Thursday, April 8, 2010

Imitating Christ: Uniting Exhortation With Suffering Solidarity

Here is an aspect of suffering that every Christian with the help of God is called to embrace and that seems to be especially rejected today: the interior spiritual, psychological, and emotional suffering that accompanies being closely involved with other human beings who at times fail us, who sometimes hurt us, who fall short of what they are called to be and yet not turning our backs on them, not walling them off from the deepest core of our own selves (and without giving up on their potential). It is a suffering we often do not appreciate, and that I all-too-often fail to embrace.

There are two poles of this type of suffering, two places or roles in a human relationship that feel let down. First, is the person himself. When we ourselves fail to do what we should (if we want to become better persons), we are sad and experience suffering as we realize our own failings. This is the suffering of Saint Peter, “And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Lk 22:61b-62) These are our tears too. Second, is the suffering of one who loves us, who because of his love wants us to become the best version of ourselves we can be, as he realizes our failings. This is the suffering of Jesus, who loved Peter, in the very same scene, “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Lk 22:61a) And imagine the human disappointment of Jesus when his friends fell asleep instead of remaining awake with him on the eve of his passion, “So, could you not watch with me one hour?” (Mt 26:40b) But, despite this pain of disappointment, notice that Jesus did not give up on them, he still called them on to a nobler life. And neither did he pull away from being close to them.

This pertains to a dual calling that Christ modeled for us, the entering into which is a source of a hidden interior suffering to which we are especially averse. It is the calling to strive (in accord with our vocation and gifts) to inspire others to an ever-deeper faith, to an ever-deeper embrace of the highest ideal of what it is to be human, united with another call to a special personal solidarity with others—that is, of joining in compassionate union with others as they suffer in the realization they are not all that they should be (as do we in regard to ourselves). It is less challenging to focus on only one or the other facet of this dual calling than to hold both harmoniously together. I might be good, for example, at the former—at reminding others of the high bar that Christ has set and has invited us to attain with His help. Or, I may be good at the latter—of accompanying others in a union of one heart to another when they are saddened by the lack of their own progress (giving them the consoling presence of a compassionate and empathetic soul). But we are called by Christ to strive to embrace both in our relationships. This is very challenging, requires the help of grace, and brings into our lives yet another of the many faces of suffering.

Not uniting both together in ourselves—not navigating well the dual calling of Christ both to inspire others and to share in the interior burdens that accompany personal failings—is not to be an evil person. It is, rather, to miss a significant opportunity to become more like Christ. And it is a lost opportunity that I believe is especially common today. Perhaps one reason for this is the tendency of popular culture to recoil immediately against any form of interior psychological and emotional pain. Now, wanting to alleviate such pain is not a bad thing. But trying to live life as though it were possible to eliminate all psychological and emotional torment within ourselves or others is a recipe for despair.

I am reminded of this challenge by occasions where a religious leader (or any authority figure) preaches an exhortation to his flock to be better and more faithful Christians. The message is bracing, and, as far as it goes, matches the doctrine of Christ. But apart from the leader’s preaching, in his personal relationships with his flock, he demonstrates a significant lack of compassion—he has no heart to come close to those souls who want to heed his challenging words but who often fail and thus suffer a hidden inner pain because of this failure. They look for an understanding soul who will continue to inspire them but while doing so might also join them side-by-side as they walk the path of their interior crosses of unmet expectations. In other words, we want to continue to uplift each other as fellow disciples of Christ, but we also want to be able to have a meaningful brotherhood together as we share the journey in all its aspects—its failures and sufferings as well as its triumphs. Incredibly, this is what Jesus did with His followers.

Where in the Gospels do we see Jesus modeling for us this dual calling? In many places. But here are some that come strongly to mind for me: Jesus’ loving look at Peter just after Peter denied Him three times (which I mentioned above), paired with Jesus’ tender post-resurrection encounter with Peter on the shore (“Do you love me?” Jesus asked three times. And He responded to Peter, “Feed my lambs”; “Tend my sheep”; “Feed my sheep,” ending with, “Follow me.” [Jn 21:15-19]); and Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery (See Jn 8:2-11, Jesus asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And she responded, “No one, Lord,” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” Note in this scene the beautiful union in Jesus of the look of love, of mercy, and yet of gentle exhortation to reform her life.) This should be the image of what we all aspire to be for each other.

Dear Jesus, please grant us the grace to love one another enough to encourage each other gently and hopefully toward ever greater transformation in you. May we do so with humility and mercy, not forgetting justice, never giving up on keeping the fire of love alive in our hearts.

[Thanks to Jennifer Fulwiler for her excellent post, Safe Miracles, which inspired this post]

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