Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Henri Nouwen

"When there is not a community that can mediate between world needs and personal responses, the burden of the world can only be a crushing burden"

This is quoted from Nouwens "Compassion" in the Spring 2015 issue of Geez magazine (which is superb and you should subscribe to it). It struck me as an interesting quote, and one that made me think - in general, I agree with it, but I want to explore why.

The implication of this - in context of the magazine - is that the church is, or can be, that mediating community. The problem is, I think, that it does not always do that job particularly well, if at all.

Firstly, the reason that I agree with the quote is that needs of the world is a crushing burden if we try to take it all on, without help. Anyone who does not suffer from compassion fatigue, from a sense of desperation, from a feeling that it is all too much probably doesn't grasp the scale of the world problems.

At times, the church can and has been a helpful mediator in this context. It has served to give some sense of meaning or purpose to the apparent random calamity that we see around us. But what of those people who do not have a church, a community to mediate?

It seems that there are three possible responses without this community:

1. Find a different community that helps to mediate. Of course, sometimes this is not a positive mediation - sometimes it is mediating by hating people, sometimes it is mediation by cutting off from the world. Sometimes, of course, it is a positive and helpful mediation, but the tragedy of the west is that many are not in any form of community.

2. Ignore the rest of the world. Resolving the "burden of the world" is done by pretending it doesn't exist, keeping a focus to yourself and those nearby.

3. Letting the burden of the world crush you. As Nouwen says, this is what happens with no other means to handle it.

It is an indication, I think, that as people we are not meant to live in a world of the size we are in. Rather, we are not properly adapted to a world of the scale of the current one. We have not learned how to be part of a community of 7Bn people, across the world that is far larger than we can really comprehend. We need a local community to be "our world" who can then help us to grapple with the bigger picture.

The problem for many people today is, I think, that we do not have a community. We lack the structures that can enable us to be a small world as part of a larger one. While there are many issues that this causes (dissociation, lack of emotional support), I think the one the Nouwen points out does cover a critical aspect - we cannot live in the world, deal with the world, acknowledge the world and its problems without a community.

Maybe this is why many people dismiss the problems of the world, ignore them, assume they are other peoples issues. Maybe this explains why some people join churches or yoga classes or whatever, because they need to find some context within which to engage with the burden of being human.

And maybe the church needs to start understanding this.