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Personalism in Our Daily Lives

by Angel Valdez

Joanna, a graduate of Wyoming Catholic College, is a Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego.

I came to Casa Juan Diego some months ago, and as I made the long drive from home down to Houston, Texas, I began to wonder more and more as the wheels of the car brought me closer and closer to the door of my new home: what will it be like? What will I be doing? I knew little about the particulars of my daily activities at Casa Juan Diego; the one thing I knew for sure was very general, and I had seen it both on the website as well as heard it in my interview; I would be practicing personalism, the great pillar of the Catholic Worker charism.

As I drove along the roads that brought me to the Houston Catholic Worker, I knew little of what “personalism” meant. It sounded nice, but further than that, I had nothing more to think of it. After these months at Casa Juan Diego, it finally dawned on me what personalism really is; it is the act of treating every person you encounter as just that: a person, a being made in the image and likeness of Christ.

Perhaps some of you read that and think: well, of course! What else would it be? Didn’t you know you should treat persons as persons before going to Casa Juan Diego? The answer is, yes, I “knew” that already. But here at the Catholic Worker, we don’t just know it, we do it. We live it and breathe it. And the only way I could come to realize how short I had fallen of treating people as persons was through the experience of what it means to really do that.

Today, and perhaps particularly in our country, we live in an age of distrust for the poor, for the other, and all we think we really want is to be left alone. It takes too much effort to do otherwise. As this quote, beloved by Dorothy Day, from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamotzov, puts it: “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” We’re okay with being indirectly involved with charity, but further than that is just too uncomfortable for us. So, we make up excuses for why reaching out would really just make things worse. We see a homeless guy on the street, and don’t give him a buck, mumbling to ourselves that to do so would just empower him to buy things that are bad for him. Or even if we avoid giving him money, which takes care of that problem, and decide to give him a sandwich instead, we think that he probably doesn’t really need it, or wouldn’t really want it. It would end up in the trash.

I used to hear these excuses and wonder whether they were actually right; they always seemed somehow off to me. After my experience at Casa Juan Diego, I know why; because what we chose to give shouldn’t be affected by what the man does with what we’ve chosen to give him, the important thing is that we give to him from what we have, even if we can only give five loaves and two fish, when what he really needs is a boatload!  We’ve treated him as a person, which is our duty to him as another Christ. Here at Casa Juan Diego, we strive to do that daily. We encounter Christ in the people who come to our door so frequently, and without asking for any proof beyond their word that they need help, we give them what help we can. This is not because they have merited our help in any way but one: they are a person. When Christ comes to the door, you have no excuse not to help.

This personalism, though, should go way beyond the Casa Juan Diego front door, or even the homeless guy begging on the street. It should really play an integral part of our interactions with any person: the girl behind the register at the grocery store, the dishwasher repair man, the woman sitting next to you on the plane, even the guy riding the elevator with you. Planes and elevators can be so horribly awkward; you and your neighboring pas-senger never planned to have anything to do with each other, so why do you have to have this unexpected tête-á-tête? What’s the appropriate thing to do? Often we just decide to act as though that person didn’t exist. Quick- pull out the book, look like you’re asleep, stare out the window- do something to avoid acknowledging the other’s existence!! Well, now that personalism steps into our lives, I guess that just won’t work, will it? If Christ is sitting next to me on the plane, I can’t get away with any of those un-neighborly strategies. Now I have to say hello, tell Christ my name, ask if He has any air-sickness, and whether He’s enjoying his club soda. Maybe He won’t be interested in talking much, but that doesn’t matter. How my neighboring passenger chooses to react doesn’t affect this fact: I still have to love him as Christ in my life.

The best thing of all about this charism is that when you or I choose the path of personalism, not only are we treating the other like Christ in our lives, we are also becoming Christ in their life. And eventually, we find that what is so harsh and dreadful turns out to bring us joy, and it brings joy to those to whom we show our love. And through every little act of personalism we choose, we become more and more like Christ, and those we encounter as Christ become more like Him as well. That moment of being treated like Christ, and by Christ through you, really rubs off on them. Touched by your personalism, we can hope that they too will go on to treat their neighbors as persons, and before you know it, you have affected the whole world. Or rather, Christ has. For through personalism, we die to our selfish desire to stay inside our cozy comfort-zones, and can say with St. Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)

(For more on personalism and the CW movement, see “Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism, and the Catholic Worker Movement,” cjd.org/1999/08/01/emmanuel-mounier-personalism-and-the-catholic-worker-movement/

Houston Catholic Worker, March-May 2016, Vol. XXXV, No. 2.