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.

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