charity

Revolutionaries of Agape

            Today, the word "love" has become synonymous with "like." For example, we say we love pizza, or we loved the last episode of Stranger Things. Yet, we also say that we love our family, or our significant other. But, surely, we do not feel the same way toward food or images on a TV as we do toward a living human being who we care about and who cares about us.

“Like” comes from the Old English word for “to please, be pleasing, be sufficient.” The meaning of “love” is a bit more ambiguous because its origins are varied. The word itself comes from Old English, meaning, “to feel love for, cherish, show love to; delight in, approve.” The complex part comes when you trace the word “love” back to the Latin “caritatem” and the Greek “agape,” meaning “brotherly love, charity,” or “the love of God for man and man for God.” When the Gospels were translated from Greek to Latin, “caritatem” became the replacement for “agape.” Then, when the Bible was translated into English, “caritatem” was translated to either “charity” or “love.” For the most part, we now limit the definition of “love” to the self-pleasing emotion, and disregard the connotation of charitable affection because the emotional type is more instantly gratifying to us. And, if you know a little psychology, you may understand how when something is pleasing, we tend to form a habit of it. Unfortunately, this limited understanding of love has permeated throughout society.

            The linguistic ambiguity of "love" does not only affect how we speak; it also influences how we understand what love really is. St. Thomas Aquinas described love as, “to will the good of the other." You can also see the true definition of love when Christ says, "no one has greater love [agape] than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (John 15:13). It is in giving that we truly love. Ironically, by emptying ourselves, we become devoid of our selfish, mundane desires, and are able to be filled with others, their thoughts, desires, and feelings. We were made for this union with others, not for isolated self-seeking.

            However, our society and our language tell us that love is all about me. Love has been reduced to self-pleasure, instead of an encounter with another. Since the sexual revolution in the 50s and 60s, we have seen a regression from chaste, wholesome relationships to a hurting culture that settles for short, improperly-ordered hook ups. We take the pleasures and emotions of a relationship to be the meaning of love. We try to hold on to the euphoric feelings that come with companionship and romance. But, when times are tough in a relationship, we often want to give up and move on. However, St. Paul clearly lays out that,

“love [agape] is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love [agape] never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

His words reveal that love is totally other-centered. He does not define love as being pleasurable. He does not say that love becomes easily-irritated or that it quits. Rather, he characterizes this greatest of all virtues as not seeking its own interests, not being quick-tempered, and never failing. Of course, we are human and struggle with living out this noble ideal. But, it should be our aim; we should not settle for a lesser love. For, Christ tells us, “be [perfected], just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Also, Pope Francis beckons us “to be revolutionaries, . . . to swim against the tide; . . . to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love.” We must be revolutionaries of this true love - revolutionaries of agape.

            A harsh example of how much our society has tainted our perception of love is the anti-life culture. Society has gone so far as to warp our perception of what constitutes an “other,” so that we cannot even identify who we should love. We have turned so much inward toward ourselves, that we have taken defining personhood into our own hands. A person is only valuable as long as they suit our desires, or as long as they do not make us feel uncomfortable. When a new life us “unintentionally” formed, it is acceptable to kill it because otherwise it will mess up the plans we have for our life, or we assume that the baby will not live a valuable life under non-ideal circumstances. If a person on life-support is costing a hospital too much money, it is okay to let them prematurely die, under the euphemistic guise of organ donation, so that the hospital can have an empty bed and so that they can receive compensation for the organs. If someone is struggling with a terminal illness, doctors are encouraged to assist their patient in suicide, instead of entering into their patient’s hurt, and helping them find palliative care and support to deal with their illness. These horrific cultural norms are canaries in a coal mine, revealing the destructive path down which we have moved, straying from true meaning and fulfillment. We have given so much power to our passions that our will and intellect have atrophied. Our desire for pleasure drowns out our ability to stop and ponder the consequences and alternatives of our narcissistic actions.

            Now, I don't mean to be all gloom and doom. Rather, I belabored this topic because it can be so easy to become blinded by the many deceitful societal lies that vie for our attention and distract us from who we were really made to be. But, St. Paul tells us, “do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Thankfully, Christ offers another alternative to our misguided path. He tells us, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). We love ourselves so much that this great commandment highlights how much Christ wants us to love others. He says, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Christ exemplified his own words throughout the Gospels. In his meetings with the sick, the shunned, and the sinful, he entered into their life, their pain; he encountered them where they were, no matter how unpleasant it was, or how much it injured his reputation. He lived this way so fiercely that he became “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

A majority of us will not have to suffer the unfathomable amount of pain that Christ suffered on the cross. But, we can participate in his suffering, uniting our daily mortifications to his cross. We can seek out others, those nearby us, in our families, at work, at school, and in our community. Those Christ has placed in our lives are images of Him whom we should serve and love charitably. “These least brothers” can be a friend who lost a family member, a coworker dealing with depression, or a sibling who has a debilitating disease. Walking beside them in their time of struggle is being Christ to them. Also, strangers are others who we can serve; think if the parable of the Good Samaritan. Smiling at the people you pass by, thanking the service men and women that you meet, and encountering and talking with the homeless, instead of just passing them by or throwing them some change, are all ways to serve the least among us. If we see the other as they truly are, and not as the stereotype with which society has labeled them, we can move closer to encountering people as Christ does. By focusing our relationships less on our selfish desires and expectations, and more on knowing and experiencing the other, the more we are drawn out of ourselves to live the revolution of agape. When we make our relationships, and our lives, centered more on the other, we become more Christlike; and, we can repeat with John the Baptist, “he must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Encounter

While in graduate school, I worked as a doula for teenage girls at a local pregnancy center. Most, but not all, of these women were first time moms, without a supportive father in the picture—and very often without a supportive family member of any kind. They could come to the agency for parenting classes, health info as well as baby clothes, car seats, etc. My role was to accompany them at the hospital during delivery, to encourage them, and to make sure that they had a voice in their delivery and their stay at the hospital as they welcomed their babies.

This role is by far among the most influential experiences of my adult life, as I was invited into the most intimate and vulnerable moments of a family’s’ early beginning. Culturally-speaking, unless a woman has a sister, there is seldom an opportunity to be invited into this place of welcoming a new child with an expectant mother, as is custom in so much of the world. Comparatively, birth in the U.S. has become an isolated experience—especially for single mothers who are choosing to give life.

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I remember the first day I showed up for a meeting with the other doulas at the local pregnancy center. I was excited, nervous and proud to be there after all of my training. The woman at the front desk handed me a clipboard for check in. I grabbed it and began reading through the paperwork.

[Based on the nature of the questions, it was obvious that she thought I was a teen mom.]

Self-conscious about looking young for my role, combined with the indignation of being assumed a pregnant(!), teen, I quickly corrected her and took my “rightful” seat at the table for my meeting.

I have re-visited this encounter often, and with regret.

Of course I could have been mistaken for a teen mom—after all, they were the clients served by this agency. The fact that the receptionist didn’t know me from any other woman at the clinic meant that I was new, not judged. And yet, that was my unfortunate takeaway at the time.

Given a healthy amount of hindsight, I have realized a few things. More than welcoming sweet babies into the world and having a small role in the vulnerable, lonely work of these brave women who choose to deliver their babies in difficult circumstances, I owe these women a debt of gratitude for their genuine (and perhaps even, unintended) education.  Allowing themselves to be accompanied by a stranger as they crossed the threshold of familiarity and childhood into and unknown and frightening world of young adulthood as a single mom showed me just how much I had to learn about radical self-sacrifice, love and trust. Sure I was the birth coach they’d been assigned, but these women were without question, my teachers.

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Doesn’t this exchange get to the heart of today’s Gospel reading from Luke? Jesus is instructing the Pharisees to get mixed up in a diverse crowd—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—‘those who can never repay you.’ This is the exact message Pope Francis has been echoing since 2014 when he first spoke of a Culture of Encounter.

We must strive and ask for the grace to create a culture of encounter,

of a fruitful encounter,

of an encounter that restores to each person his or her own dignity as a child of God,

 the dignity of the living person.

— Pope Francis

I am slowly learning.

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How often do these scenarios Jesus is describing come up for us? You know the ones where we are hosting a dinner party and inviting all kinds of folks we don’t know and might never see again. They’re infrequent. It does remind me of those magnanimous folks who start planning at this time of year, to host the Thanksgiving or Christmas meal for out-of-towners, for college students, foreign exchange students, etc. These are the people with the uncanny knack for gathering folks because it is simply time to gather and we are made for communion with one another.

The daily readings are hinting at the waning of ordinary time, the season of anticipation and preparing to welcome those we might not be expecting. How are you hearing the invitation to see stranger as guest?

Am I seeking a place to gather and be known?

Am I being invited to consider a role as such a host?

What might I be surprised to learn I have in common with those I have separated myself from?

With whom am I already in relationship that is bearing fruits of unexpected grace?

The Power of Language-A Study of the Words Compassion and Solicitude

Want a fun first date tip? Try asking a person what their favorite words are. While you may come up with some pretty wild or silly answers, our choice of language reveals a great deal about who we are and what we think about the world around us. Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having a conversation about language with someone that I admire very much, and it was an eye-opening experience.

Our discussion revolved around three words: compassion, solicitude, and pity. While the two of us both agreed that pity was an ugly word, we differed in opinion when it came to the former two. I was fond of the word compassion, but he pointed out that part of its definition was “to pity” and preferred to use the term solicitude instead. This seemed bizarre to me, as I associated solicitude with solicitors and used-car salesmen. We agreed to disagree, but the conversation struck a chord in me. I wanted to understand why I had such a fondness for the word compassion despite the fact that it contained the word pity in its definition. Let’s be real: no one likes to be pitied. When we were kids, pity got us some pretty sweet band-aids at the doctor’s office, but as a whole, pity never really got us anywhere. Over time, I think most of us learn that if we acquire something via pity, it’s not really something worth having, and tends to be thrown out later with our old bandages. So, why my fondness for compassion, a word which the Merriam Webster tells me is synonymous with pity?

The answer lies within the root of the word compassion itself: compati, which means to suffer with. From this origin, we see a connection with others, as is implied by the preposition with.  It requires a certain understanding of the other and an authentic meeting. However, a truly compassionate person does not suffer with the other because he can fully understand the suffering, or even fully understand the other, but because he knows that suffering is powerful; it transforms us. He understands that suffering is the human gateway to mercy and an invitation to a fuller dimension of love. Rather than attempt to destroy or negate suffering, compassion validates the human person by accepting and embracing the whole of the individual, including its loneliness and its yearning. It does not look at a person and see a less valuable individual because of their circumstances, but rather, it sees a human being with an immeasurable value and potential to love and fullness. In this sense, compassion stands in sharp contrast to pity. Pity negates suffering and wishes to subdue it, but in doing so, it negates the one who suffers. In my view, no two words could be more dissimilar. Sorry, Merriam Webster.

How does compassion do this? How does the compassionate person know that suffering does not lessen the value of a person? The only way someone can have this kind of compassion, I believe, is by having experienced compassion. For a Catholic, this compassion is outpoured constantly in the form of mercy. We know that we are loved and transformed daily by a God who is fully human, who truly suffered, and who used that suffering to transform the whole world. Through the people around us and through the sacraments, we have experienced this mercy at our worst moments, and through it, we have experienced the mercy of God. Growing up Catholic, one grows up not so much on fairy tales, but on the stories of the lives of the saints and beatified - stories of real people who knew real suffering, and who constantly extended their love to others despite it. Images of St. John Paul the Second and Blessed Mother Theresa readily come to mind. We are raised on the word compassion. But, what about solicitude?

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
— St. Augustine, The Confessions

Let’s go back now, for a moment, to my conversation with my friend. He was, and still is, fond of the term solicitude. So, wanting to understand him better, I did some research into this word as well. The root here is sollicitus, which means to be anxious, worried, concerned, and restless. At first glance, the origins of this word did not increase my liking of it. However, I dug a little deeper into the origin of sollicitus itself and discovered that it is comprised of two words: sollus (whole, full) and cieō (to move, to stir, to call). When you break it down this way, sollicitus literally means to be stirred to fullness, to be called to wholeness. What better word is there to describe the human condition? St. Thomas Aquinas was certainly expressing this sentiment when he wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” From the day of our birth, we yearn restlessly for fullness.

While the Catholic is practically raised on compassion, solicitude is a term that we do not find in our vocabulary as readily. I certainly think, however, based on the meanings hidden within this word, that we should. Together, words like compassion and solicitude can both bring us to a fuller understanding of ourselves and a fuller understanding of God. Words, bursting with life within them, can transform us. After all, we believe that, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” as we pray in the Angelus.

Language is incredibly powerful, whether we are consciously aware of its power or not. Some words contain breadth and depth that go beyond our daily speech and straight into the yearnings of our hearts. I am no linguist, but through intuition and a basic understanding of etymology, it is clear to me that compassion and solicitude both fall into this supreme category. Each reveals the yearning of the human heart for connection, fullness, and relationship with the other and with God. Each has roots that reach through generations, languages, and cultures straight into the heart of life. How wonderful it is to be able to speak to one another with these words.




Spiritual Vision

Recently, I rediscovered Romano Guardini. In my undergraduate studies a professor had handed me a copy of his work The Lord. For the past 7 years it collected dust on my shelf, until this past January when I went on retreat to prepare for my diaconal ordination and brought it along with me. I fell in love with his presentation of Christ and how real he makes the person of the Lord. In the years between being handed the book and picking it up, many of my intellectual heroes have cited Guardini, including professors at the seminary and men like Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis (who wrote a thesis using Guardini) and Bishop Robert Barron. Pope Benedict XVI said “Guardini taught that the essence of Christianity is not an idea, not a system of thought, not a plan of action. The essence of Christianity is a Person: Jesus Christ Himself. That which is essential is the One who is essential.” Reading through The Lord, I discovered a beautiful gem on spiritual vision that has been feeding my prayer into Lent during this Year of Mercy.

Throughout His teachings, Our Lord says some rather puzzling things. For example, He says He has come that “they who do not see may see and those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39) And again in His famous Sermon on the Mount He declares, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)

All of us are blind. If only we would have the humility to acknowledge it! For when we compare our earthly way of seeing things to God’s view, we see the limits to our vision. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

To see something is to take into oneself its form. But how easy it is for us to filter what we take it. Of course ideological filters can exist as well as particular ways of seeing based on our nurturing. But also just as true is that influence of concupiscence on our way of taking in reality. And no one understands this more than Christ. He sees our tendency to be blind and desires to give us sight. We do this so often with other people, alienating them because of interior judgments we make against them. In this case we become enablers of the throw away culture the Holy Father is constantly condemning rather than agents of true Christian humanism. It’s worth quoting Guardini at length, because of the profundity of his insight:

 To see another human being as he really is means to lay ourselves open to his influence. Thus when fear or dislike moves us to avoid him, this reaction is already evident in our gaze; the eye caricaturizes him, stifling the good, heightening the bad. We discern his intentions, making swift comparisons, and leap to conclusions. All this proceeds involuntarily, if not unconsciously. Seeing is a protective service to the will to live. The deeper our fear or distaste of a person, the more tightly we close our eyes to him, until finally we are incapable of perception or the profound German word for it, Wahrnehmen: reception-of-truth. Thus we have become blind to that particular person. This mysterious process lies behind every enmity. Discussion, preaching, explanations are utterly useless. The eye simply ceases to register what is plain to be seen.

Pope Francis has called for this Lent during the Year of Mercy to be one of greater intensity and purification. To pray for the grace to see every human person with the eyes of faith and to have our vision rooted more in reality and supernatural vision, to be receptive to the truth, would do wonders for making the world more just and more merciful. Maybe Guradini will help you in examining your interactions with others. I know his insight has awakened me.