I went hunting through Father Clay’s books today for a homily that I could pair with this picture my husband took over the weekend. We were at an apple orchard in Wisconsin, celebrating my birthday, and as we hunted for ripe Sweet Sixteens (“the redder the better”), we found this apple cradled in a tiny bird nest, in the crook of a tree. There had to be a metaphor in there.
I wanted to share something from Father Clay that reminded me of our duty to care for each other, like the tree cared for the nest, which cared for the apple. I wanted to make a point to all the readers about how Jesus demands compassion and that we get out of our own heads and not be parochial and care about people who look and act different than us and to judge less. I really wanted to make a point to people who don’t see things the way I do, about WHAT JESUS WANTS FROM US.
There were a few problems with this hunt. First, Father Clay didn’t preach in all caps, and he certainly didn’t demand anything – he invited. Second, if you’re following Father Clay, you don’t need me to tell you that we are on a journey to get beyond ourselves and into a deeper love. Third, the one whose perspective needs reframing and clarifying right now is me.
I’m operating from a place of dissonance. In our nest – our quarantine way of life – my little family is doing so well. But the world outside our nest feels torn apart. Most of the time, in our nest, we see the sun shining, we are supported and held together with love, and our needs are met (most of the time. Stuff is still hard in the nest.) I really want to get out of the nest, and I need a bridge. In the metaphor, the tree is the bridge to the ground, to “back to normal,” to freedom for me and my family to move safely in this world.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg died Friday, so now we live in a world without Father Clay or RBG. And I feel fear, frustration, and helplessness over how she will be replaced. And confusion about how my worldview and perception of God can be so different from that of so many people – even those I know well or am close to.
I can’t control that. I can care for myself enough to quiet my own fear, anxiety, and frustration, and then start asking better questions. What drives these perspectives? How can I separate my own fear and anxiety from my understanding of other people’s fear and anxiety? How can I be well within my soul and work toward a better, more just world? How can I stay well outside my nest even if no one else changes?
This homily from Father Clay does challenge us all to invite in a more loving perspective and to use meditation and prayer to achieve it. So, the lesson for me seems to be about working to be more loving and empathetic toward people who see things differently from me, and to hold love in my heart while simultaneously working for justice, rather than operating from a place of judgment and divisiveness. To understand the suffering that drives an insular worldview rather than to dismiss it. I can do it, a little bit at a time.
Who Is My Neighbor?
Look at the levels of the Good Samaritan story. What is Jesus doing? Jesus is saying that if you don’t know somebody, they still deserve compassion. If they are your enemy, they deserve compassion, and the ritual laws are not as important as compassion. That’s what Jesus is saying.
Another way we might put this is to talk about the call we all have to love and compassion. This is the call of the church. We have the structures of the church and the systems. Both are necessary. If there were no system and no structure, everything would fall apart. At the same time, we need to recognize that it is the inner life, the freedom, the love, that really come first.
Now, what does loving mean. Love can easily get off track. We might think it is a way of helping people, but it is not. I suppose a good example of this is enabling someone who is alcoholic. If I am loving and supportive of their drinking, I am not really helping them. It is not really love.
Some of us may tend the other way, toward keeping the system strong and rigid. But if you don’t allow any kind of violation, love diminishes. Some of move one way, some of us move another.
I want to suggest that obedience is valuable and necessary, but love is more fundamental. I would say that at this stage of the human race, selfishness is much more entrenched than love and compassion. Just take a look at how deeply ingrained selfishness is. While there are exceptions, it seems that selfishness supersedes compassion.
We can look at it another way too. There’s the ancient part of our brain called the limbic system, which I’ve talked about before. That’s where our anger and our fears come from. The limbic system provides the self-preservation that is necessary for our survival. And it responds quickly. Have you ever noticed when somebody comes up behind you, and you don’t know they are there, there’s an immediate reaction? It is just instant.
From the neocortex, the newer part of our brain, come love and compassion, and that is meant to supersede this older part of our brain. There are times when fear and anger are not the answer. Compassion is important, but we surely have a hard time remembering that. I want to suggest that obedience is valuable and necessary, but love is more fundamental.
When we are talking about love, we are talking about more than just those who are close and intimate with us. We might be very compassionate and protective of those who are close to us (our family), which is good, but it doesn’t go any further than that. So we can’t say to ourselves: I am really a compassionate person, because I take care of my kids.
Jesus goes much further to include your enemies and everybody. So I would say that what is important is that we give the benefit of the doubt to love and compassion, because we all have this selfishness inside of us. I have it too every bit as much as you do. If you are a human being, you have it. It’s just built into us, and dealing with it is a struggle. It takes lots of effort and energy over and over again to get out of selfishness and into the love and compassion.
There are a lot of things we can do for that. One is to exercise compassion, sometimes in big ways, but more often in little ways. As we live and act and judge and choose compassionately, this changes us gradually. This is why even things like a smile help to change the selfishness in us. Frowns do the opposite.
So, there are some important little things we can do, little acts of loving kindness. And if there is somebody we can’t tolerate, how about having tender thoughts toward them? That’s not easy, is it? To overcome our immediate reaction.
Also, we can meditate. This is a very powerful tool. Be quiet. Let God love us. Surrender all these things inside of us to this great love that is God, and allow that love to change us. Just be quiet and let that happen. Rest in the love that is God.
I think that when we go most deeply, that is what prayer is all about. There is a place to ask for things, but it doesn’t go deep. Real prayer is allowing the great love that is God to enter us and change us. That sounds nice, but we are scared to death to do it.
As I was praying today, I thought, Oh, I am not sure I really want to do that, God, because I am not sure what you have in store for me. It may be some kind of road I don’t want to go down. I don’t’ think so. It’s so hard. Have you ever really said the “Our Father”? Have you ever really prayed it? “Not my will, but yours be done.” It scares the bejeebers out of me.
We can pray about this…. Loving God, help us to have the courage to go on this journey and to surrender to you. Help us to acknowledge to you the selfishness we all have within us, and how this leads us to be very self-centered and egotistical. We think only of ourselves or those who are close to us, and we tend to dismiss those who are different, those who bother us. Help us to be aware of these unloving things inside of us, for we all have them. Help us to have the courage to invite you to change and transform us.
So, Loving God, at this very moment, as much as we can, we surrender to you our selves, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, all the things we think are good, all the things we think are bad. Though it may be scary and painful, we surrender them to you and invite you to slowly and gradually change and transform us to become the people you want us to be.
God bless you.
By Father John Clay, from the homily “Who is My Neighbor”
as printed in Awesome Love, © 2013