At the center of our lives there is an innate tension.
On the one hand, something in us wants to be different, wants to stand out, be separate, show itself to be unique and independent. From the minute we’re born, our independence and uniqueness begin to make their protest. We don’t want to be the same as everyone else. And this isn’t just a mark of pride or ego. Nature intended it that way. If no two snowflakes are meant to be the same, how much more so human beings?
We are meant to individuate, develop a uniqueness, and grow into a woman or man such as there has never been one on this planet. Our uniqueness is part our gift to others and so one element of growing into maturity is having the strength to let that uniqueness emerge.
But we have an equally strong, almost contradictory, impulse inside us. At our center too we yearn for unity, community, family, intimacy, connection, solidarity, oneness with others and the world. As much as we want to be separate and stand out, we too want to be connected, to fit in, to take our proper place. And this isn’t necessarily a mark of timidity or fear.
Rather one of the marks of maturity is the desire to, as Thomas Merton once put it, disappear into humanity, melt into the body and soul of this earth, dissolve into a bigger oneness that makes up the family of humanity and the Body of Christ. All the religions of the world invite us to this; namely, to move into a compassion, an empathy, and a solidarity with others and earth that makes that larger reality more important than our private lives.
Thus we live always with a certain tension: On the one hand, we want to stand out, even as another irrepressible part of us wants be one with everything and everybody.
As Christians, that tension is reflected inside of baptism itself. On the one hand, baptism is meant to set us apart, separate us from the world. Indeed the very word, ECCLESIA, from which we derive the concept of Church, has this connotation.
Ecclesia comes from two Greek words, EK KALEO (EK, “out of”, KALEO “to call”) To be baptized into the church, at one level, means to be “called out of” the world and set apart from others.
But, just as equally, baptism calls us into family, community, and the Body of Christ (where, as one cell within a living organism, we are not meant to stand out but to humbly be part of something far larger than our own private reality). Thus, baptism sets us apart and calls us into solidarity with others, both at the same time.
And this makes for the tension we feel everywhere today in the world and in the church: How much, and in what way, should Christians set themselves apart from the world?
Should we, for instance, set ourselves apart publicly by external symbols? Do we make the sign of the cross in a restaurant? Wear a religious habit or a clerical collar? Put a sign on our car that speaks of Jesus? Wear or do anything to make ourselves stand out in public?
There is no right or wrong answer to those questions. Why? Because we are called, always, to do both. We are called to set ourselves apart, even as we are called to disappear into humanity. Practically that means that we must somehow radiate both. But how to do that?
Jesus doesn’t offer an easy answer. As far as we can tell, he never set himself apart by his clothing or any other externals. John the Baptist, on the other hand, did and in a very pronounced way. Everything in his appearance and message spoke of “otherness”, but he was a prophet, not the Christ.
Jesus, it seems, set himself apart, not by externals, clothing and symbols, but through the integrity of his life. Where he showed himself to be different was by not sinning, by praying for whole nights, by fasting and going off by himself into the desert, by forgiving his enemies, by constant intimacy with God, and by being morally faithful when everyone else betrayed.
But what does that mean for us practically? We have a long tradition, stretching from John the Baptist to Mother Teresa, that suggests that external symbols are important, even as we have an equally long tradition that suggests that God doesn’t call all of us to set ourselves apart in this way. Vocation, it seems, is sensitive to both temperament and circumstance and that makes for a situation within which there will always be some of us who, in the externals of our lives, will radiate more the fact that we are set apart, while others will radiate more the fact that we are called to disappear into humanity.
And each of us, like Jesus, needs to have enough personal intimacy with God to recognize, more precisely, that to which we are called.