The Virtue of Tenderness

For the past several weeks, I have been thinking about tenderness as expression of the virtue of charity. So I stumble across it everywhere–as you do with whatever happens to be uppermost in your mind. Reading about St Edward the Confessor a few weeks ago, I was struck by the description of him (on universalis) as “renowned for his generosity to the Church and to the poor and for his readiness to listen to his subjects’ grievances” (13 October 2014). Much might be said there about listening as tenderness, actually… But what struck me on the day, and what continues to fascinate me about the saints is the utter simplicity and everydayness of their great feats of virtue and holiness. It’s not a matter of heroic acts, usually; it is a matter of daily attention and love. As Pope Francis reminds us, living the gospel consists in sharing the good news of Jesus, and washing the feet of those who, according to the world’s reckoning, ought to be doing the serving.

I sometimes wonder, and have done for 20 years or so, whether I don’t just play it safe–love those who love me, care for those who will appreciate it, invite those who can invite me back. The summer after I graduated from college, I felt strongly that I wanted to go and serve where I would not be ‘appreciated’ or even understood. Having heard Mother Teresa’s story, I was inspired by the possibility of doing something that would push me beyond my comfort zone–way beyond. No academic skills needed; any such skills might rather give rise to intellectual needs that would be a liability. (Making sense of the world around isn’t always possible; the habit of trying can be a source of inspiration or despair for me, depending on the day…) Maybe I just wanted to get to a place where words failed and love had simply to be practiced. Following Jesus would have to be a way of life, a whole life, not just a way of talking.

Probably I will always worry about the wordiness of what I do. Eventually, though, I found another place where words usually fail and higher education doesn’t really give you an advantage: parenting. When the kids need you, need your attention and your patience, there isn’t a shred of theological knowledge that will magically allow you to attend  or to say the same thing calmly for the 47th time (as in “don’t bounce [throw, kick, etc.] the ball in the house” or “please pick up the legos strewn around the living room”). No: only grace can help then.

I had begun my thinking about tenderness (before the feast of St Edward the Confessor) with the idea that tenderness is the way that God shows love, quite a lot of the time. St Thomas Aquinas affirms that God does indeed love, even though God is free from the bondage of the passions (see Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves for a fantastic account of the passions). Love requires will, not warm fuzzies. And that might make love seem clinical and dispassionate. If St Thomas is right about the will (and he has tradition and psychology on his side), and God displays love purely (God is love, after all), then we would expect to see love shown in the most rational (perhaps) way in God’s acts of love.

But no. At times, God loves God’s chosen people like the most desperate jilted lover; at other times, God loves like a devoted mother or father. God’s love is anything but cold. And Jesus, likewise, shows divine love in action: healing the hopeless, listening (there it is again) to the despondent, weeping, suffering, dying, inviting the doubting to touch his wounds, and gently breathing the Spirit of God on his disciples. Divine love comes into the world as tenderness. There is very little that is properly heroic about Jesus’ ministry. (I enjoyed Tim O’Malley’s blog on the heroism, or lack thereof, in Jesus’ messiahship.)

So also, I have come to believe, charity–that highest and best of the theological virtues–can only be practiced in this fallen world as tenderness. Those small acts of love that make up the fabric of care for the vulnerable are the heroic acts that transform us. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, our patience with an insolent child is God’s patience, and by that tender love living within us we are gradually formed according to the image of him who gave himself for us. And then, why, we look just like the rest of the saints.

Deo gratias.

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