Rolheiser: What we do in private

10 January 2022

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Rev. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

No one is an island; indeed, no one is ever really alone. If you are a person of faith or even just someone with a highly attuned intuitive sense, you will know that there is no such thing as a truly private act, for good or bad.

Everything we do, no matter how private, affects others. We aren’t isolated monads whose private thoughts and acts have no effect on anyone else. We know this, and not just from our faith. We know it intuitively by what we sense in our lives.

How do we sense what lies hidden in the privacy of other people’s lives? Conversely, how does what happens in the privacy of our own lives affect others?

We don’t have a metaphysics, a phenomenology, or a science through which we can tease this out explicitly. We just know it is true. What we do in the private recesses of our hearts and minds is in some ways sensed by others.

Every religion worthy of the name teaches this, namely that we are all in some real, mystical, symbiotic communion with each other where ultimately nothing is truly private. This belief is shared by basically all the great world religions – Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, and American and African indigenous religions. No religion allows for a private sin that does not affect the whole community.

This explains some of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus teaches that it’s not only our outward actions that help or hurt others; it’s also our innermost thoughts. For Him, not only may we not do harm to someone we hate, we may not even think hateful thoughts about Him in our private thoughts. Likewise it not enough to discipline ourselves sexually so as to not commit adultery, we have to even discipline the erotic thoughts we have about others.

Why? What’s the harm in private thoughts?  It is more than the danger that if we think certain bad thoughts about others we will eventually act them out (true though this may be). What is at issue is something deeper, something contained explicitly in the Christian notion of the Body of Christ.

As Christians, we believe that we are all members of one living organism, the Body of Christ, and that our union with each there is more than metaphorical. It is real, as real as the physicality of a living body. We are not a corporation, but a living body, a living organism, where all parts affect all other parts. Hence, just as in a live body, healthy enzymes help bring health to the whole body, and infected and cancerous cells threaten the health of the whole body, so too inside the Body of Christ.

What we do in private is still inside the body. Consequently, when we do virtuous things, even in private, like a healthy enzyme, we help strengthen the immune system within the whole body. Conversely, when we are unfaithful, when we are selfish, when we sin, no matter that this is only done in private, like an infected or cancerous cell, we are helping break down the immune system in the body. Both healthy enzymes and harmful cancer cells work in secret, below the surface.

This has important implications for our private lives. Simply put, nothing we think or do in private does not have an effect on others. Our private thoughts and actions, like healthy enzymes or infected cells, affect the health of the body, either strengthening or weakening its immune system. When we are faithful, we help bring health to the body; when we are unfaithful, we are an infected cell challenging the immune system within the body.

Whether we are faithful or unfaithful in private affects others, and this is not something that is abstract or mystical. For example, a spouse knows when his or her partner is unfaithful, irrespective of whether or not the affair is exposed. Moreover, the spouse knows this not just because there may be subtle betrayals of the infidelity in the other’s body language and behavior. No, she knows this at a gut level, inchoately, mystically, because in some dark inexplicable way she senses the betrayal as a strain on the health and integrity of their marriage. This may sound more metaphorical than real, but I invite you to check it out in life. We feel infidelity.

We know some things consciously and others unconsciously. We know certain things through observation and others intuitively. We know through our heads, our hearts, and our guts, and through all three of these faculties, sometimes (because inside of a body all parts affect each other) we know something because we sense it as either a tension or a comfort inside our soul. There are no private acts. Our private acts, like our public ones, are either bringing health or disease to the community.

I leave the last words to the poets:

If you are here faithfully, you bring great blessing. (Parker Palmer)

“If you are here unfaithfully, you bring great harm.” -Rumi