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.
Packing up the house means I need every bit of old newspaper–or, in this case, the weekend magazines from the various papers we’ve had over the years. Usually there’s a recipe or two we wanted (my caponata recipe, for example), and the magazines ended up in a heap in the kitchen. Until last week, that is–when I started packing china and glasses, and ran out of actual newspaper.
I’ve read some interesting stuff–restaurant reviews; why cheap Barolo is not worth buying; the ‘invention’ of slow medicine in San Francisco by a doctor who was doing a PhD on Hildegard of Bingen. But today I discovered a story I’d missed in February 2010, about how a very small girl was failed horribly by her mother, extended family, neighbours, and the entire social service network. She starved to death at the age of three, in conditions unspeakable, in an English town. Her mother is now serving a 12-year sentence for manslaughter, her step-father fiive years for neglect and cruelty–or something like that.
What are people supposed to do with a story like that? I crumpled up the first page of the article, walked into the kitchen (away from my own children) and burst into tears. Thomas followed me, oblivious, saying something about Cristiano Ronaldo. I let him keep talking while I recovered myself a bit–he would have been in an even worse state had I revealed what it was that had upset me. I recovered myself, though, threw the crumpled-up paper in the bin, and carried on packing. But I will be haunted by that story now, and to no particularly good purpose. What can I do? I pray for the repose of the soul of that little girl.
Doesn’t make me any less sad. How do these things happen? I look at my own little girl, who is three. I pray for children around the world who don’t have what children need–especially attentive and patient love. The suffering of children breaks my heart. Every single time I hear a new story of neglect, every time I remember an old one. It makes me want to take God by the shoulders and give him a good shake. Are you paying attention to this? I want to ask.
Then I remember where God lives in the world now, and I realise that God is paying attention. Wherever I am paying attention, God is there. When I remember little Tiffany and all the other children who suffer in this so-often-cruel world, God is there. My heart doesn’t break on its own, it breaks together with the long-suffering heart of God, whose tender compassion and mercy flood my own soul (on a good day).
That doesn’t answer my most pressing question, though: why didn’t God do anything? Why didn’t someone there, at the time, DO something–that’s how God tends to work in the world. Wasn’t anyone listening? All the theology I read, from the Bible to yesterday’s blog post, helps me not one bit with that question. I know all the ‘answers’, and none satisfies.
And maybe that’s right. Maybe my heart is meant to stay broken open until the redemption of the world. That’s what yesterday (the Sacred Heart of Jesus) and today (the Immaculate Heart of Mary) are about: living God’s love in the world is a joyful occupation, but it means living gratefully and joyfully with a heart that is perpetually broken.
I think I am going to go hug my three-year-old now.
The 22nd of January (in the US) and that Sunday in October designated ‘pro-life’ (ditto) always get under my skin a bit. Why? My suspicion is that beneath my frustration and anger, there is a point about Christian faith and practice. Too often, Christianity is reduced to a program or an issue. The checklist of what to do and what to believe is a lot easier than the command of Jesus to be perfect, or the command to love God completely, and your neighbour as yourself. It is easier, that is, to slap a pro-life sticker on your bumper, participate in the relevant activities every January (and October), and think that you are pro-life.
But being for life, if it is to be a true expression of Catholic faith, must involve a whole lot more than that. It goes without saying that abortion is a tragedy in every case, and more often than not, an avoidable tragedy. Abortion is not, however, the sum of all evil. It is rather, a symptom of the corruption of our hearts–all of our hearts–and of a world in which scarcity and death threaten us. I wonder sometimes whether the energy expended to protect the unborn is really an effort to protect ourselves. Babies are loveable; it is not difficult to evoke sympathy for the children who are threatened by the practice of abortion. it is hard to imagine a person in our culture (or any culture, really) who wouldn’t mourn at the suffering of an infant, wouldn’t extend him- or herself on that child’s behalf. And so it should be.
I wonder, though, whether that isn’t like loving those who love you. The point there seems to be that loving those who love you is not terribly difficult. There is a reciprocity that makes the love you give less costly. What does it cost you to love those who love you? What does it cost you to be concerned for the unborn? Time, perhaps, and prayer–and that isn’t a bad thing. But if the heart of Christian love is forgiveness (see Matthew 18 and John 20: 22-23, e.g.), how can protesting abortion take center stage?
Abortion is an evil that happens in a world in which evil things happen all the time. Is it a worse evil than child abuse? than malnutrition? than the soul-destroying conditions in which thousands of children live? I’m not convinced it is. I think there is a peculiarly self-serving form of human sinfulness that operates when the choice to terminate a pregnancy is made for convenience, or because of disabling conditions. In such cases, I think the word ‘murder’ is not too strong, and I would rank those decisions at the top of the list of godless human judgments. (I say I think.)
What it boils down to, for me, is this: (1) I firmly believe abortion is wrong. (2) At the same time, I view the law legalising abortion in a similar light to the law permitting divorce; Jesus qualified that law as having been given because of our ‘hardness of heart’–though I appreciate the differences between the two. (3) I look around the world and see sin and need and lack of love everywhere. There are children who live in conditions of abject poverty and desperate need–of material goods and also of the love and affirmation they need to grow up healthy and strong. (4) I see plenty of grown-ups with the same sorts of needs. (5) I am concerned that focusing so narrowly on one evil–abortion–allows us to avoid evils more difficult to confront, and commands more difficult to obey. ‘Love your enemies…’; ‘forgive…seventy times seven’; ‘feed my sheep’; ‘make disciples…’; ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.’ Obeying these commands requires us to be pro-life until it hurts us, to extend ourselves for life, to confess our faith in the Giver of Life in all that we think, say, and do. We have to be conscious of the darkness and sin in our own hearts that prevents us from being the bearers of God’s light and life to others. We have to oppose practices that threaten, demean, or undermine life–like torture, slavery, the death penalty, the drug trade. We have to resist hatred, fear, indifference, unforgiveness and the temptation to leave undone the good we can do. We have to put on love and humility, letting our pride and self-sufficiency be crucified with Christ.
Being pro-life is being for Jesus–the Way, the Truth, and the Life–always and consistently. To follow Jesus, to be his disciples, and to be about the business of making disciples, that is what it means to be pro-life. Praying with others for the unborn is good; mourning the loss of those children who never will be because of abortion is good; protesting a practice that allows us to exercise heartless power over the most vulnerable is right and proper. But if we stop there, we cannot call ourselves pro-life. Unless we get up on the morning of January 23rd ready to reach out to the poor, the unwanted, the unloved, the seemingly unlovable and unforgivable, unless we take seriously the call to be witnesses and make disciples, we have missed the point. Jesus came that we might have life abundantly, and to follow him means bearing that life and giving it away every day of every year, in all that we say and do.
So I get angry when the topic of abortion is the litmus test for Christian faithfulness. Of course we ought to oppose abortion–but that isn’t the cutting edge of our faith. If we are growing into the likeness of Christ, we have to have bigger hearts and a broader vision. Jesus was not speaking about ‘the issues’; he was declaring ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. Jesus came bearing love, and forgiveness, and grace, and life, and he was and is the light that shines in the darkness–and our hope is and will ever be that the darkness cannot overcome Him.
How can it already be Holy Week? Lent seems to have flown by…and I have not been spectacularly successful in doing all that I intended to do during Lent. Today’s post, written for the devotional, is about that, sort of. Now, however, I have a toddler to put to bed.
Today’s reflection is at thinking coram Deo–another page of the devotional. Yesterday I spent a bit of time with the Mass readings, but didn’t manage to blog. Whatever I might have said, though, would have been less straightforward than the message of Pope Francis’s homily: ‘listen to Jesus!’
Words to live by.
Really thought-provoking passage. How do we know we love one another?.
I wrote about it on thinking coram Deo.