By Eric Clayton
Not so long ago, my daughter asked me a very peculiar question: “Dad—are you anything else?”
I paused in the parking lot, her little sister’s hand still held tightly in mine. “Anything… else?”
Those five-year-old eyes turned to me, rolled once. “Yeah. Like Mommy is a therapist and a sister. Are you anything else?”
I laughed. “Uh. I’m a brother and a son and a…” I rattled off a few other titles I theoretically hold. She nodded as I buckled her into her car seat, her curiosity seemingly satiated.
But what a question! It echoes in the back of my mind all these weeks later, and I think there’s a good reason for it: The answer is foundational to our own spiritual journeys.
Finding Ourselves in Others
“Spirituality is related to our personhood,” John English, SJ, wrote in his esteemed book, Spiritual Freedom: From an Experience of the Ignatian Exercises to the Art of Spiritual Guidance. “Our person includes our body, psyche, and spirit. A person is a being in relationship with other persons. … This means that there is no person who is in total isolation” (276).
It sounds like my daughter was onto something. So, I come back to that same question and offer it to you: Are you anything else?
The question is not a judgment on whether you are enough. Of course, you are! Rather, the question is a way into the communal spirituality that Fr. English insists is inherent in each of us.
Are you anything else? Each title, each role, calls to mind a community—names and faces to whom you are responsible.
The Dance of Individuality and Togetherness
What are the so-called titles you hold? Daughter, teacher, grandfather, bus driver, civic leader. Each title, each role, calls to mind a community—names and faces to whom you are responsible. Communities you cherish and love. Communities that challenge and nurture you as you discover your fullest self.
Communities, though, are not without their faults and failures; communities can and do hurt individuals. “In such instances the healing process requires individuation so that persons recognize and accept their importance and, through this, discover their own identity and self-worth,” Fr. English notes (276).
The community is never meant to overshadow the individual. There’s a creative tension we’re called to hold: our own unique identity within a community of persons—who we are, formed by those we meet, and forming the world around us. “Gradually individuals come to a greater appreciation of themselves through a free, responsible interchange with community.”
Grounded in Our Story
Fr. English wisely grounds any discussion of spirituality in history. It’s tempting for us to assume the spiritual practices we know have always existed—and exist in a vacuum. But God works in and through history. Our understanding of God develops and deepens as we encounter God at work in new and creative ways across time and space.
So, too, our spirituality. We are increasingly connected — for better and for worse — through social media, through twenty-four-hour news cycles, and through our ability to both travel to new places and learn new things about cultures past and present. With this interconnectedness comes a renewed sense of global responsibility.
In 1987, in “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” Saint John Paul II wrote that solidarity is no vague feeling but lived commitment that demonstrates “we are all really responsible for all”. In 2020, in “Fratelli tIutti” — and throughout his pontificate — Pope Francis reiterated the same point: “We are a global community, all in the same boat, where one person’s problems are the problems of all. Once more we realized that no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together”.
Fr. English would see these as spiritual realizations grounded in historical reality. “Our culture is becoming more and more aware that life is a community affair, that salvation is a community experience and that building the realm of God here on earth is a community endeavour”.
The Heart of Community
So, as we reflect upon those communities to which we belong — both good and bad — we necessarily turn toward the individual persons within those communities. What do we owe them? What do they owe us? And in those exchanges, how are relationships and individual persons nourished?
For a Christian, the answers to these questions point to Christ dwelling within the individuals and within the community. Christ, who is both God’s specific breaking-into human history as Jesus and God’s constant love pouring out to all people at all times. For a Christian community, the location of Christ is essential.
“[Christ] is no longer ‘up there in heaven’ or ‘out there’ in the blessed sacrament. Christ is no longer approached individually. This means persons have more of a horizontal, historical or present awareness of Christ both in their midst and as a mystical body, without denying his otherness”.
Ultimately, Christ is love. Christ shows us the way to love. And the realization that Christ is present within our communities—near and far—is a realization that we have encountered love incarnate.
Christ shows us the way to love.
It’s to that incarnate love that we turn when we consider how to relate to one another. Certainly, at my best, it’s that Christlike love I hope to show my daughters.
Decisions in Love: The Ripple Effect
“Love is the main motive in decision making,” Fr. English wrote in considering the role discernment plays in communal life. “This means that there can be no individual discernment without a relationship to the total faith community and no communal discernment without consideration of individual discernment”.
And so, we come to a startling truth: Every decision I make, made in love, is a response to that question my daughter asked: Am I anything else? If so—and the answer is necessarily yes—have I lovingly considered the needs of these other communities of persons?
Because my individual decision necessarily impacts others. And their decisions impact me. And so, in my own unique communities, I’m called to approach each person in humility.
Because my individual decision necessarily impacts others.
“A new sensitivity to the presence of God and Christ in communal life grows,” Fr. English wrote. “People find the risen Christ in their midst, and they realize that he lives in the weaknesses, sufferings, and energy experienced by their community. Such a group is thus free to appreciate Christian community and to respond to the Spirit’s call to all humanity”.
John English entered the Jesuits in 1949. He was one of the major pioneers of the renewal in the practice of personal spiritual guidance movement in North America. He authored several books on the Spiritual Exercises and was sought after as a spiritual director throughout most of his life. Until the time of his death, he conducted spirituality workshops and training sessions throughout Canada and in many other countries. According to his 2004 obituary, “blessed with an easy manner and delightful sense of humour he was able to discover the goodness of God in everyone he met – even if it took some digging.”