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Rediscovering Conviviality

By Anne Helmerdinger
translation Louise Thunin

Some people have turned relationships with others, that used to be convivial, into something we might call « economical. ». In what way can another person help me fulfill myself, realize my ambitions in society, make me happy ? We have changed the pleasure of meeting others into a mercantile exchange. This is more or less the conclusion of Ivan Illich, author of a critical anaylsis of industrial society which was published in 1973 under the title, Conviviality He denounces the services rendered by men and women caught up in and wounded by the demands of productivity, constantly creating new demands, fabricating a race to produce, incessantly making up new needs, frustrated at never being able to satisfy the former, always putting the human being last. What have we forgotten ? What is missing that means so much that humans are excluded one from the other, closed within the walls of their properties, looking at a stranger with mistrust and hostility ? What are we afraid of losing, of endangering ?
Since the earliest times, one invited the passing traveler in to be sure he would not become an enemy, and people worked at belonging to a clan, a people, a community with initiatory rites, be they religious or social. The latter made for assemblies and banquets. These times of welcoming and exchange were called « conviviality. »
The Bible itself relates these times of gathering, even if the word is not a biblical one. We find them in narratives of weddings, the weaning of young children or the welcoming of passing guests, for example when Abraham took in three unknown visitors in Genesis 18. Conviviality of this sort gave rhythm to the life of the Hebrews. Families came together and knit new relationships, each one finding his or her place among the others. And one ended up sharing food. This is so true that the Old Testament, the Vulgate, used the term convivium (banquet) and conviva (guest) to speak of solemn gatherings and banquets.
An Image
This image of a banquet is often chosen in the passages concerning the teachings and actions of Jesus. He speaks about an invitation to take part in the kingdom of heaven, as in Matthew 22 : 1-14 (the wedding guests) or in Matthew 11 : 8, « I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. »
We could stay with the first sense of the term : « dine together and feel pleasure. »
Since those days, the reality of our social lives has been in constant evolution, moving traditions within the framework of a developed and individualistic society, which has deeply affected our relationship to other people. To such a degree that Ivan Illich suggests renewing this term of conviviality. For him ; it designates « the capacity of a society to favor tolerance and reciprocal exchange among the people and groups who make it up. » « To save our humanity », he says, « it is urgent to rediscover conviviality. » In his reasoning, « our tools of development », as any institution involving human relationships, must respect peoples’ personal autonomy, make no person master and none slave, and especially allow each one to act in a well-thought out and personal manner. . This has the merit of defining our relationship to the system we belong to and participate in, our relationship to the world, to other people and to existence.
Symbolic Conviviality
When we hark back to the roots of conviviality and question our place in society, we we can see that it changes incessantly. Conviviality hasn’t disappeared ; it morphs over time, according to situations, cultural elements, the space we grant it and the technology available. It nonetheless stands on exchange, sharing, the simple pleasure of meeting co-workers. For Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), conviviality is not just the pleasure of sharing a meal. It is a question involving the status of guest among others. A shared convivial meeting also opens up to a special moment : empathy, our senses, our verbal exchanges. Thus a space for dialogue opens up, for conversation, according to Roland Barthes. And that space has the power to give a place to and value to each guest. Conviviality thus calls us « to the table » as it does to a movement toward other people, the freedom to say « who we are » in the exchange, creating relationships that link us to others and to the world of the senses. Living in a convivial way reminds us of the nobility of the person who, according to his personal and committed choice, does nothing by himself, does not exist alone and above all does not survive alone.
« Practical » Conviviality
In 2018, when the phenomenon of the « gilets jaunes » (yellow jackets) occupied the crossways and roundabouts of rural zones, some observers felt that the continual success of these gatherings was linked to the rediscovery of lost conviviality experienced with modest means. There was a queston of welcoming, of meeting, of sharing. Women, men, people of all ages came out of their withdrawal, their feeling of rejection, since many were unemployed ; they left their little terrains in order to share food, shelter and dreams. They discovered how wonderful it is to talk, to be heard, and to create projects with many others. There were exchanges with partners of the opposite sex and with other generations.
Taking care of one another
Conviviality is a thermometer that measures the health of our relationships. Eating, talking, conversing seem to go without saying in a classical sense, but they represent a challenge today in an informed, cultured, and educated society, framed by an accelerated rhythm. We do still relate in a furtive and virtual way. Is that enough for us to feel invited ? It would seem that friendliness returns when we are experiencing a crisis and denounce the loss of what it’s like to be together. To expose one’s truth to others, to welcome their life experiences is not common in our time. It is true that every meeting unveils us, shows our positions , can be revolutionary, may bring forth a change in stance, leaves no one indifferent. Isn’t it easier to click on a computer to connect with others at a safe distance from their intrusion, from the potential danger they represent ? …But what about conviviality ?
From « I » to « We »
Conviviality, whether it be that of biblical texts or that thought and analyzed politically, is possible in places where a form of direct confidence still holds. A taste for others is always at the cost of good will, open-mindedness, the gift of self. It reaches a spiritual dimension, when it becomes a space of exchange, of remembering what we have in common, the weaving together of relationship, and if I may say, it invites us to the dawn of communion with one another… « Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. » (I Cor. 10 : 17).


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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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