Where the Centre Holds

Where the Centre Holds January 9, 2014

A line in William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming bewailed the breakdown of civilisation the words

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed…


As his poem indicates, one of the keys to preventing further breakdown is attention to “the center”, and it then becomes easy to associate this term with particular public institutions. But Eliot’s referal to the center pertains to a number of areas from the public, the cultural and the personal. 
What is meant by a personal center? And how is one to attend to it? There is a temptation here to locate the center within the isolated individual – think of phrases such as “looking inside yourself”. It is a temptation that both Christian and non-Christian entertain, and in so doing associate attention to the center by engaging in interiorised meditation or regard the spiritual life as a purely isolated enterprise, to the exclusion to attention to others
Such a reading of a personal center is at odds with the Christian tradition, where attention to one’s center actually presumes attention to others. Graham Ward considers as instructive Christ’s call in John 15:4 to “abide in me, as I in you”. To use literary terms, he considers such a phrase “chiastic”, arguing that, in the light of Christ as the archetype of humanity, isolated individuals are not conceptually possible. Rather, any individual presumed consideration of another.
In more contemporary times, attention to one’s center as an “other-centered” process was taken up by the French Jesuit and social theorist, Michel de Certeau. In his The Practice of Everyday Life, he compares selfhood with child-likeness, where one is himself to the extent that he is “other and move[s] towards the other”. We see another example in Antonio Spadaro’s insightful interview with Pope Francis, which was featured in English in the Jesuit magazine America. Speaking of the identity of the Jesuit, Francis spoke the need to look “to a center outside himself”, and regarding Christ as the center of the Jesuit. This would explain why, in his Lumen Fidei, Francis spoke of the need for faith to be set within the context of an outward journey.
The notion of movement beyond oneself as a prerequisite of faith should not be surprising in light of the intimate link identified between self-hood with other-centredness, in particular Christ-centredness. In other words, the need for the personal center to hold requires that Certeauian movement towards another, in service, in hospitality and acts of reconciliation.

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