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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Monday of the third week in Lent

I didn’t think I could do it, today. It has been one of those days–a spiritual and psychological sluggishness has dogged me all day. But the story of Elisha and Naaman inspired me, and reminded me why I am doing this. Hint: it’s not fame or money… See the post at thinking coram Deo

the widow’s mite

‘[she gave] all that she had to live on’ (Luke 21: 4).

Everything. She gave everything. Usually when I have heard homilies or read reflections on this text, the application has been predominantly financial. Giving out of our abundance is good; giving out of our meagre resources—giving ‘until it hurts—is better. And I wouldn’t want to deny that. It is a very good rendering of the way the words go. Giving what we can afford shows generosity; we can spend our discretionary income however we choose, and charitable giving is a Good choice. But the widow’s gift goes beyond generosity. If I were in the New Testament commentary business, I’d now be doing some research on the culture of giving in the first century. (I’d start with L W Countryman’s Rich Christians in an Age of Empire…) Because there is more to be said about this: I’ll pay close attention to future homilies on the text.

But there are other readings of this text. (See here for some centuries-old examples.) There’s an allegorical reading, I think, worth pursuing. Because money is important, and yet it is not ‘all [we] have to live on’. Very few of us will be called to give all the money we have to live on (probably at least in part because the culture in which we give is not at all like the widow’s culture; see Countryman). Discipleship is radical, though. The New Testament is full of parables and exhortations that call for a total trust in God, an unreserved giving of self in the hope that God will give back that self, infused with the light and life of Christ, which is the divine light and life.

All I have to live on names not just what’s in the bank. Even if I gave that away (and it isn’t strictly mine to give, but a resource shared with my husband and children: he makes more of that money than I do!), I would still ‘live’ on the love of my family and friends, my sense that what I do in some small way makes a difference in at least some small corner of the world; I ‘live’ on the enjoyment I take from the tree in the garden and the way it looks against the sky, whether blue or pale or charcoal grey; I ‘live’ on the hope that I still have a future, and I have hopes for that future; I ‘live’ on what I plan to do and the expectation that my plans will not all come to naught.

How do I hand that over? What would it mean to give all I have to live on? I would step into the darkness, emptiness, and despair that characterizes my most desperate days, the days when love and beauty and hope fail to touch my soul, days when emptiness seems a fate worse than death. Very many of the saints have been there, and spent long seasons in that place of anguish; Jesus went there, into the darkness and loneliness of abjection. I have been there, and I know not for the last time. To embrace that place of utter wretchedness and isolation is to offer up ‘all [I] have to live on’, to find myself once again in the formless void.

I hate that place. Because when I am in it, I cannot see. I am totally unable to recognize what I know more certainly than I have ever known anything else: that the Spirit of God is moving over the face of those dark waters. I only love that place when I have left it, when finally the Word sounds forth, fiat lux! Only then do I recall what I have always known, that the darkness was never really dark to Him; for He is the light that shines in the darkness—shines sometimes imperceptibly in the very blackest darkness—and the darkness can never, ever overcome Him.

Deo gratias.

All the angels and saints

Late last night, I received a text message from a friend, asking whether I had a meditation for All Saints' Day. No, I had to reply, I didn't. But I felt I should. The saints are essential to my Christian life, and in one way or another always have been. One way or another, I say, because there was a time when I would not have been so eager to ask, as we do when we say the confiteor, for the prayers of 'all the angels and saints'. When I was small, it was the 'ordinary' saints, the living company of the faithful, who guided me. At least they pointed me in the right direction; I didn't always follow their lead. In college, I began to appreciate the 'saints' in Hebrews 11, especially as they form the 'cloud of witnesses' who surround us as we follow Jesus.
 
But the picture is bigger than that. The saints–those who have gone before us and stand before the throne of grace–play a vital role in the spirituality of my everyday life. There they are, on the mantelpiece beside my bed: the Blessed Virgin and child, the Holy Family, St Michael the Archangel; there is my San Damiano cross, which I wear everyday to remind myself of St Francis's holy life. When I say 'all the angels and saints' in the confiteor, I mean it. I mean that I need their prayers. And often the invocation of the saints reminds me that I am not alone. There is a whole company on this road, and the company keeps pressing on.
 
The fact that it doesn't depend on me, that the saints are already the church triumphant, liberates me to pray, to worship, to receive forgiveness and to hope that I can live the life of a disciple of Jesus. The life of the church is carried forward by the saints and saints-in-the-making, and all the saints share one vital characteristic (if you can call it that): being made holy by the Spirit of Holiness. Saints don't shine because they're polished; they shine because somehow they let the light of God show through them. I want to be like that, and I realize that there is no formula for getting there. There is no recipe for saint-making, just a Spirit who blows where he wills. 'Fixing our eyes on Jesus' (Hebrews 12) is the main thing. The church depends on him, he is the vine; he is the author and perfecter of our faith; he is the one in whom all things–perhaps most especially the communion of saints–hold together.
 
But that's not all. The communion of saints, the universal church, covers me when I go astray. 'Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your church', the priest prays, and the words always come as such a tonic to my soul. The faith of the church is the faith to which I cling. It is no product of my own heart or my own mind, but it belongs to the communion of saints. In the words of Rich Mullins, 'I did not make it…it is making me.' The faith of the church is something strong, lasting, and perfect.
 
It would be wrong to think, though, that the strength of the church's faith means I can just take a seat and wait for heaven to come to me. No: clinging to the church's creed is sometimes hard work. That's where 'taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ' and 'working our your salvation' and all those passages in the New Testament that make the Christian life seem like such hard work come into play. It is easy to forget–at least it is easy for me to forget–that holding onto what the gospel says to us in Scripture and tradition does not come naturally to those of us trained and formed by a world that doesn't believe any of it, and hopes in very different directions.
 
Whatever it is that seems to threaten my Christian life, it's not new. The challenges, temptations, and doubts that come my way are not unique to me. Whether I think I have done well or badly, I haven't done anything totally unprecedented. The saints have already been there.
 
And this is a good day on which to be grateful for that.

More grace

I picked up Frances Young’s book, Face to Face, recently. For the past few years now I have been working in the area of theology and intellectual disability. Now I have come to see that in a very real sense, my way forward has been trodden already. She writes:

…the other trouble is that most of us do not have our eyes open to see he miracles of grace. They are to be found in such ordinary, unremarkable, simple things that we do not even notice. We think our worship is dull, and miss the movement of the Spirit in the secret places, the everyday saints, who are there among us by we dismiss them as ‘old so-and-so’. In my experience the church is capable of transcending the divisions in our society, it is capable of integrating the odd and unacceptable, it is more sensitive to basic human values than wider society. It can act as leaven, and we should not disparage this. Maybe we all need to go on a voyage of exploration into unlikely places to meet unlikely people — not the great ones of the world but the marginalised and afflicted who will teach us what true human values are. Certainly it is Jean Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche communities where Christians live with handicapped people, who writes with the greatest depth these days about community life. But the purpose of such a journey would be to open our eyes, so that we can return to the places where we belong and begin to discern those values where we are (1985, pp. 84-85).

My next book project focuses on the church, specifically the life of the church as Christ’s body. John Swinton asked me in April whether this ecclesiology I hoped to develop would touch on the issues in intellectual disability we’d been discussing. Then, I said yes, but was conscious in my explanation of stretching the project I had envisioned to include these concerns. Now–thanks to Frances Young’s book–I am beginning to see where to start: with the things I struggled to include, the people we as a church struggle to include. I wanted to think about Christ’s body active in the world, reaching out in love. But before I can do that, I have to reckon with Christ’s body broken and rejected, for that is the source of the church’s life.

I am going to need a lot (and I mean a lot) of grace.