Every once in a while you find a bit of half-wisdom in an unlikely place, and it sticks with you and becomes a sort of recurrent theme.
Back when I was going through toddlerhood for the first time, I found a pretty helpful book about child discipline. This book was a little more transcendent than the average discipline book, I think, because it was actually more about self-discipline: developing the fortitude to restrain your own unhelpful impulses, and to walk between punitiveness and permissiveness. Anyway, one of the questions that the author suggested asking yourself along the way was:
"Do I want to be special, or do I want to connect?"
Never mind the context. The simplicity of this dichotomy stuck in my memory. Often we get a choice between being special (which necessarily sets you apart from others) or connecting (which necessarily emphasizes commonalities. And when you are a parent or caregiver, overseeing multiple children, often there is a choice between emphasizing specialness and emphasizing connection. It comes into relationships with people you meet, too: are you to treat such-and-such a person as special or are you to connect with them?
Leaders are "special," and with the "specialness" comes a distance. They aren't like us. They have different responsibilities. Celebrities are made "special," and that makes them seem less human. Winners are "special," afforded rewards that the ordinary person can't share (or else there wouldn't be winners).
It isn't necessarily better to desire connection than to desire specialness. Those of us who want to be leaders, want to be famous, want to be winners -- want to be special -- are wanting good things. It's just that they are good things that come at a certain cost. And those of us who want, mostly, connection -- well, that comes at a cost too. It is not possible to have it all, or at least not all at once.
On the surface, there is a tension between specialness and connection. They seem to be opposites, poles that you can travel between, coexisting only in the sense that you can compromise between them or that you can emphasize one or the other at different times.
But there are some remarkable situations where the two overlap, are two sides of the same coin: where something is made special through connection, where we connect more intimately by an act of setting apart.
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1. Unique connections.
Consider a person wishing to marry: The community is full of potential partners, all (more or less) of equal stature. But when our individual chooses one -- when the act of choice is made, which is to say, the marriage vow -- that spouse is set apart, is made "special." (Reciprocally special, of course -- the one is special to the other, and vice versa.) "I set you apart from all others: I choose you." And it is in that choosing that a particularly intimate and transcendent connection is made: a connection that would not be possible if it were not for the setting-apart, the relinquishing of all those other potential partners. Marriage is a connection that is made possible only by "specialness."
And, of course, it makes possible other special connections: mother-and-child, father-and-child, siblings-to-each-other. In the family each person is known as special. My children each only have one mother in the world; I am the only, the unique; I am irreplaceable; I am distinct from all other women and also from the other members of the family; I get a pedestal, you might say. But that pedestal exists only because of the particular and intimate connection I have to each one of them. I am special to each because of my relationship with each. And the connection exists only because of who I am to them: Mama.
2. Unique communities.
Consider Israel: not the modern nation-state, but Israel as it understood itself in the biblical sense: a chosen people, a people set apart. Israel felt a duty to maintain a severe separation between itself and the other nations around it; intermarriage with people from other nations was generally forbidden, tolerated only under strict regulation; adopting cultural and religious elements from neighboring groups was unthinkable, and regarded as bringing down punishment on the whole people; careful practices were developed to emphasize their differences. They regarded themselves as a holy people, and of course "holy" and "sacred" and "consecrated" and all such words have to do with "this thing is set apart as special for a special purpose" more than they have to do with goodness and rightness. They were supposed to be very careful not to make too much connection with other peoples.
They were "a people" made up of "people," a whole community, and within that community there was deep identification and connection. Because they were so set apart, because the boundaries between Us and Others were clear, because they kept strictly to traditions that identified them as a people, they had a particular connection with one another and also with their ancestors and their descendants. Insulation from the surrounding peoples was accomplished through deep connection -- not to mention all the ordinary sorts of connection that make a collection of persons a community rather than, well, just a collection of individuals.
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Those are two examples.
Specialness -- in its form sacredness -- and connection are attributes of the elements of the Trinity toward each other: one and differentiated at the same time. And they are attributes of the Dual Nature of Christ: Man and God, one of us and unutterably holy and Other from us at the same time. Nothing on earth has ever managed to be "special" and "connected" more perfectly than the Christ.
And so when we relate to Christ, we have somehow -- at the same time -- to treat Christ with perfect respect for His sacredness and perfect unity and communion with Him.
This is manifestly difficult.
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Marriage is one image that show us how we might do that.
A "chosen people" is another image used to show us how we might do that.
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We have a Eucharist, and that is one such way.
We have this stuff that looks like bread that we can treat with intense reverence. Keeping it in objectively beautiful containers of only the finest materials (as St. Francis of Assisi is said to have encouraged); allowing it to be touched, except when necessary for good reasons, only by consecrated hands; preserving silence in its presence.
And then we eat the stuff. Connection most intimate: It becomes part of ourselves, fuels our motion, incorporates into our own bodies. It's almost anti-holiness, because anti-separation: or if you like, it incorporates ourselves into its holiness and separateness.
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All this is to say that the following is a false dichotomy:
One can just as easily see
There is no opposition here. There is none. Connection and sacredness are united in one Person perfectly, in the rest of us imperfectly, and that includes whoever happens to be Pope; and it's precisely because persons are unique, unrepeatable, holy for that reason, that we should expect to sense different qualities of connections to different persons.
NOT more connection with one, less with another.
It boggles the mind: that Christ entrusted His mission to human beings at all.