You might have heard the statement that “no man is an island.” Written by John Donne in 1624 as part of his work, “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions,” his words are particularly prophetic as we strive to live out our Catholic faith today:
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
It’s not just hermits and poets who would like to live a more solitary life (at times who doesn’t need a bit more space?!). But if current trends are anything to go by, the desire to live alone and detach from society is becoming much more common. In 1950, for example, approximately 4 million Americans lived alone and accounted for less than 10 percent of all households. Today, the figure is at 32 million, which represents 28 percent of all households nationally and more than 40 percent in cities such as Atlanta, Denver and Manhattan. And this is a trend echoed across the Western world.
As noted in the book, “Going Solo” by Eric Klinenberg, 60 percent of all houses are composed of single occupants in Stockholm, Sweden, and this is a trend that is likely to continue. So, what’s driving this pattern?
Today, more than ever before, ease of access and convenience is to be prized above space. People and especially “singletons” are reshaping their world to be more convenient and to have all that they need close by. Belonging to groups and committing to communal activities, Klinenberg finds, must be detachable and temporary.
With such a focus on the “I” today and the individual experience, where does the “we” or the common good of Christianity fit in?
We know that the Christian life is not an island life unto itself. Nor is it always convenient and comfortable. Catholicism espouses values and teachings which are at odds with a culture that prizes individualism and materialism above faith. Our faith places the common good, the “we” if you will, above the comfortability of the “I”. God has designed us to be in a relationship with him and models for us what it means to live in community. The Trinity is a communion of love.
The mystery of the Trinity — God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit — reveals to us how to be in relationship with others and how to love. Note that we make the sign of the cross with the words “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” The word “name” here is critical. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that we are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: not in their names, for there is only one God, the almighty Father, his only Son and the Holy Spirit: the Most Holy Trinity” (CC#234).
At a time when many people, especially young adults, struggle with community life and relationships, Catholicism offers a compelling vision that calls us out of our desire to live solitary lives so that we can “love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
Each one of us is a part of a community of believers that have survived 2,000 years of triumphs and tragedies, of injustice, war and persecution. God has given to each one of us the gift of a family in his church, the Body of Christ, because he knows how much we need one another to live out the demands of the Gospel. We cannot do it alone. It is not healthy for us. The Christian life is a “narrow path” that calls us to pilgrimage together, limping along, helping each other on the pathway to eternal life.
Does God care for each individual person? Absolutely. It is a love that we can never contemplate in its completeness and totality but it is a love that calls us to be love and to give love. Jesus reminds us that “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). It is a love that calls us to serve God and each other. It is a love that puts the “I” before “we” so that we can see a more just and loving world in our lifetime. I, for one, am very glad that I don’t have to go it alone!
Stanz is director of the diocesan Department of New Evangelization and co-author of “The Catechist’s Backpack.”