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Starting Point

The honest solitary voice behind the truth in ‘we’


She told me, many years ago, how she had left institutionalized religion -- in her case it was the Roman Catholic church -- because it did not address the dilemma of human suffering. She was a scholar whose discipline was the sociological study of religion. I thought she was brilliant. I admired her and respected her.

I enjoyed talking with her. She prized the capacity of the human mind to raise questions and challenge comfortable but shortsighted views. She championed the cause of those on the fringe of society -- poor people, those dispossessed, those excluded from the categories of the normal, the “acceptable.” I found her insights fascinating and refreshing. We lost touch over the years, but I find that I still think of her often.

Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic, once wrote that there is no such thing as an “ism.” By this she meant the enormous collectivities that go by so many names -- socialism, capitalism, Republicanism, Catholicism and so on. In the essay, she appealed for a look at the personal and individual lives that move, choose, suffer, rejoice and simply live behind each of these words. The “ism” words are abstractions. They do not exist save for a means of referring to “systems.” They are handles to play with enormous shifts on the ever-elusive tables of history. But, she suggested, up close the players on that imaginary table are individuals of flesh, blood and spirit, speaking with each other in singular and creative terms. History is the ongoing accumulation of the small. History is the welter made up of so many singular choices, choices that amass to form the deceptive collective “we.”

My friend was a woman who kept a steady gaze on the “I” -- the singular voice, the uniqueness of the person, the cry of the individual, the plight of the solitary.

Admittedly we are social creatures. We need structures, institutions, programs and creeds for our survival. To ensure that these are inclusive, to insure that these embrace the fully human and even nonhuman, to ensure that our structures are open and responsive to the good -- these assurances do not come automatically. Revisions and critiques are called for. There is a constant need to look again, to listen, to admit failure and affirm goodness, to weigh alternatives and look beyond what we may think we know to what may yet be said, thought of, hoped for. And for this, the solitary voice is needed. We need people who risk the loneliness of thinking things through and who in doing so opt out of the collective and point out in a stumbling or faltering way what needs to be said in a search for truth.

Wherever she is, I hope she has found a home in a system. Systems need hearts and voices like hers. And I hope that system is of a transcendent nature -- one that points beyond itself to something it cannot fully grasp but only yearn for, reach for, hope for. We hunger for the good and truthful and need visionaries and prophets to speak the way to what we truly need but cannot find or even say. I miss her honesty and yet know that wherever she is, the best of what the church hopes for and needs speaks through her. n

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2000