Faith & Thought

Trying to Understand What Call to Communion Means

When I first became interested in the philosophy of personalism several years ago, I quickly encountered the concept of communion that personalist philosophers discussed. For years I was not sure what they meant by “communion.” 

The idea involves the deepest mysteries about the human person, so I should not have been surprised that I had difficulty grasping its meaning. I do not think that the concept can be completely understood by anyone, but I feel a strong desire to get into print at this time what I understand by “communion.” 

My motivation is twofold: I think the idea is very important, and so I want to communicate it to readers of this column, but I am also hoping that trying to write about it will help me to understand it more deeply. 

I think it was Karl Marx (1818- 1883) who was the first philosopher who emphasized in his philosophy that human persons coexist on every level of being human. A human person existing completely alone would not fulfill the understanding that we have of what it means to be a human person. We come to be who we are through our coexistence with other human persons. We coexist on every level of being human. We coexist on the level of knowledge, on the level of emotion and on the level of action. 

There is a philosophy called “Sociologism” which claims that we are completely determined by others. The view of Sociologism is that we are so determined by the groups to which we belong, that we lose our freedom. Though I agree that we are greatly influenced by the groups to which we belong, I believe that no matter how greatly we are influenced, we never cease to be free human persons. Marx believed that how we coexist as workers greatly influenced every aspect of our lives: where we live, whom we marry, our politics, our view of the world and even our religion. 

Personalism stresses that there is an orientation put into us by God that calls us to a deep love relation with everyone. There may be little evidence in our society to support this view, but I think that the more seriously we reflect on the meaning of the human person, the more the view that we coexist with others on the level of love will make sense to us.

During the last few weeks I have been stressing in this column that every human person is called to be a lover. Every human person is called to be a “gift-giver.” 

This is how God has made us. Whatever other vocation each of us might have, the basic vocation that we have is to be a lover. We can try to accept that vocation and try to fulfill it as best we can, but we cannot substitute some other vocation in place of it. There are no substitutes. I will use my self as an example. 

If I do not accept my radical, basic vocation to be a lover, no one can take my place. There are no substitutes. If I do not make my self-gift then no one can make it for me. If I do not make my self-gift then Bob Lauder’s self-gift goes ungiven. Not even Jesus can substitute for me. Of course I believe that Jesus made his own self-gift and that self-gift redeemed the entire human race. But Jesus cannot make Lauder’s self-gift. Only I can do that, and if I do not do it then the gift goes ungiven. My failure frustrates to some extent God’s plan not only for me but for the human race and the world. Each of us is unique in God’s plan. 

We are tied together in God’s plan for us. The first meaning of communion is the orientation God has put in us to love not only one person but to love all persons. In his “Building the Human” (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968, pp. 192) Robert Johann writes the following: 

“If my life makes no difference to a stone, it can make all the difference to another person. This is why I say that to be and function as a person is to be in relation to other persons, to find a home in the hearts of one’s neighbors. Quite simply, I need you in order to be myself; I depend on you and hope in you to let me be, to give me room to be….Hope is a willingness to look to other persons and to rely on their love for one’s own coming-to-be as a person. That is why hope is a virtue. A virtue is a personal disposition enabling one to realize his destiny as a person. What hope enables us to do is to enter the realm of communion with other persons to which we are called. Without hope we could never take this step. Unless we are willing to rely on one another, love is impossible.”(p. 152) 

Once we start living in communion, a kind of love explosion can happen, influencing millions of people. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.