From Babel to Pentecost: Some meditations on the consecrated life

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Introduction

Reflecting a little on consecrated life and reading the reality that we live today from a pneumatological perspective, I think that we can respond with creative fidelity to the provocations of the Spirit who invites us to enter into the depths of history with its convulsions and its beauties. To do this, we have to ask: what kind of consecrated life do we want? Do we want to live the experience of Babel or of Pentecost? In the present context we are called to pass from Babel to Pentecost in order to overcome the crisis of meaning and to learn from the meaning of the crisis and to open ourselves to the challenges of the new times.

Consecrated life as an experience of Babel

The word Babel from Akkadian (Babili) means the door of God; from Hebrew (balal), to shake, to confuse. In the text of Genesis, the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) represents the desire for uniformity, for security, where everyone communicates in one language, as well as success and the adventure of human autonomy. The city is the human ability to control and standardize the world. It is the image of human aspiration and pride, accompanied by a spirit of vainglory for success: to perpetuate the name and not scatter it over the whole earth (v.4), to the point of wanting to invade the place where God lives. The image of the city refers to the universal dream of humanity, of unity with other people. It is the symbol of human inventiveness and ingenuity, of the triumph of reason through which men calculate everything and have their certainties. In the text, fire is a universal symbol of civilization and bricks, of permanence, of stability. Babel is the dream of human eloquence in responding to human desires with its ability to organize and maintain order.

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God sees this dream as a nightmare. The irony of the text is that man wants to go up to heaven, while God comes down to see the tower. God stifles that attempt at unity by diversifying human language. Babel is idolatry, the attempt to make people and civilization the foundation of security and the ultimate object of fidelity. In this sense, the biblical writer’s warning is that the separated from God projects, conceived as an example of unity, always end up being dispersed. [1]

God, in destroying this poverty of language, which is only functional and at the service of a sterile vanity, invites us to run the risk of the other, in trying to communicate beyond concrete appearances, to make mistakes in understanding and to find new ways of interacting with the other, with the radically different. God makes the need for dialogue arise even when there is nothing more than a collective monologue: he invites us to discover the value of difference and of the unknown. It is not an easy path, but it leads to the great richness and makes the encounter with the other, the privileged place of our human becoming. It is not a question of replacing God, but of daring to communicate with others, a school in which one learns to communicate with God. Jesus, coming into our world and sharing our human language, has established a dialogue with all people, without any exclusion, the privileged place of conversion and salvation, and of God’s friendship with all.[2] 

The story of the Tower of Babel can be applied very well to a style of consecrated life that closes in on itself, giving no room for God. In doing so, it impoverishes its language, speaking a single language formulated by rules and customs, with the aim of placing itself on the margin of other baptized Christians, as a select group, determining what is permitted and what is not for others. In addition to closing in on formal rules, it is becoming solidified in structures that little by little are imprisoning and killing the charism. It is a consecrated life that is completely arranged, of sterile formalisms and rituals, marked by a paternalism that infantilizes its members and does not open itself to Providence as a reality and space for divine action that shows that it is not possible to organize everything, but that the improvisation of the daily life constitutes miracles to always continue searching. When the consecrated life fits into its towers, God descends from heaven to confuse its members and to put them in crisis.

Another characteristic of a consecrated life understood as Babel is that of the massification of its members, that is, everyone must think the same so that any critical thinking threatens the structure. Its members are not recognized as people with personal gifts but as pieces of replacement capable of maintaining the structures and uniformity of the same language. It is a sterile experience in which what is different is threatening and criticism, doubts do not constitute platforms for reflection to renew the charism, but as a counterpoint to the maintenance of the system. This often leads to the establishment of real relationships between “masters” and “servants” or privileged castes in religious congregations, made up of people who always want to guarantee the status quo.

Since people are not recognized in their gifts and many build their buildings on the fringes of God’s project and of the community, Babel appears very concretely in the series of personal projects that do not correspond to the congregational charism and to what the Constitutions, the Chapters and the common consensus of the religious family ask for. Many times, this constitutes a source of tension between religious communities, provinces, generating waste of energy, and a limitation of the evangelizing service.

Finally, a deviation from the foundational spirituality that springs from the Scriptures, from the intuition of the founders and from the Constitutions and Statutes is evident. The search begins for a spirituality that offers well-being and answers, but without a commitment to transforming consciousness and reality, based on the handling of the sacred. Thus, little by little, superficiality becomes an element present in the reflections, in the homilies, camouflaged by a discourse of reinforcement of the old structures, by an image of God who is distant and punishing, by the moralism that everything is sin and by the spectacle of the sacred as a source of attraction of persons and of the centrality of the person of the religious subject. The Paschal Mystery of Christ is no longer the center of the celebration and spirituality, but the one who leads the celebration.

A consecrated life that presents itself in this way is embedded in its structures and expects people to recognize it as indispensable. It does not see itself as a useless servant doing what had to be done, as the Gospel reminds us (Lk 17:10). In view of this, we could ask ourselves: is this not one of the causes of the emptying of the meaning of religious life and of its crisis, especially in Europe? Did not the believing only in its own strength and closing itself off from its structures make the consecrated life to speak for a long time only one language and not to communicate with the different languages that appeared during the new times?

Consecrated life as an experience of Pentecost

In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1-13) the narrative of Pentecost reminds us of the Last Supper. The community is gathered, and the disciples witness the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the birth of the Church. The wind, the breath, the breath are symbols of movement, of the dynamic, of life that does not extinguish the fire. The breath is life. The flame is a symbol of the presence and holiness of God. It is the purification that it can bring about in human life. The fire is Christ, although it descends to the community. Through different languages, they can understand the teaching of the apostles, preach the Word, break bread, and pray together. [3]

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At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit manifests himself as fire. His flame descended upon the assembled disciples, ignited in them, and infused them with God’s new ardor. Thus what the Lord Jesus had foretold is realized: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Lk 12:49). Together with the faithful of the various communities, the Apostles carried this divine flame to the ends of the earth; they thus opened a path for humanity, a luminous path, and they collaborated with God who wants to renew the face of the earth with his fire.[4]   The image of the tongues of fire reminds us of the episode of the burning bush that burns before Moses and is not consumed, recalling the manifestation of God – I am He who is (Ex 3:2.14) – and the pillar of fire that guided the Hebrews during the night in the desert (Ex 13:20-22). Thus, the community is taken by the inextinguishable power of God and by the light capable of breaking the darkness of the desert, making it possible to free oneself from its slavery and to arrive in its promised and renewed land (Ps 103:1).

In the logic of Babel, the dream of unity, speaking a single language generates confusion and division, while at Pentecost the various languages generate unity.

In John 3:1-21, Jesus, in the dialogue with Nicodemus, takes up again the metaphor of the wind to refer to the one who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8). To be born of the Spirit is to be totally free before the conscience and the world. The nascent community is revived by the breath of the Spirit who recreates it and breathes into that new life and illuminates the minds of its members by giving them the spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge (Ex 31:3; 35:31), counsel and strength, knowledge and fear of the Lord (Is 11:2), so that they may believe and announce what they have seen and experienced with the Master. The Spirit is the great Mystagogue who makes the community understand that it was born of a call and a free and obedient option of Jesus for the Kingdom, which cost him the giving up of his own life, shedding his own blood for the sake of the covenant with the Father and with humanity. It is from this that the community finds the courage to break down the walls of fear, uncertainty, and lack of faith itself.

Certainly, our communities will be Cenacles as each confrere opens himself to the light of the gifts of the Spirit to speak a renewed language and to break down the noises that weaken our mission. In consecrated life, we must overcome Babel of tears, discontent, so often unfounded, slander and make an option for the tender whispering of the Spirit who gathers, gathers, heals wounded hearts, gives us enthusiasm and makes us come out of closure, isolation and speak a unique language, that of the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, responding faithfully to our charism and being docile to the Spirit.

The Spirit is the healer of hearts and souls and the illuminator of consciences and guides us on the path of truth, faith, love and hope. It is he who works on the realities of death, transforming them into new ones, and he enthuses us as consecrated persons to sing a new song of joy and hope to all nations, through the proclamation of the word and service to the little ones: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes” (Mt 11:25).

This same Spirit present in the creation of the world is the one who inspires consecrated life. Consecrated life was not born to satisfy the desires and personal whims of men and women; it is a loving and prophetic response to the Lord of history. On the contrary, it would already appear in historical books as a failed institution that left a little legacy to the Church. In the difficult moments of the Church’s history due to human limitations, the Holy Spirit was the great faithful helmsman who led her through the troubled seas of disunity, ethnocentric mentalities, persecutions, and lack of commitment to the Gospel itself. He gives us the certainty of God’s faithfulness and of the continuity of the Redeemer’s spirit in the world.

The Instruction Starting Afresh from Christ affirms:

There is a particular bond of life and dynamism between the Holy Spirit and consecrated life. For this reason, consecrated persons must remain open to the Creator Spirit who works in accord with the Father’s will, praising the grace which has been given to them in the beloved Son. This same Spirit radiates the splendor of the mystery on all of existence, spent for the Kingdom of God and the needy and abandoned multitude. The future of consecrated life is therefore entrusted to the dynamism of the author and donor of ecclesial charisms which are placed at the service of the full knowledge and realization of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. [5]

The community is gathered in the house, a place where human relationships are woven, a place of affection, of life, of the sharing of bread. The Gospel of John states that the community was closed in its doors for fear of the Jews. The doors represent the securities. Jesus goes through the door, transposing the false securities of the community and enters in their midst and blows the Spirit upon them. It is from the moment they are freed from their false securities, from the walls of their own house, that they understand the resurrection.

Unlike Babel, God does not use language to confuse the community. On the contrary, it becomes a source of communication with all cultures. A consecrated life that is open to the Spirit recognizes the Lord with his wounds as the center of its existence and allows him to enter into its own house and to recognize him in the sharing of the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread (Lk 14:30-32). She recognizes herself as fragile, with her fears, with her incapacities, but by opening herself up she allows the Spirit to fertilize her and make her flourish by making her become an itinerant and a disciple. Gifts are breathed into all people so that each one can put them in common to make the charism and the service of evangelization flourish.

The experience of Pentecost is always provocative, that is, it is constantly called to be born again, to be renewed. It is not made up of people who know everything, who have nothing else to learn, but of brothers who are able to listen to everyone, to dialogue among themselves, and to renew their languages. It is not closed in on itself, in a single language that unifies consciences, but it is hermeneutic because, by placing the Lord at the center, it interacts with others and goes out to others. The house is not the place of security, of uniformity of language, but it becomes the center of irradiation of the language of God, where all human beings, with their differences, understand each other.

Consecrated life that is open to the Spirit is not afraid to put its concerns into it as Thomas did. It is not afraid to ask the Lord to show the signs of the crucifixion and to put its fingers in the place of the nails and the side in order to believe, because it is made up of people who pose their questions before the dramas of the cross and of the world. At the same time, he hears the call of the Lord who invites him to touch the wounds in his hands and on his side. Because he is able to hear, he is able to recognize himself in the wounds of the Lord and to profess his faith: my Lord and my God.

A consecrated life open to the breath of the Spirit is one that knows how to recognize God’s time and the needs of the church, and therefore is not afraid of change. She places herself as a pilgrim, carrying only what is essential so that she is free to recognize and renounce the old structures and to seek new ones with creativity so that she can respond to the challenges of today’s world.

Conclusion

It is the Spirit, present from eternity, who endorses our witness and mission. It is he, present at our baptism, the root of our consecration, who tells us every day “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). This certainty must provoke in us an enthusiasm that takes away from everything that discourages us. This Spirit invites us to revitalize our Redemptorist consecrated life and to perceive that it is founded on a story of redemption which is told to us by the Gospels. We carry this treasure in earthenware vessels. In them there is a power so extraordinary that it comes from God and not from us. (2 Cor 4,7). This power, that comes from God, we must witness to in this wounded world.

Fr. Rogério Gomes, C.Ss.R.
http://lattes.cnpq.br/3342824164751325

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Cf. RYKEN, Leland; WIHOIT, James et al. (a cura di). Torre di Babele. In: Le immagini bibliche: simboli, figure retoriche e temi letterari della bibbia. Cinisello Balsamo: San Paolo, 2016, p. 1489-1491.

[2] CLAUDE LAVIGNE, Jean. La vita religiosa: un linguaggio da rinnovare. UISG – Bollettino, n. 156, p. 8, 2014.

[3] Cf. RYKEN, Leland; WIHOIT, James et al. (a cura di). Pentecoste. In: Le immagini bibliche: simboli, figure retoriche e temi letterari della bibbia, p. 1057-1058.

[4] BENTO XVI. Homilia da Solenidade de Pentecostes. Basílica Vaticana. Domingo, 23 de maio de 2010. Disponível em: http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/pt/homilies/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20100523_pentecoste.html. Acesso em: 14 de maio de 2016.

[5] CONGREGATION FOR INSTITUTES OF CONSECRATED LIFE AND SOCIETIES OF 5POSTOLIC LIFE Starting Afresh from Christ:  A Renewed Commitment to Consecrated Life in the Third Millennium, no. 10.

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