Summer 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 163-170.

Mary Ann Fatula:
      Current Trends:Autonomy and Communion: Paying the Price

Sr. Mary Ann, O.P., holds a doctorate in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America and chairs the Religious Studies Department of Ohio Dominican College.

IT is difficult for us not to admire people who are truly leaders, who have the courage to make an impact in the world for good. In their personal autonomy and communion with others they speak to us of human life at its best. But they speak to us also of the price of suffering inherent in achieving this kind of maturity, of the price that has to be paid in order to gain our own selves. And even as we learn from them that nothing precious is achieved without cost, we learn also the invaluable rewards of the price. In some deep, inarticulate way we recognize in them our potential to create something good and beautiful and unrepeatable with our own lives.


The triune God has made each one of us not as a clone of anyone else, but as a unique person with the potential to make an irreplaceable contribution in the world. The gift of our human existence is precisely this possibility of choosing whether we will live dependent and self-centered, letting our life be determined and directed by forces outside ourselves, or whether we will strive for the health of human maturity, for the individuation of a self-directed, other-centered life. Our greatest human achievement is thus the unrepeatable creation and gift to the world which in God's grace we can make of our life.

This kind of personal autonomy which creates and shapes our own life as a unique word of truth and love in the world demands the courage to stand alone. Yet perhaps nothing is more fearful to us than precisely this possibility of becoming who we really are, and so of standing out from the crowd. It is here, in facing the choice between autonomy and absorption into the crowd, that childhood fears of being alone and unprotected make us anxious and afraid, pushing us away from the challenge of individuation into the safety of the herd.

We each know the unique ways we feel pressured by others' opinions, the ways we can and do betray who we are because we fear standing alone. And so we can waste the precious gift of our own life. Instead of individuation, we can choose absorption, safe from others' criticism and disapproval, but safe also from the possibility of creating anything of lasting truth and beauty with our lives, safe from God's unrepeatable plan of love for us.

It is here, in the experience of our power not only to create our own life but also to let it slip from our hands, that we begin to sense that the autonomy and communion at the heart of human personhood are not simply human achievements. They are gift and grace, the concrete place where the mystery of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus, into the Trinity and into the communion of saints become more than simply words recited in a creed every Sunday.

For our baptism into the paschal mystery of Jesus immerses us into a God who is not the poverty of aloneness, God as an isolated individual, but God as the richness of trinitarian communion. Nowhere else is there such absolute oneness and yet such utterly unique personhood. Nowhere else does the mystery of human persons called to both autonomy and communion find its source and goal than in the infinite uniqueness and communion of the persons who are God. And precisely in not running away from the price of our own personhood we begin to discover that the proclamations central to the Christian message are not simply doctrines to be believed, but reality that can be experienced, reality that can transform experience.

For in having the courage to live their own identity and truth in the triune God, autonomous persons grow open and docile to the divine will accomplishing far more wonderful things than their own plans could ever draft or even imagine. And unlike those whose fear absorbs them into the crowd, people of autonomy become even silently, unwittingly, leaders in the community, regardless of whether they are consciously recognized as such. They live at the center of the storm, so to speak, at the cutting edge of the community's life, living bearers of the community's deepest needs and aspirations.


What we cannot help admiring is the fact that precisely in their communion with others, autonomous people are willing to stand alone. And they usually have to. Their courage makes them vulnerable. Singled out from the crowd, they are intolerably different; reversals will come not only from their opponents but also from the very circles that initially supported them. And though we envy this kind of personal autonomy, we also fear it for the same reasons that we fear living, and dying, and taking a stand alone.

Yet their lives show us that autonomy is not a selfish individualism that degenerates into raw loneliness; it is rather security in one's own identity, an inner contentment even in aloneness, a willingness to be alone precisely for the sake of communion with others at a far deeper level. Free of dependence on attempts to gain who they are from outside themselves, autonomous persons have the inner resources to be a gift enriching rather than merely feeding on others. Their own lives define autonomy as the capacity to give ourselves not simply sporadically but in a life that consistently breaks us out of the prison of our own world.

And whether we recognize it or not, each of us needs and aches for this kind of autonomy that attains communion with others. For the God who is trinitarian love has made it impossible for us to gain who we are isolated and cut off from one another. The triune God thus becomes real to us in proportion to our growth in autonomy and communion, and our autonomy and communion in turn deepen through concretely experiencing the triune God close and active in our lives, especially through the communion we experience with one another.

But as we look at our own and the lives of others around us, we sense that much of what seems to be communion can in fact be escape from the pain of autonomy that alone makes true communion possible. This terror of being alone lies within every one of us. We may try to mask it with the false independence of a selfish individualism. Or we may enter into relationships based on need and dependency and superficial companionship rather than on the personal autonomy and self-giving which is communion. If we find our desires for close relationship frustrated, we feel robbed and cheated, jealous of people who seem to have found communion, who appear to be safe from the loneliness we find so bitter.

But paradoxically, it is the willingness to suffer the aloneness of personal autonomy that finally makes us capable of true communion with others. People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Edith Stein show us that we can suffer aloneness, the price of human maturity, in a way that does not ultimately deprive and diminish us but rather enriches and expands us, in a way that brings us not only greater autonomy and self-definition, but also deeper communion with others. Their lives show us that communion is not equivalent with nor even dependent upon physical presence and companionship, as important as these are. The aloneness at the heart of all suffering seems mysteriously to become in them the cause of union with others at an even deeper level.


Paying the price of the autonomy and communion at the heart of human maturity always entails sacrifice in some way. But it is sacrifice that can bring its own deep, if delicate, rewards. All of us know people who are not famous but who nevertheless have paid the price of suffering entailed in gaining autonomy and communion. Their stories underscore the fact that the most devastating part of any suffering for us is the feeling of isolation and abandonment. Even if many were to surround us with love and companionship, in suffering, finally, we are alone. Yet what we can learn from people of courage is that in some mysterious way the very aloneness at the heart of all suffering can become communion with others at a profound level.

Many of us have personal experience of the link between emotional and spiritual stress and bodily illness. When pain in our psyche and spirit breaks into pain in our body, our physical suffering in turn often makes us incapable of anything except lying powerless with the pain. Yet in many instances, sickness can also give us something. It can give us time to think, time to heal inner wounds, time to say yes to a deeper surrender and peace and autonomy, time to let go.

When pain is a stranger to us, we can little imagine how people who live under the weight of continual suffering experience life. But when we ourselves or someone close to us are struck, it is then that we begin to feel what it is like to live life from one long moment to the next, to be really alone in our pain.

But if we allow it, our pain can deepen in some hidden and inarticulate way into communion with others who suffer continually, and for whose pain there is no relief. In our own suffering of rejection, of loneliness, of disappointment, we taste the pain of those who never know love or care or well-being. In the pain which naturally isolates us, we can experience communion, communion even with those we have never met but to whom we are nevertheless bound through the cup of suffering. And it is precisely this ability to make room in our hearts for more than ourselves, the capacity to enter into others' joys and burdens, that grounds communion.


For too many of us, the words of our baptism are only words: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Yet the initiation process in the early church and its reclaiming today in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults shows how the heart of the Christian experience is a baptismal plunging into the death and the resurrection of Jesus in a profound personal conversion sealed and celebrated in community.

The words of our baptism proclaim and impart and seal the meaning of who we are, members of God's family, loved and redeemed by Jesus, cherished by his Father, made whole and free in his Holy Spirit. Baptism thus plunges us not simply into water, but most deeply into living persons, into the community of persons who are the triune God, and into the flesh and blood community we are meant to be to one another. But where in our families, in our congregations, in our church, can we find the community that fosters this kind of autonomy and communion?

It is here, at the point of our own and of all human powerlessness, that we must rediscover the inseparable and intimate relation between the Trinity and the paschal mystery of Jesus. The divine persons are sheer relationship, utter givenness to one another. Their unique and absolute self-giving to one another is who they are. On the cross Jesus makes this radical self-giving at the heart of the triune God visible, and in his death and resurrection actually bestows it upon us as power to transform our own lives. His love gives his body to be broken for us, his blood to be poured out for us. There is nothing more that the triune God can give than what is given to us on the cross.

Jesus has suffered in his own mind and heart and body all of the excruciating pain and rejection of the world. His death and resurrection have healed the worst possible hatred and isolation with a love more powerful than death. And because of this, our own autonomy can grow through a communion deeper than attempts to run away from aloneness. People of courage experience the truth of their autonomy and gain it precisely in paying the price of aloneness. But it is an aloneness embedded in a communion stronger than time and distance and death itself.

A dying man, still young, is held in the arms of his wife's and children's love. In the long and agonizing months leading to his death, he is with them and they are with him, and both he and they finally and peacefully let go. At his funeral, his wife's tears come from pain but also from a delicate joy she can hardly speak about, the secret of a communion even in death, of a communion greater than death. "I didn't know that dying could be beautiful," she says quietly.


Even if we do not name it as such, this is the meaning of the communion of saints. The Holy Spirit who is the Father's and the Son's own embrace of love binds us together in a closeness with others that transcends miles and years and even the seemingly impenetrable chasm between heaven and earth. The triune God's love given to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus binds us to one another in a communion so mysterious and unbreakable that even when we feel most alone we are not alone. And even though we will see clearly how true this is only at the end of time, there are moments even now when we can taste this mystery in our lives, even as we cling to it in faith.

And we who are not Corazon Aquino or Lech Walesa, what is the price of achieving our own autonomy and communion? Perhaps it is paying in our own life the same price they pay in theirs: not to run away from ourselves, from our pain, from our aloneness, and not to fear giving ourselves where we have pledged ourselves.

For we do not gain autonomy through self-centeredness, nor communion through fear of aloneness. Because neither autonomy nor communion can be gained without the other, the price of both is a simultaneous entering into ourselves and reaching out of ourselves. It means living and spending time with who we really are and not simply with the projects that provide us an escape from who we are. It means giving ourselves -- really giving ourselves -- where our life commitment calls us to give, and not simply where our fear of loneliness has driven us to take refuge.

And it means knowing that all of this is impossible to our own efforts. To pay the price of our autonomy and communion is finally to fall on our knees before the triune God and to cry out for the quickening of the baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit in our own lives: the Spirit, source of our autonomy, more intimate to us than we are to ourselves, as Augustine says; the Spirit, giver of life and of love, who not only binds us together but who is in person the very communion among us, as Catherine of Siena says.

It is because the Holy Spirit poured out upon us through Jesus' resurrection is source of both true autonomy and communion that in our own lives the task and gift of one always entails the task and gift of the other. The more autonomous we become as persons, the more we grow in our capacity to live life as communion. And the more we give ourselves to the communion to which our life commitment calls us, the more autonomous we become as persons. And the more we grow in both autonomy and communion, the more we discover what people like Mohandas Gandhi and Dorothy Day knew by experience: it is worth the price.