Cultivating the Common Good
I don’t know about you, but there are days when I prefer to retreat into a rosy-hued past. Perhaps you too can recall a time when virtue reigned supreme. It was an era in which moral ambiguity scarcely existed, when all decisions were clear-cut and easy, and when people always seemed to do the right thing.
Fr. Colman was one of those escapists as well. He waxed eloquent when he extolled the Abbey’s golden age. It was a time when all the monks did their duty; when all followed the Rule; and when true charity prevailed among the brothers. “Those were the good old days” — he’d remind us — “formerly known as ‘these trying times.'” That bit of sarcasm was his call to return to reality.
In an era in which conflict and division seem to be the order of the day, it’s tempting to conjure up a past when everyone joined together to work for the common good. People willingly made all sorts of personal sacrifices for the betterment of all, and they did so without hesitation. We see those tendencies in names like the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and they hint of an idyllic era that exists today only in our dreams.
We shouldn’t try to disillusion ourselves about those golden days, but we should not minimize the personal struggles that people before us had to endure. The fact of the matter is, one person’s “common good” can easily become your neighbor’s idea of oppression. And on a personal and societal level, it’s never been easy to balance personal freedom with responsibility for the community. It’s a struggle now, and it was a struggle then.
I’ve always thought that the story of the Good Samaritan aptly describes this internal conflict. On the one hand, Jesus holds up for our inspection the priest and the Pharisee, who opted for their perfectly understandable right to see to their own affairs. They have work to be about, and who knows if the guy in the ditch is for real? What if he is a fraud — a thief in a clever ruse? If I were them, I too would hesitate to get involved. I too would be risk-averse.
On the other hand, the Samaritan is willing to sacrifice personal convenience and resources for the sake of someone he scarcely knows. But unlike the priest or the Pharisee, he recognizes a bit of himself in this guy in the ditch. The Samaritan has been socially marginalized, while the victim in the ditch is at the edge, teetering between life and death. It’s no stretch to see kindred spirits here, and Jesus plays on that insight.
Personal sacrifice has never been easy, and from the the first moment of consciousness every man, woman and child has had to contend with the balance between self and community. Perhaps that is the definition of what it means to be human. But regardless of that, when people work for the common good, they make a surprising discovery. They come to realize that in extending a hand or giving their time or treasure, they end up helping themselves. Despite the personal risk, they are repaid ten and a hundred-fold. The reward may not be monetary, and it may not even elicit a “thank you” from the beneficiary. But it may just bolster their own hope in humanity.
If I can do something for the good of others, perhaps others might be doing so as well. Perhaps there might even be someone to pick me up when I am in the ditch. But if we can ferret out one single act of kindness, then we begin to know where to look for all the others. And eventually we will discover that there are countless sacrifices out there that others have been making for the good of neighbor and community. It’s then when we realize there is hope for us all, and the world is not nearly as terrible as we had thought. Perhaps God is alive and well after all, because — to our surprise — God’s been busy working through our neighbor and perhaps even me.
There’s a wonderful organization called the American Composers Forum, which likes to tweak skeptics of modern music with the observation that “all classical music was once new.” The point is obvious, and we ought to remember that when we survey the landscape around us.
Certainly ours is a world in which everyone seems concerned only for themselves. But a second and a third glance often pulls aside the veil that conceals the hand of God. And that hand is at work in our neighbors and in ourselves. Sure, these certainly are trying times. But it’s just possible that sooner than we thought possible, these trying times will become the good old days.
+On September 16th-17th I participated in some of the activities of the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University. Since 1973 HMML has worked to preserve the archival heritage of the Order of Malta, housed primarily at the National Library of Malta. That work continues, and more recently HMML has lent technical assistance to the preservation effort at the Order of Malta’s headquarters in Rome.
+On September 18th I accompanied Dr. Michael Hemesath, president of Saint John’s University, on a trip to New York. That afternoon we visited Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, where we met with alumnus Fr. Edwin Leahy, OSB (headmaster), our two Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s, as well as with several students from the school. That evening we hosted a President’s Reception at the Harvard Club in New York.
+On September 20th I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to the Legatus Chapter of Dallas. The evening was preceded by Mass at Christ the King Church in Dallas.
A Bit of History: The Order of Malta
The Order of Malta began in 1113 as the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, and in Jerusalem the early Knights served poor and sick pilgrims at their hospice. Following the collapse of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Order relocated to Rhodes and finally to Malta. Later still the Knights moved to Rome following Napoleon’s conquest of Malta in 1798.
Today the 79th Grand Master – Fra Matthew Festing — and the administration of the Order reside in the Grand Magistry, a palace located near the Spanish Steps in Rome. From there they oversee a myriad of projects that serve the sick and the poor around the world. In addition, the Order maintains diplomatic relations with over eighty countries, and these diplomatic ties facilitate the relief activities of the Order.
As the central location of administration, the Order also maintains an extensive archive as well as a research library on the history of the Order. After much planning, the Library and Archives recently have emerged from an extensive renovation; and today HMML and its Malta Study Center lend technical expertise to the staff in the work of preserving its local archives.
The pictures in today’s post all come from the Grand Magistry. I had the good fortune to visit there in April, while I participated in an Abbey pilgrimage to Italy.