Over the last decade or so, the TED talk – the 18-minute messages given by prominent artists, techies and other cultural figures – has become shorthand for showcasing the ideas the speaker most seeks to put into broad circulation. And at this week’s marquee conference for the program in Vancouver, the usual roster of celebs…
A few years back, I posted about David Foster Wallace. Having just (a bit behind the times, admittedly) listened to his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, I was taken by his candour and sensitivity. Where is he now? I immediately began to search the internet. And then, of course, I remembered my first introduction to David Foster Wallace by a colleague, who told us that Wallace had committed suicide. A very bright light has been extinguished.
Last year, I published an essay in Church Life, which has just been re-issued on their new website. Reading it over again–because David Foster Wallace is so compelling–I am once again floored by his insight, wit, and sensitivity. I give thanks for his life, and grieve his tragic death all over again. Also, I give you the link to the essay, in case you want to know what David Foster Wallace implies about the practice of love in that commencement address now more than ten years old.
I know my readers are few and my followers even fewer. I give thanks for all of you today.
I can’t say I have ever been a fan of St Therese of Lisieux. Not, that is, until today. I tend to resist the sort of sweetness for which St Therese is known, being suspicious, like so many cynical people, of anyone who seems ‘too nice.’ Jesus, after all, wasn’t ‘too nice.’
That’s the grown-up Jesus, though. What about the child Jesus? St Therese, after all, is St Therese of the Child Jesus. Staying behind in Jerusalem strikes me as a not-nice thing to do–as the parent of an almost-12-year-old boy, I can’t help but think it was a bit vexing for Mary and Joseph. Not having been a great fan of St Therese, I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that it wasn’t the 12-year-old Jesus that she had in mind.St Francis de Sales, in a series of letters published as Letters to a Wife and Mother, advises his cousin in her endeavor to life a holy and spiritual life in her ordinary, daily tasks. She gets discouraged; St Francis suggests that she go about her work imagining that she does everything as Our Lady might have done: holding the small hand of Jesus. St Francis offers to his cousin the presence of the Lord as a child. And there is something at once gentle and unyielding about that presence. The set of letters is well worth reading, especially if you happen to be a wife and mother. Even if not, St Francis gives advice so kindly that anyone would benefit from it.
It is the sort of advice that fits very well with what I know of St Therese: in the small things, the everyday tasks, there are opportunities for grace, for love, for living in the presence of the Lord Jesus. Tenderness is not the way of our world, but it is required in the proper care for small children. And anyone who spends any time caring for small children will tell you that tenderness can be difficult to muster. Attending to the presence of the child Jesus is not a way out of the hard work of the spiritual life, but is a deepening of it. Not only is the Lord present to us as teacher and savior, but as child–not to be ignored or forgotten, or left in a corner, but taken by the hand and kept by our side.
We have always been taught by the Lord in his vulnerability on the cross. Perhaps it is time for us to allow us to teach him through his vulnerability in those precious years between the presentation and the finding in the temple.
St Therese, pray for us.
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.
A few ordinary things: my miraculous medal, and my St Damian cross; the icon of the Holy Family I brought back from a very good weekend retreat in Minster…and the ‘peace prayer’ attributed to St Francis of Assisi.
Last September, I was on retreat in Minster with other parents of children with special needs. At the beginning of the retreat, we each received a word and a picture. My word seemed perfect: hope. But the picture, not so much–a photo of an arctic scene, icebergs in a dark blue sea, and two deer standing nose-to-nose on the frozen shore. Although the scene itself was austerely beautiful, I would have liked it better without the deer. Really. It’s the sort of thing meant to make you say, ‘Awwww…’ Cute. Not spiritually substantial. Still, I don’t believe in coincidence, so I hung onto my photo and filed the image in the back of my mind.
The next afternoon, feeling a bit directionless, I wandered into the library, and the name Manning leapt out at me. ‘Ah, Brennan Manning,’ I thought. ‘This ought to be good. Gritty, spiritually rich without being lofty or sweet.’ I read through to a lovely bit about the Christian journey. ‘Living in the wisdom of accepted tenderness is an unending adventure in trust and dependence!’ That’s my spirituality all right–it’s the inner journey that marks our deeds as having been ‘wrought in God.’
Encouraged, I skimmed on. During the retreat I was reminded of the rule I felt I needed to take on the last time I had been to the monastery: ‘never speak a harsh word to or about anyone, even internally.’ As you might imagine, I had failed miserably, and prior to the retreat had even failed to keep it in mind, much less obey it. Still, a wise priest once said in a homily that such commitments to God are not like New Year’s resolutions, which go forgotten once we’ve failed to keep them up. No, these promises we make to the Lord are meant to try us, and so we are likely to slip up, even to fail completely, as I had done.
The wisdom of accepted tenderness thus appealed to me. Tenderness is the opposite of harshness. I was resolving to take this up, this tenderness, as I read. The Lord is tender and compassionate, full of compassion and bottomless forgiveness. Discipleship means nothing less to me than the imitation of the Lord’s own tenderness.
Then I came across this passage:
‘Before finishing this book, the Christian who is serious about growing in the wisdom of accepted tenderness might do well to take the peace prayer of St Francis off the wall and hang it in [her] heart, make it the wisdom by which [she] lives:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. / Where there is injury, let me bring pardon; / where there is hatred, love; / where there is doubt, faith; / where there is despair, hope; / where there is darkness, light; / where there is sadness, joy. / O divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, / to be understood as to understand, / to be loved as to love; / for it is in giving that we receive, / in pardoning that we are pardoned, / and it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.’
The peace prayer of St Francis? That saying that crops up everywhere?
Then two things clicked in my head, and the penny dropped. First, I already have a mini-devotion to St Francis, so more St Francis makes perfect sense. Each morning, as I put on my cross, I ask, ‘St Francis, pray for us.’ Well, this is his prayer. Maybe I ought to pray it with him. And I also–the second thing–remembered my photo: those cute deer, in what looks like a tender moment. Ah, well, yes. I was dismissive of the cute, of the ordinary, of the common. And the Lord is reminding me that it is in the ordinary and the common that my ‘rich spirituality’ is to be lived.
I confess that I do not always receive this well. I know that humility and obedience are the marks of Christian discipleship, but that always sounds so much better as an idea than it feels in lived experience. I can’t stop wanting to be someone, you know, significant. To be satisfied with the significance I have, to those in my little circle of family and friends, seems so small. And to go on in tenderness in daily life, well, it doesn’t really get you any respect, does it? I struggle with this. So one morning recently, I was struggling with exactly this, thinking about being not-harsh, about being nice, and something a friend used to say all the time came to mind: ‘Nice guys finish last.’
Yeah, I thought. See? See where it gets you? And then I did see, finally: that’s where you’re supposed to be. For many that are first will be last, and the last first. It’s a hard word. But I am grateful for it, anyway: Deo gratias.