From a guest contributor.
Will you recognize the face of Christ when you meet him?
Like many of you, I have been on a discernment journey working to improve my faith, deepen my spirituality and listen to the Lord so that I might become a better husband, father, friend, uncle, cousin… and most importantly, an Apostle and someone who serves the Lord and his people.
I am “one of those cradle Catholics,” which as you know means – I know everything there is to know about our faith by virtue of my birth! As some of us have discussed recently, cradle Catholic is a term used to describe who we are. I wonder if it is a term we throw out in those conversations when asked why we are Catholic and we are not able to explain it as well as we would like or more often, we feel uncomfortable with the knowledge of our own faith. That is a discussion for another day.
As a lifelong Catholic, I was educated and raised in Catholic Schools from grade school through college. I go to Mass, I am a Knight of Columbus, lector, Eucharistic minister and serve in many other related church activities. In participating in these groups and activities, I surely thought I was walking the right path and following what the Lord wanted of me.
A good friend of mine once told me that life is a puzzle and that sometimes we don’t see the full picture of where we are going until there are enough pieces to give us perspective. Put another way, we finally awaken and listen to what the Lord is telling us and give our will over to Him. My Journey through the years has had many bends in the road and sometimes driving into ditches. For example: two job losses and four years of unemployment or under-employment. At first I saw these as just being part of life’s journey, but I can now see these are part of God’s will and my journey as he forms me out of the chaos of life. I can now say that he is tearing me down to build me back up to serve him, not as I envision it, rather as he wants me to while ensuring I do so with humility. It is now obvious to me that God has other plans and I need to get on board! If you had said to me when I arrived here that I would be where I am today openly walking in the Lord’s will and giving this talk, I would not have given you the doughnuts and coffee we enjoy here each week. I was just not one of those guys – religion and spirituality was an interior and private practice.
Clarity began to come to me one day sitting in a St. Vincent dePaul meeting. We reviewed that day’s reading of James chapter 2. While I encourage you to read and hear the words spoken to us, I will just paraphrase it here for brevity:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works. Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.”
See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
I went home in tears because for the first time I got it! I apologized to my wife and told her I was sorry for it taking me so long. It became clear to me at that moment, that the Catholic life I thought I was living was not the one I was called to – a life of compassion.
What is compassion? Compassion comes from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean “to suffer with.” Recently I was reading Compassion by Henri Nouwen which alighted my journey bringing a new light and perspective for me on what compassion truly is.
As individuals, we often assume compassion is a natural response to human suffering. Who would not feel compassion for someone who is hungry, out of work, poor or living on the streets? I am willing to bet that we all see ourselves as being compassionate as part of who we are, or is it our view of what compassion is? If being compassionate is part of who we all are, why is there so much indifference and “it’s not my problem” attitude in the world today?
Perhaps our definition of compassion could use some examination. Henri Nouwen says “compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, venerable with the vulnerable and powerless with the powerless.”
Compassion is not a core function to who we are nor is not primary thought in our lives. We have to learn it. As a general rule, I believe like many people that I developed methods which allowed me to stay a safe distance from any pain. The perspective we need to have should be based on the words of Jesus in Luke 6:36 “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”. I offer this an example of a deeply held belief that through compassion, the richness of our humanity will be reached. Compassion as many scholars have articulated though the years goes against our grain and requires a total transformation of heart and mind: that God’s compassion for us should be the basis for our own compassion, that only by entering into discipleship can we understand the call to compassion as our loving God show us.
By making the effort to listen, offering consolation, visiting someone who is unemployed, in need or gravely ill – you will draw close to those people as you would do with your own family. You demonstrate solidarity with those individual’s in the same manner as God shows solidarity with us through his willingness to enter with us into and take up our problems, concerns and pain.
My compassion journey began to come to life watching a documentary film on the refugee camps and all of the people who are pushed to the fridges and ignored by society. What struck me at the time of the film and I later reflected on was “how they are us and we are them.” By this I mean: any one of us could be them without any effort through any number of circumstances – loss of job, birth place or parents. You were left with the pain of your heart which ached with every muscle in your body on where you start. What I have come to understand is to try not to be overwhelmed and simply do nothing, but rather start with one person at a time. While feeling this stirring of your heart and call to service, you at the same time feel like you might be in a place that was uncomfortable from where you had been previously. Yet, strangely enough, I found myself feeling comfort and warmth like this is where I was supposed to be at this time.
For some time now the theme of compassion kept coming back to me and somehow every week there seemed to be an interaction that involved some level of compassion whether at work or in a social setting that reinforced the feelings that began to swell within me. I have no doubt even several years ago I would have turned the other way when these types of circumstances arose. But now I have peace. I am to be in those moments when they occur. I feel God’s grace and love. Any fear or uncertainty I have seems to begin to melt away.
Such was the case the other day when a young man entered the church seeking assistance. He wasn’t quite sure of what assistance he was seeking but he knew having been a practicing Catholic once that he wanted to look for his way home. It became clear that he just needed someone to listen and help him walk through his issues and organize an approach. What he wanted was someone who would help him feel empowered to solve his own problems and not have someone hand him all the solutions. So he talked and I listened. Early in our conversation, I clearly received God’s grace with an almost innate sense that while I was a little uncomfortable from not handling this type of circumstance before, there was still a sense that I was supposed to be there for and helping him. What struck me the entire time that I was interacting with him was that he was there so I could be there. It was the question I posed earlier: will we know Christ when we meet him?
That we are called to compassion and works of charity in Christ’s name, and that in order to do so, we need to go to where people’s pain is to serve them. I felt for this young man and wanted nothing more than to help him. Helping then was just one of many experiences in a long line of experiences yet to come in being a servant. I also appreciate this journey and what it means to my spiritual growth and look forward to what I do not know. That while this involved uncertainty and fear of not doing it all right, at the same time this was where I was supposed to be helping that young man. I would not have been able to interact with him without God’s love and grace and the changes he is effecting in me and forming me in his will. A few years ago I would have found any excuse to walk away and now I feel like I need to walk towards those who are in need.
My prayer for all of us is that we see the face of Jesus in each other and that the Christ in us greets the Christ in them compassionately.
This piece was written by a friend at my parish in the Atlanta area. It was originally presented at our Friday Morning Men’s Fellowship (a/k/a “Men’s Group”) meeting.