Last night one of my husband’s favorite professors from grad school, Dr. Jonathan Reyes, came to give a lecture as part of the Archdiocese of Denver’s 4-part lecture series on the role of mercy and beauty in the new evangelization (or something like that. I’m a little fuzzy, I was wearing a baby and pacing the back of the room.)
His entire talk was so beautiful and so thought-provoking, but two concepts in particular really stuck with me. So much so that I’m still rolling them around in my head 14 hours and a few night wakings later.
The first was a comparison he drew between the importance of effectiveness versus love in winning hearts. He pointed out how very much good Bill and Melinda Gates have done with their charitable giving (immoral causes aside); how many lives they must have saved with immunizations and clean drinking water and mosquito netting. And the world is grateful to them for their philanthropy.
But then there’s Mother Teresa (RIP). The world is both grateful to her and deeply, deeply in love with her. Not because of how many lives she saved (which is relatively few when contrasted with the Gates’ record) but because of how many people she loved. Because of the size of her heart. Because she was willing to accompany people in their misery, not only with financial support but with her bare hands. With her very self.
That’s the kind of love that speaks to a world grown blind to logic and deaf to reason. They might not believe in absolute Truth any more, but they can still perceive its counterpart, absolute Love. And from that encounter of being loved, of being valuable…a conversation can begin.
The second point that stayed with me was just a little offhand comment he made about serving the poorest of the poor in our midst (often the material poor, but increasingly in our affluent western society, the emotionally poor – the lonely). “Sometimes it’s the 4th kid, up all through the night and needing you over and over again. St. Francis, in recounting his own conversion as he neared the end of his life, remembered the turning point for him was when he encountered a leper … and was repulsed by him. And he turned back and embraced the man, overcoming his intense feelings of disgust and choosing to love instead, to see and embrace Christ in him.”
I knew exactly who the current “poorest of the poor” in my family was, the “repulsive” leper. And I was a little bit ashamed to think of how difficult it has been to love him, lately. His little melancholic soul is so different from my own. He is impossible to motivate, and it just seems like the more I admonish and instruct and, okay, raise my voice in increasing frustration and intensity that it’s time to get dressed NOW…the more he collapses into a helpless puddle of preschool overwhelm.
And I am repulsed.
Repulsed by his neediness, by his inefficiency, by his utter otherness from me, from how I operate and see the world. And when he falls to the floor for the umpteenth time in an afternoon and starts flailing and wailing (anyone else have really fun stretches from 4-5 pm on the daily?) I confess that my first reaction is not to scoop him up and comfort him. And I’m his mother. If it’s this hard to love my own kid, how on earth can I love some miserable stranger?
There’s only one possible answer, of course. And it’s Christ. Christ in me and Christ in him, because otherwise our very human neediness is, actually, pretty repulsive on a fundamental level. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I, in my maturity, am far more repulsive in my sin and shortcoming than my innocent child could ever be.
And yet He loves me. And if I allow Him to, He can also love through me.
As I lay in bed last night trying to fall asleep, I thought about how better to love my little lepers. I wondered if there were a way to lean into the misery, the way Mother Teresa seemed to, and if there was a point where, truly, the human face of misery was replaced by the likeness of Christ.
I know all the kid wants is me, his mommy. And I know the answer to “solving” his behavior, whatever that means, is more of me, hard as that may be to put into practice.
It seems counterintuitive, but if I get closer, if I pull him tight and pour myself out in loving him, will it come easier? Is that the secret to decoding “the distressing disguise of the poor?”
I’m not sure. But I’m hoping to find out. I’m hoping that I remember the lofty aspirations and quiet realizations inspired by last night, and that I can apply them when it matters. Like around 4 pm this afternoon, for example.