Arts and Culture

The Human Journey Revolves Around Relationships

by Father Robert Lauder

When I like a book as much as I like W. Norris Clarke’s Person and Being, I try to focus in on key insights in the book so that I can communicate those insights to friends, who I hope will be as enthusiastic about the book as I am. As I am writing this column I am wishing that I could sit down with Father Clarke, who died a few years ago, and discuss some of his insights that I find so provocative. Though I knew him, we never had a lengthy discussion about philosophy.

An experience that I had with Father Clarke has just come to mind. It could have been like a nightmare that many public speakers have had. I was presenting a paper at a philosophy convention. I think the topic of my paper had something to do with the mystery of person. In the paper I freely quoted both the Jewish personalist philosopher Martin Buber and Father Clarke. I made clear in the paper how much I admired these two philosophers.

When I finished presenting my paper there was a question-and-answer session. As I looked up to see if there were any questions, I saw Father Clarke sitting in the second row. I announced his presence to those attending the session. Then I said, “I guess I should be grateful that Buber didn’t show up!”

A Journey of Spirit

One of Father Clarke’s marvelous insights co

ncerns the relationship between a person and the world. He sees the human journey as a developing presence between the person and the world, more specifically, between a person’s presence to self and a person’s presence to other. He writes the following:

“Thus the life of every human person unfolds as a journey of the spirit through an ever developing spiral circulation between self-presence and active self-expressive presence to others, between the ‘I’ and the world, both personal and subpersonal, between inward-facing self-possession and outward-facing openness to the other. And, paradoxically, the more intensely I am present to myself at one pole, the more intensely I am present and open to others at the other. And reciprocally, the more I make myself truly present to the others as an ‘I’ or self, the more I must also be present to myself, in order that it may be truly I that is present to them, and not a mask” (pp. 69-70).

I think that Father Clarke has articulated a profound truth about human persons. How I am present to myself can greatly influence how I am present to other persons and how I am present to other persons can greatly influence how I am present to myself. One of the ways that we grow as persons is through our relationships with others. Unfortunately, one of the ways that we fail to grow is through poor relationships with other persons.

I am thinking of two people I knew when I was doing graduate work in philosophy many years ago. One person once told me that everyone was his friend. I thought that was amazing, that he could be so open to so many people. When I would walk around the campus with him he would greet many people with comments, such as “How are your courses going?” or “How are your parents doing?”

Initially, I was very impressed that someone could be so welcoming and receptive to other persons. However, as I came to know him better, it seemed to me that he had no close friends. He had many acquaintances but did not seem to have any deep relationships. He was quite guarded and would not allow anyone to get very close.

The other person was a professor who may have been the most free person I have ever met. He was extremely busy, teaching, writing, giving extra lectures outside the university and yet, when he was with someone, for example a student, he was completely present, as though he had nothing else to do that day but be present to the student. I think that physically he was blessed with great stamina but more importantly he was a mature, composed, exceptionally intelligent person who had decided to give his life in service to others.

For much of my life I thought of human relationships as extraneous to the religious life. In fact, I probably thought of them as a distraction from what is important in being a religious believer. That view may have been due to my training and education.

Now I believe that religion is all about relationships, relationship with God and relationships with other persons. Who I really am before God profoundly influences me at the deepest level of myself and also influences who I am before others. Who I am before others greatly influences who I am before God.

Next week, Father Lauder writes about the responsibility individuals have to help one another be receptive to reality and to see that reality is a gift.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.