Reimagining American Community



or a child, it’s said, the sun rises over the barn and sets in the field.  For the adult, the earth circles the sun in an ellipse. Finally, when wisdom meets with age, again the sun rises over the barn and sets in the field.  Because of the fact that Ivan Illich was a man who was constantly trying to “outrun his reputation”, (he never quite got pigeonholed!),  his thought was always moving and had a beautiful shape. Hence, getting a sense for his thought in the context of his biography is so deeply satisfying.

His friend and frequent collaborator, Lee Hoinacki, framed it best after Illich died in 2002 when, in broad brushstrokes, he painted a picture of his friend as having beginnings, (Illich was born in 1926), on an almost timeless island off the coast of Croatia, rooted in place and in Roman Catholic tradition.  He became a priest and a darling of the Church.

After becoming a priest he developed the reputation of a radical and iconoclast. Despite his protestation that, “the more traditionally I speak, the more radically alien I become”, his thoughts fell decidedly outside the mainstream.  He travelled the world and wrote sophisticated and famous institutional critiques of schooling and medicine, amongst many other topicsHis Deschooling Society (1971) and Limits to Medicine (1975) were his two most popular books–they still seem fresh and give a feel for his unique style. He saw, diagnosed and criticized “disabling professions” as well as disabling institutions,  and he predicted the day when tourists of the future would walk around the ruins of schools and hospitals as today they walk around the ruins of medieval churches. In time, he formally stopped speaking as a priest and he renounced all the privileges of a cleric.

Towards the end of his life, he again spoke directly of the Gospel and all the mysteries of faith.  And he did this in the context of reflecting so beautifully and simply (yet still radically) on his favorite subject: friendship. He came to see the discipline and practice of friendship as the ultimate subversive act.

In retrospect, reflected Hoinaki, Illich’s earlier years as a perceived ‘outsider’ to the Church, during the time when he focused on his still-relevant institutional critiques, were not years devoid of theological passion or precision. All the while, he claims, Illich was practicing ‘apophatic theology’ in which the limitations of talking directly about the mystery of God and faith are acknowledged so the approach taken is akin to a reverse image of the Mystery.

The seed which was once one with the plant separates, only to take root in another, more fruitful, union:  Original union, alienation, and then union at a higher level. This pattern is seen everywhere (at its deepest level, in the treasures of classical music), and it’s the essence of religion as well as the training ground of seers and prophets.  When glimpsed, it’s a thing of beauty and is deeply satisfying.  CBC Broadcaster David Cayley has done yeoman’s service with this broad sweep as seen in the life and thought of Illich.  His Ivan Illich in Conversation and Rivers North of the Future, both based on a series of interviews, read in that order, capture the movement beautifully.  And the wonderful and tireless folks at New Scare City ( do all Illich, all the time.

Read Illich and be satisfied.



About the Author
Michael J. Sauter is married and the father of four teens as well as the stepfather to dwarf goats and chickens. He doesn’t speak to trees but he does speak a lot to Trappist monks at the nearby Abbey of the Genesee. He has an M.A. in Theology from St. Bernard’s Institute and serves as Director of Catholic Campus Ministry at SUNY Geneseo as well as Pastoral Administrator of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in upstate, NY.