I grew up in the 1960s and 70s on the South Side of Chicago in a blue-collar neighborhood. One of the more dramatic moments of my teenage life occurred one Saturday night when four other teenagers from a local Catholic high school jumped me
The next morning, when our family went to Mass at that same church, I saw one of my assailants. Filled with self-righteous anger, I announced to my parents when I got home that I was never entering that church or any other Catholic church—“so full of hypocrites”—again.
My mother, who was from Ireland, responded as only a mother to a teenage son would: “Michael, you know, there is always room for one more hypocrite.”
My mother wanted me to learn a very important lesson in self-knowledge; namely, that when we think of sin or hypocrisy, our first thought should be of ourselves. G. K. Chesterton captured this lesson when he responded to a London newspaper’s request for essays on the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” He offered a startling two-word reply: “I am.”
In my honest moments I experience the gap between who I have been created to be and who I am actually right now. This gap, this hypocrisy, this sin takes on multiple expressions, but one dimension that none of us escape is the problem of the divided life.
As is true of most failings, we see the divided life more clearly in others than in ourselves. The Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes describes the divided life as “the split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives.” This split creates a false opposition between public and private spheres, faith and reason, professional and religious life. The Council explains that this split and divide “deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.”
There are many reasons for the divided life, but one very important root of the problem involves the split between the active and contemplative life. We were created both to work and to rest, both to be active and to be contemplative. These two dimensions of our lives are meant to inform each other as part of a deeper integrated whole rather than exist as two modes of being that balance each other.
Many of us suffer from a lack of awareness of this divide. We think we “have integrity,” and parrot the trite slogans of the culture, “I do what I say and say what I do.” Too often, what we have is a cheap integrity. Smug and self-righteous of our own achievements, we are about as deep as a puddle. We want a simple resolution, but what we really need is a rescue.
We prefer to take the easy route to dealing with the problem of the divided life, so we use phrases such as “work/life balance” as though some sort of planned program will be able to solve this fundamental problem of the human condition. “Balance” has become one of those overused words in the workplace vocabulary. While it has its place, the “balance of work and life” will often perpetuate, rather than confront and overcome, the divided life.
Balance is an attempt to manage something in a calculative way by weighing options and putting more on one side or the other of the scale. It is a typical “achiever” response. We are seduced by the idea—usually unexamined—that we can manage our life through our calculations and achievements, that these alone can lead to deep satisfaction, happiness, and integrity. This is a serious error. We think we can get work right without getting rest right, but we can’t.
Some of us do need to work harder. Our lack of discipline, softness, and weak effort can create too many excuses for our unsatisfied lives. But for all of us, what we need is a posture of receiving—of silence, prayer, rest, of keeping Sunday as a day of worship, living in covenanted relationship—a receiving that will open ourselves to the woundedness of our own efforts or lack of effort at work, leadership, and production. It is here that we move beyond balance to a profound integration where the contemplative life begins to inform, correct, complement and penetrate our work. We are made to work, homo faber, man the maker, but we are also made to rest.
So our way out of the divided life will only come from the reception of a kind of grace, one that moves us beyond balance toward integrity. This is why at the heart of overcoming a divided life is an integrated life informed by the theological virtue of charity. Pope Benedict XVI defines charity as “love received and given.” As gift, as grace, charity is first received. Charity begins the healing of the divided life by revealing the truth that the contemplative life of prayer and worship provides the context for rightly receiving reality, listening into the being of things. What is first received in silence, prayer, and worship can then be given to others in profound ways in our active and work lives.
This is why Benedict identifies charity as the key virtue for what the tradition calls “integral human development.” We develop as men not as man-boys who are stuck in the mire of amusements, but neither do we grow as men simply because we accomplish things. Rather we develop as men through this charitable dynamic of receptivity and giving of contemplation and action, of worship and work, that form the deepest identity of who we are. It is also precisely at this intersection of this receiving and giving that integrity—that ability to become whole, integral—can be fostered as both a gift and our response.