" How did we become an ‘either-or people’ alienated by partisanship? "
MARYLHURST — When many sisters and brothers answered the call to religious community life, they chose to belong to a defined group.

Most communities had a common mission, in which all members were engaged: education, health care, social service, or foreign missions. We did the same thing in the pretty much the same orderly fashion. A bell roused us at 5:10 a.m., and another signaled lights out at 9:25 p.m. We ate breakfast together, gathered for mid-day prayer or examen of conscience, shared dinner. On weekends we cleaned large academies and prepared lessons for the following week. We were off to summer schools and retreats in June, July, August, many earning degrees on a long-term plan. We worked hard together.

One could be 20 or 80, Asian or Irish, Black or Filipino, African or Peruvian, French or English — and fit in a particular community with its mission.

However, consciousness changed for society in general: We wanted to respect and call on the unique gifts of each individual as well as retain community bonds. Some left the classroom, for example, to become pastoral associates; others, to serve as counselors or spiritual directors. As ministries proliferated, it became necessary to choose a residence closer to the ministry setting, to have a car in order to travel to clients, to adopt whole new daily schedules of prayer, work, socializing. Soon we had to deal with finances, we needed airfare to attend meetings, we changed to appropriate wardrobes to suit the work venue, we returned to baptismal names, and we formed new communities of men and women friends.

All of life seemed to have shifted, almost overnight. And, yes, this did leave some religious feeling lonely and no longer relevant. Society in general was experiencing a growing individualism. However, all of us were and are part of the world, wherever we are planted on our planet.

With the rest of society, we religious now wonder, how did we human beings become dualistic persons? Putting the elements of our lives into a hierarchy, we began to believe that: white skin is better than dark skin, men are superior to women, Catholicism is grander than Protestantism, being a rich property-owner far outweighs being a Mexican who harvests his oranges, an educated person with a Ph.D. is superior to the wise elder on a Native American reservation.

How did we become an “either-or people” alienated by partisanship; my-way-or-the-highway” people who must have it “my way” even if it leads to a divorce? How did we become individualistic “me” people who see all of life narcissistically through our own likes and wants and values?

God skillfully created all things connected and good, and human beings in the divine image. This past year we have experienced the ways that everything in our lives is interconnected for all human beings: health care, the economy, shopping, travel, even visiting loved ones. Many people hoped and prayed it might bring about a greater respect for the individual person and caring, just connections between persons, but in some it seems to have brought out deep resentments which led to violence and destruction.

How can we re-connect in community and also foster the gifts of the individual human person? How can we re-humanize our society, its unique individuals as well as its diverse communities?

We can't tackle every element of society. But we can all — members of all communities in society — do one thing: listen. The Hebrew verb shema is often translated as “hear,” but it means much more than just a hearing or listening; it means at the same time to hear and respond appropriately.

When we really listen to someone different from ourselves, we put a human face on that person. It is the human face that God gave each of us from the beginning: All were created in the image of God. Every community member of every age and profession can listen intently to each other, to those whom they serve, and to people of all races and religions and cultures and political parties and sexual orientations and income statuses — to all who are not “me.”

And, then act appropriately, humanely.

Together we can re-humanize a de-humanized society. To move out beyond our own individualistic selfishness and our narrow notions of community, we need to be willing to recognize (by listening) and cultivate (by action) common interests and goals. We can even start with the environment that enfolds us, the world God “saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:31).


Sr. Cecilia is a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary who has been a spiritual director and college professor. She is now retired at Mary's Woods where she continues to teach, lead retreats and write.