The Personal v. the Communal

I have been re-reading Richard Ford’s Gatherings from Spain with great enjoyment, nodding in agreement over his observations and relishing anew the many proverbs that adorn his pages. Inevitably, I have been thinking about St James the Great, the legendary Santiago Matamoros, patron, not of the country, but of the people of Spain. (Clement XIII ended an unseemly dispute about who should be Spain’s patron saint by declaring the country of Spain to be under the protection of the Immaculate Conception, the people under St James the Great.) It is a nice distinction, rather like Napoleon’s title — Emperor, not of France, but of the French. It highlights the importance, in many contexts, of the personal over the abstract. I am tempted to ask, however, whether we are not in danger of so exalting the personal and individual that we have no conception of the whole, of the community truly so-called.

It is not difficult to see in reaction to current affairs a very individualistic approach. We may not have any real information about something, but we have an opinion. Social Media, in particular, allow us to express our opinion with an immediacy and often a violence that would have been impossible even a decade or two ago. With new possibilities come new responsibilities, but, being human, we tend not to pay them much attention. This morning I was reading the passage of the Rule of St Benedict allocated to the day, RB 45. 1–3, On Those Who Make Mistakes in the Oratory, and was struck, yet again, by the immense care Benedict takes over every detail of monastic life. If we stumble in a psalm or sing a note wrong, we publicly acknowledge that we have been careless. That goes against the grain of contemporary life. If we make a mistake in anything— if!— we pass over it silently or with a show of bravado. The idea of repairing through humility a fault committed through carelessness is alien; and I think it is alien because we have lost that sense of belonging to a greater whole. It is not my devotion in praying the Divine Office that counts; it is our devotion as a community, as part of the Church. But for many, that is hard to grasp. We have made ourselves the centre of our worlds.

Today, if you have a moment, why not spend a minute or two thinking about the various bodies to which you belong, some of them more abstract than others no doubt, and the role you play in each. It can be a humbling experience but, as St Benedict assures us, it is the necessary beginning for all that follows.


6 thoughts on “The Personal v. the Communal”

  1. Thank you for a post pertinent to all of us.

    When I see m;y own mistakes, I am honest and self aware enough to acknowledge them and if needed, to apologize.

    I’m not sure when this is humility or just lessons learned from life. It’s a strain to be perfect all of the time, and the careless, inattention that you describe, is something that we can all be prone to. In a formal prayer setting, missing a word or phrase that is immediately in front of you, can demonstrate either inattention or alternatively, a stumble over an unaccustomed word. Certainly, despite my familiarity with the Book of Common Prayer, I occasionally, stumble over a word or two. The language is from 1662, therefore, not in every day us. I know immediately what I have done, and offer a silent ‘sorry Lord’ because, in prayer and worship, he deserves the best that we can offer.

    Benedict obviously saw that it is in the small things that we flounder, than perhaps we will also flounder in the bigger things – so attention to detail in everything is a learning experience for us all.

  2. This chimes with my experience as an infant teacher. The harmony and smooth running of our class family depended on each member owning up and saying sorry as sincerely as possible when a class rule was broken.

  3. It’s odd, I think, that social media is called thus when it is quite often the absolute opposite! And we can all believe we are experts on any given topic because we can access information so easily on line. The idea of reading round a topic before forming a balanced view has disappeared. And in complex matters, like Charlie Gard, that would be nigh on impossible for the layman/woman.
    I fail at this frequently, but think that, in the old saying, the better part of valour is discretion – which I interpret as “Keep your own counsel”. Or, to myself, ‘Bite your tongue!”

  4. I find social media disappoints me, because so often people are very quick to take offence. It is likely I don’t always express myself well, but – So often, if I wobble the echo-chamber just a little, to try and explore an idea; or if I propose a view that is a bit controversial on nuanced and difficult topics, I get my metaphorical-social-media-head bitten off. Given that I never set out to offend anyone, I don’t quite know how to avoid being so inflammatory. It would be lovely to exchange perspectives without triggering an avalanche of criticism in response, that leaves me upset and well, disappointed in other people for failing to engage in a mature way with a different perspective. Perhaps I expect too much.

    I wonder when communities get to the stage where they become so-called echo-chambers; reinforcing their same world view on each other without challenge, to such an extent that offering a slightly different one becomes unacceptable, and unwelcome. How does one reinforce a community, without it eventually becoming completely non-accepting of the outside?

    • Several interesting questions there! I think Social Media have enlarged the circle of those with whom we interact without ‘carrying over’ the disciplines we’d normally adopt, e.g. courtesy, respect. It probably has something to do with the relative anonymity of the process. As to your second point, I can only agree, but I can’t answer the question with which you end.

    • How I agree with you! Perhaps it’s because opinions now are often formed/ held emotionally rather than intellectually? I don’t know but I have experienced the head- biting- off syndrome, too. If you say nothing, all seems calm, but if you propose a different perspective, duck quickly!

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