The key to remaining within a marriage, a family, a friendship, a neighbourhood, a church, or a religious community, is not  so much communication as it is transparency. Nothing destroys community as much as does lack of transparency. 

What does this mean? Essentially transparency is a question of being trusted. The most transparent person you know is not necessarily the one who is the most friendly, extroverted, articulate, or has the best communication skills. It is the person you trust the most.  Transparency is a question of trust  and one is worthy of trust  when one’s private life is in harmony one’s public persona. Allow me a rather  poignant example: 

Many of us, I am sure, remember the incident when Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago was accused of sexually abusing a young man. The accusation was later proven false and the young man who made it confessed that it was a complete fabrication. However on one particular day in November of 1993 Cardinal Bernardin stood before television cameras, microphones, and reporters from all of the world and, given the nature of the accusation, the suspicion was clearly that he was guilty. I am not sure how many  of us still remember the words he spoke then, but  they were words that define transparency. Essentially he said this:

“The accusation against me isn’t true. I have no idea as to why it is being made or what the motives behind it are, but I can say this: Anyone who knows me, knows that this isn’t true. My life is an open book. People who know me know too that I don’t do things like that.” 

“My life  is an open book!’ If we can say that  to our  spouses, families, friends, fellow church members, and  communities,  and have  them believe us, then we are transparent, irrespective of stammering and unskilled we might be socially. The reverse is also true. I can be the most skilled communicator, socially at the centre of things, and the person who has revealed the most about himself, but, if others do not trust my private life, I have no transparency whatsoever. For example, how different the public confession of Bill Clinton (“Even a president has a private life!”) than that of Bernardin?

Transparency is about being trusted, being trusted is about being trustworthy, and being trustworthy is ultimately not a question of explaining ourselves clearly but of living our lives correctly. My life has to be an open book, not that I cannot have a private life, but my private life must be such so that within it there  is nothing radically at odds  with my public persona. It is not good enough to have private addictions, affairs, and other such betrayals of community as long as these are not found out. These things  are equally destructive of community whether they  are ever revealed or not. Whenever anyone’s private life is out of sync with his or her public persona, the community immediately begins to intuitively feel the contradiction and at that precise moment also begins to die.

Some years ago, on a retreat, a recovering alcoholic shared with me this story:I am an electrician. For all the years  that I was drinking, I used to be surprised at how  naively people trusted me. They gave me keys to go inside their apartments and homes, trusting I would not snoop around or touch anything that I wasn’t supposed to. How often I betrayed that! Now, since I stopped drinking, they can trust  me in their homes. I don’t go  through their drawers or  touch anything that is theirs. That’s what sobriety means, being trustworthy. Alcoholism is only 10% about  alcohol. It’s 90% about honesty- about what you do when nobody sees you, about  being trustworthy when someone gives you their keys. 

D.H. Lawrence once wrote a poem called “Healing”. In it he tells us that he is not a machine and that  what is wrong with him cannot be fixed by adjusting or fine-tuning some  mechanism. When something is wrong with  us, he says, it is because the soul is sick or wounded and what is then required for healing is  never just  some skill of communication, but repentance. The same is true, doubly so, of our relationships with each other. When something goes wrong within our marriages, our   families,  our friendships, our churches, and our communities, it is never just a question of seeking the right counselling, developing the  right  communications skills, or of re-adjusting the rhythms of our lives to make  for greater compatibility, albeit  these  can be important. More important than any of them is transparency. To be in community, I have to be able to stand before the family and, like Cardinal Bernardin, say:  “My life is an open  book!”

Only if they believe me can they live with me.