“We share with one another the creative work of living in the world.”Thomas Merton, Care of the Soul
Merton creates and then extinguishes a paradox of life: the question of whether it is the contemplative life, the interior life, the life focused on self-development, or the life of action, of deeds, of community development, that is the better. A colleague once remarked that all the energy spent in the 60s and 70s that was supposed to revolutionise the world – peace and love and so on – was redirected to self-help books from the 80s onward. So really, these questions have been with us for awhile now. Merton just reminds us that they precede this; Paul says Faith, James says Deeds. The Buddha attains personal enlightenment, the Bodhisattva forsakes it for the good of the world.
What Merton does is demonstrate that really they can be one and the same – we are part of the community, so is not our development in some way helping to assist the whole? Even if it just some minor measure of happiness, that brings a levity to our feet, will that not be shared through our dealings with others? And are we not a sensible starting point? We are, after all, where our action lies.
So too does the care and practical support of those around us raise us as well. And in that paradoxical way, helping our neighbours – with the what and how of mundane life – leads to our spiritual development. Our soul is fed through good deeds.
Neither should it be malnourished, nor over-fed, however. By highlighting this relationship, we might acknowledge that mis-directed self-care is not really self-care; just as unhealthy food rarely feeds the hunger as we might expect it to. Too much inward focus and we lose sight of the beautiful vista.
Similarly, care for others may sometimes mask our own spiritual malnourishment. Done without the right intent, done as a coping mechanism to avoid challenges we face community work carries the risk of losing the self. It is perhaps cliché, but there are many shows about the bedraggled police officer, the over-worked doctor, the advocate lawyer who’s estranged from their family. Martyrdom carries a certain appeal, but rarely delivers as effectively as placing our health within the community, and building a community where our health is necessarily benefited.
I sometimes wonder how we may be best able to serve ourselves and our communities: this congregation, this city. Manchester’s dynamism continues, and we find ourselves in a changing metropolis. Changing people, changing density, changing needs. So too is our little chapel undergoing changes; how will we best serve both? I leave you with that question, and a reminder that it can be as open-ended as you want: let nothing be off the table, at this point. We will declutter later, but for this question demands that we allow for anything.