wounding and unchristian. Such moments are always fraught for me. I get tense and vulnerable and unsure of myself.

This time, I felt okay. We had stood our ground and stayed clear. We were stiff, but not rude. 

Immediately after, we made a stop at the grocery store. Jules dropped me off and went to get gas. Knowing the encounter or something like it might be repeated, I gave myself a pep talk as I went through the doors, "Walk tall, Katie."

Sure enough, there she was in produce—emotional and blaming. It was awkward. But I managed not to get too drawn in and not to say anything I would regret later. I moved on to my shopping, feeling distracted, but not unduly rattled. I told myself, "It's okay that you didn't handle that perfectly. You don't have to be perfect."

Approaching dairy, I noticed a white-haired man I didn't recognize standing in the center of the aisle, facing me and smiling broadly. I gave a somewhat confused smile in return and kept going my way. But he made a point of stepping toward me. He had something he wanted to say: "It's so great to see a tall person walking tall!"

It was a sweet and gentle reassurance straight from God—like the hug a loving father might give a small, timid child—as if He were wanting me know: "You're ok. You're on track. Don't worry what others think. I see you walking tall, and it gives me pleasure."

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Last month our friends lost their beloved 20-year-old daughter (and granddaughter, and niece, and cousin, and friend), Evie. Her uncle, Fr. Paul Donnelly, had some memorable words on the occasion, which I wrote about here (skip the rest of the post if you like, but don't miss his words!). We weren't able to travel the 500 miles for Evie's memorial Mass, but my friend Monica was there and told me something Evie's uncle, Lawrence Donnelly, said. I'm not sure if it's a direct quote, but here it is:

Life presents two competing truths: 1. that each of us is a speck on a rock swirling through an endless cosmos, and 2. that each of us is a unique, never-before, never-again, unrepeatable human person.

The first one is true, as far as it goes (except, I guess, the part about the "endless" cosmos). The second is also true, and far more important. But it can be tougher to hang onto, most especially when you're in the throes of depression, as I'm told Evie was.

I used to think self-harm, along with depression and addiction, were fairly rare. I thought people who took their own lives were generally those who'd experienced some dramatic tragedy, lost perspective and despaired. Maybe it was even in my mind that victims of suicide, depression and addiction just weren't trying hard enough to fight their demons.

I don't believe any of those things anymore, for the very sad reason that they've all hit too close to home. For example, when my sister Rosie, who tells her story here and here, faced life-threatening depression, I had to leave a lot of preconceptions behind. And a few years earlier, Steve Gershom (a.k.a. my brother Joey), wrote about how he finally, and very reluctantly, decided to try medication for his depression;

Now, when the pills are working [...], it’s like someone turned the volume down on the poisonous thoughts, or took the hooks out of them. When a sad thought occurs to me, I can decide not to think about it, although it might grumble in the background a little; it doesn’t tackle me, eat me alive; it doesn’t grow another head for every one I chop off. Is this how most people are, most of the time?

That's how I am, most of the time. That's my normal. But I didn't realize it wasn't everyone's till I read my brother's words. I had no idea.

When I wrote about Evie last week, other people confided their own surprising (to me) struggles. I never would have guessed some of them were dealing with such things. One friend, Julianne, told her story in a comment she left on my first post about Evie. She writes:

I struggled with depression as a 20 something year old--was extremely close to committing suicide/had the bottle of pills in my hand. Why I was spared? I don't know. When the brain chemicals tank, there are no good feelings happening in the brain, everything is dark--every thought is dark...the emotional pain is so great that it is like someone being in a building on fire and jumping out of the window to get away from the heat (think of 9/11 and the twin towers). those people were not choosing to commit suicide, they were desperately trying to get away from the heat.... 

But each case is different--even when it's one and the same person who's suffering. Julianne again:

In my early 20's, I was working through childhood trauma causing the depression. However, just 2 years ago, I experienced a severe depression from seasonal affective disorder. I was suicidal with no reason to be other than my brain chemicals tanked from lack of sun and vitamin D.

"Seasonal Affective Disorder"--just the kind of thing my younger self would have been over-quick to dismiss and explain away as someone trying to make excuses for not trying hard enough! Julianne continues:

I was suicidal, had no emotional reasons to be--happily married, happy to be a mom to my kids...but without the right chemicals working in my brain, I almost had to call a suicide hotline. As a 51 year old at that time--I struggled mightily with the dark thoughts. I knew they weren't real, but that was because I had been down this road before. Even though I knew what I was feeling was not based on reality and only on brain chemistry, it was still extremely difficult for me to keep myself alive. 

Often it's not so easy to diagnose. Sometimes it seems to be a tangle of genetics, addictions, brain chemistry, unwise life choices--which nobody's immune to--and tragedy. You can see how easily each of these could feed off the others. Sometimes the very meds people take to protect them from self-harm have self-harm as a side effect. It's a fog, a soup, a labyrinth.

As John Janaro describes it in his blog, Never Give Up:

When you see us, we may be "fine," but we are "walking on the surface" and the surface is an eggshell already full of cracks and always in danger of breaking under our feet. We have developed our survival skills, however, so that we have our eyes on the nearest secure spots and we have learned how to jump to them before the next crack sucks us down.
You don't see any of this.

I guess what I'm hoping is that people who were as clueless and quick to judge as I was will read this post and reconsider. And that people in the dark, navigating the broken eggshells, will feel less alone.

Rest in peace, Evie.

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