The men's group I'm a part of in Tucson met last night to begin discussion of a book we're reading by South African Dominican Albert Nolan, OP. I had the good fortune to meet Fr. Albert back in 1991 when I spent a summer with the Dominicans in South Africa. He had been an outspoken critic of apartheid, and I was deeply impressed by both his humility and his passion for people. His book, "Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom" begins by looking at some of the signs of our times, one of which is the culture of individualism that has grown in the West since the Enlightenment. Here are a few choice quotes, along with a reflection on the reading from the Acts of the Apostles from today's Mass.
In this individualistic culture, therapists and counselors have sen their task as that of helping the individual to develop his or her ego in order to reach the great Western ideal of self-fulfillment. Today psychologists are beginning to realize that this leads only to self-centeredness and narcissism. ... More and more people who have been reflecting on their own experience of spirituality are discovering what the mystics have always said, that we must undertake the painful and difficult task of moving beyond our self-centeredness, our individualism, and our egos. Programs that ignore this truth and offer a self-fulfillment or follow-your-bliss kind of spirituality are totally misleading.
While "ego" is used in a variety of ways by different schools of psychology, in general, we can define the ego in a way that makes sense in terms of faith. Nolan says the ego refers to "the self-centered self, the 'I' that imagines itself to be the center of the world, judging everything in terms of how it affects 'me' and only 'me.' The ego is the selfish self." This sounds very much to me like a description of the essence of fallen humanity.
This ego is possessive...The unbridled ego wants to conrol its world: people, events, and nature. Hence the obsession with power and authority. The ego compares itself with others and competes for praise and privilege, for love, for power and money. This is what makes us envious, jealous, and resentful of others. It is also what makes us hypocrites, two-faced, and dishonest.
This description of individualism and the unrepentant ego sounds so different from the experience of the early Church in today's readings from the Acts of the Apostles!
The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. Thus Joseph, also named by the apostles Barnabas (which is translated "son of encouragement"), a Levite, a Cypriot by birth, sold a piece of property that he owned, then brought the money and put it at the feet of the apostles.
It is tempting to read this as an idealized report or simply wishful thinking of how things should be in the Christian community, but when we encounter groups of intentional disciples, we see glimpses of this passage being lived today.
Discipleship, as St. Paul observed, overcomes barriers that our ego normally maintains. Paul saw that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Gal. 3:28. When our lives are given over to Christ in love, in response to his great work of redemption on the cross and because of the Spirit dwelling within us, we find that the barriers we normally establish between us based on differences in ethnicity, intelligence, skills, personality, experience, gender, and economic status become less and less significant. What truly matters is our mutual love for Christ and the experience of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Evidently, Jesus had to really struggle with the egos of his apostles, who so often wanted to be like the leaders of their age who "lorded it over" their fellow men and women.
Perhaps as we go about our day, we might watch for the clues that reveal our unbridled ego: the moments in which we get angry at someone else, or feel jealousy, or resent the success of another, or get frustrated when our expectations aren't met. It might be dismaying to begin to realize how highly we regard ourselves, but that's also the first step in humility, too.