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Joan Chittister/Thomas Merton: The Communal Paradox

Joan Chittester:

Life, we learn young, is one long, unending game of push and pull. One part of us pushes us always toward wholeness, toward a sense of connection with the universe which, in the very act of engagement with the human community, brings us a sense of peace. We are not here as isolates, we realize. We are here to become community. We are on an odyssey with potentiality, and we know it. We have been foreordained to make humanity more humane.

The other part of us, however, pulls us back into ourselves. It separates us from the universe around us and leaves us feeling distant and out of sync. We lack the sense of kinship that the human family is a family. It deprives us of the universal concern that drives us beyond ourselves to the center of humankind. . . .

And yet, it is this very paradox of life that stretches us not only to grow but to contribute to the growth of the rest of the universe around us.

We say we seek unity, yes. But lurking within every human act is the gnawing need to be independent, to think of ourselves as distinct from the rest of life. [1]

Thomas Merton recognized this same paradox at the heart of what we think of as “salvation”:

We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others, yet at the same time before we can go out to others we must first find ourselves. We must forget ourselves in order to become truly conscious of who we are. The best way to love ourselves is to love others, yet we cannot love others unless we love ourselves since it is written, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” [Mark 12:31]. But if we love ourselves in the wrong way, we become incapable of loving anybody else. . . .

The only effective answer to the problem of salvation must therefore reach out to embrace both extremes of a contradiction. . . .

Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and “one body,” will we begin to understand the positive importance not only of the successes but of the failures and accidents in our lives. My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labors is not my own: for I am preparing the way for the achievements of another. . . .

Every other human is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of humankind. . . . What I do is also done for them and with them and by them. What they do is done in me and by me and for me. But each one of us remains responsible for our own share in the life of the whole body. [2]


July 5, 2022

[1] Joan Chittister, We Are All One: Reflections on Unity, Community and Commitment to Each Other (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2018), 1–2.

Joan Daugherty Chittister, O.S.B., is an American Benedictine nun, theologian, author, and speaker. She has served as Benedictine prioress and Benedictine federation president, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women. Wikipedia.


[2] Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1955, 1967), 13, 16–17. Note: minor edits made for inclusiv e language.

Thomas Merton OCSO was an American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist and scholar of comparative religion. Wikipedia.


Reprinted from Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation, July 5, 2022


Free Image Credit: Pixabay, Freestylers.


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