Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Life in Exile

'Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.'

St. John 12:42-43

1. The ancient and medieval world was one in which a person's role and place in society, within the structure of the community, was everything. Personal identity was wedded to social and communal structure in a manner we really cannot begin to appreciate. To be outside of the community in which someone was born into and lived was to lose one's identity, to be deprived of being in a manner. Human life was deeply bound to the social structure, be it the polis or family-group or synagogue. For Aristotle, true virtue was impossible outside of the polis. In the medieval age one was identified by feudal obligations and ties of kinship, established in a specific place. To detach oneself from that place and ties and obligations was to enter a no-man's land devoid of personal identity. This was the place of the peregrinati, the monks who embraced a voluntary exile, often on the Continent, either as penance or for missions or both. While this action in some ways, through the monastic structure, came to be an avenue of identity in itself, it remained throughout a radical detachment from normal means of identity and role.

2. In St. John's Gospel this theme of exile, of being separated from one's community and hence role and identity, is particularly important. It demonstrates in a concrete manner what is described elsewhere in the New Testament as the life of exile, of pilgrimage, in pursuit of the heavenly city, following Christ Himself, Who had 'no place to lay His head.' In St. John, the danger is one of being put out of the synagogue: entailing a severance from not only the religious community but also from the fullness of society and community in general. It was to be cast out of the proper parameters of society, to become a refugee and exile.

3. The danger, or rather, the call, of exile, is repeated throughout the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. It is foreshadowed in the wandering of Abraham, and the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt; in the flight of prophets from angry monarchs; and in a way the voluntary exile of St. John the Forerunner into the desert, outside the bounds of ordinary society. These were all literal flights, phyisical peregrinations from one place and its community to another. The citizen of the new Christian polis, however, often continues to exist within his old polis, within the old community, but his role in it is fundamentally transformed. He is henceforth a pilgrim, a wander, whose true role and identity is bound up in Christ and the community insituted in Him, the Church. His old identities, his old status within his 'natural' community, is radically reconfigured as a result. We can no longer see ourselves as citizens of whatever order we happen to be in, who just happen to be Christian. To be an exile, in Scriptural terms, means a radical relalignment and understanding of role and identity.

4. The reconfiguration of the Christian's role and identity, against his continued life in 'the world,' introduces one of the great tensions of Christian life. Now, it may result that this state of exile is very tangiably manifested, as in the man cast out after his healing by Christ, into a very literal exile. It may mean a voluntary exile like the missionary-saints of old like St. Colum Cille or St. Boniface. It could mean martyrdom, as the order of the social structures resists the existence of this new Kingdom and its citizens. For the Kingdom of Heaven can be very subversive to the structure of the world; Christ came to 'destroy the works of the devil,' and the manifestations of those works may well resist violently against His Body. Yet whatever the tensions that arise, the Christian is called to an ongoing life of exile, of citizenship in a Heavenly City not yet fully attained to. One of our great tasks comes in finding how to work this out in our present lives, in situations as varied as the people embraced by this new and radically-different Kingdom of God.


Post a Comment

<< Home