July 17, 2010

What’s In You for Me?

Some of the discussion around Beware the Locust! (a dead-on description of New Age sexual predators which I highly recommend) has gotten me thinking about chastity. We tend to think of chastity as having to do with sex, but I am interested in chastity in the broader sense, as set forth in the Principles of the Third Order of St. Francis:

Our chief object is to reflect that openness to all which was characteristic of Jesus. This can only be achieved in a spirit of chastity, which sees others as belonging to God and not as a means of self-fulfillment.

By this definition, chastity is that quality of mind whereby we are able to perceive others, not in relation to ourselves and our agendas, but as complete in themselves.

You’ve probably seen at least one old cartoon in which each of two characters, marooned on a desert island or adrift in a lifeboat, seem to see the other transformed into a steak or a turkey leg or something.  Then they start shaking salt on each other and whetting their carving knives.  That’s what unchastity does to us:  transforms other people before our eyes from something actual into something potential–with the potentiality being wholly in relation to ourselves.

Capitalism is rife with unchastity. Before I had CDs to sell, I had audiences; now I have potential CD buyers. So not only is the quality of my relationship to my listeners less immediate than it was, but I cannot be fully satisfied with the interaction unless it ends in a transaction.  I used to want to connect with people; now I want to profit by them.

How often have I been at a gathering and mentally divided everyone into those who could help me, and those who couldn’t?  Does a person’s personal magnetism increase with their potential to buy what I’m selling, get me gigs, advance my career or introduce me to other useful people?

Unchastity doesn’t always appear in such gross forms—there are subtle forms, too.  Will a person’s conversation amuse me?  Or instruct me?  Or provide material I can steal?  How will this person respond to me?  Will they be impressed by my knowledge and accomplishments, feeding my sense of self-worth?  Will they find me interesting and funny, thereby helping me find myself interesting and funny?

In his “Essay Concerning Technology,” Martin Heidegger describes people’s tendency to view things not as things, but as potential other things.   Our gaze transforms a river into a potential power source, a forest into potential building materials.  Nothing is simply what it is—everything is “standing in reserve,” as Heidegger put it.

What frightened creatures we are, always worried that the future will bring scarcity and lack unless we grab all we can in the present, always hopeful that every person we meet and every situation in which we find ourselves can be turned to our advantage.  This must be why Jesus told his disciples not to worry about what they were to eat, drink or wear:  so that our human interactions would be untainted by the dirty devices born of our fear.  In fact, the single most frequent utterance of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is “Do not be afraid.”  Prudent providence is one thing; faithless unchastity is another.

This is one of the best things about being a Eucharistic Visitor—a layperson who brings Communion to parishioners who cannot attend church.  Most of them are elderly, confined either to their own homes or to a retirement home, and I more free of personal agenda in my interactions with them than in almost any other interactions.  And I think I am finally learning to really pay attention to people.

Ramakrishna spoke of “that state of mind in which I can see through a man,”[i] and all the Gospels give accounts of Jesus seeming to read people’s minds.  I don’t think there was anything supernatural involved in those incidents.  If Jesus “didn’t need to be told about people, for he knew what was in a person,”[ii] I think it was because he was paying attention.  Jesus and Ramakrishna were able to size people up as they were, because they weren’t trying to size them up as potential means for their own self-fulfillment.

(A version of this post originally appeared at my blog, Little Teaboys Everywhere.)

[i] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, abridged edition, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 2005, page 356

[ii] John 2:25

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