This is actually the final follow-up to that Merton talk last year. To think we observed that anniversary year of Thomas Merton the week of the terrorist attack in Paris and I’m finally concluding this after the attack in Brussels! That speaks volumes about the wounded world we live in. Do I want to live as a victim or do I want to be part of the healing?
The final question of that gathering was how could one take that contemplative perspective, that distancing from society to get a clearer view of our society, while being engaged in work with the marginal people in our cities? Of course to make a commitment to such work, means that one has already left the conventions and goals of our society. Accumulation of wealth and status, material success are usually not part of such a life. Smugness, self-satisfaction, judgment of others who are not so engaged, can be, of course. What can we do about that?
In the later middle ages, devotion to the suffering Christ, the image of Christ after his scourging at the pillar, bloodied, crowned with thorns, fueled Catholic piety. It was Christ as the suffering servant of Isaiah, a man of no comeliness, nothing attractive about him. It may be no accident that in that same era building hospitals at private expense, nursing the poor or lepers was also part of Catholic piety. Perhaps people were recognizing in the embittered, difficult and demanding poor, the image of Christ, distorted and warped by poverty, bad luck, mental illness and abuse. But Christ was still recognized in the distortions.
It’s a humbling path to take because there are no facile solutions and guarantees. One miscalculates and makes mistakes. It’s a mistake to become co-dependent with a manipulative person, to allow him or her to use my sympathy to become more deeply entrenched in their sickness. Or I can use “tough love” in another situation to insulate me from the discomfort of dealing with an ugly personality. Or I can brush a needy person off by lending a kind ear but evading helpful challenges. Personally, I can spend hours listening to the ramblings of an irrational mind without any strain on my patience; but I can barely tolerate someone displaying inappropriate affect. I mean the sort of person who giggles and smiles when she is really angry or shrugging off responsibility; or can’t let out a good laugh because he thinks a pious person should always be serious. If I dare to get involved with people who need my assistance I will, soon enough, be confronted by my limitations. Then I cannot be smug or self-satisfied or dare to judge others. I must face my own distortions. I may have to entrust some individuals to someone else who can respond better. I can’t always be the helpful person. Or in some cases my defenses may be chipped away so I respond spontaneously, unselfconsciously in the most appropriate way. And I may never realize it. I’m not there to watch myself be good or right. I’m not there to observe my life like a film in which I’m the super-hero with the super-power of compassion. When I start to “recognize” compassion, it’s probably not compassion at all but some sort of narcissism.
On Good Friday, 1945, Mother Maria Skobtsova died in Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp not far from Berlin. Ironically the liberating Russian Army was already moving in to the area, yet was too late to liberate this émigré Russian woman. She had been married but later in life took monastic vows and founded a house of hospitality in Paris, in 1933. She ended up sheltering many Jews, helping them escape through Switzerland. Once, after Paris fell to the Nazi army, the Gestapo appeared at her door and asked her to turn over her Jews. She went to the chapel and turned over to them the Icon of the Mother of God holding the Infant Jesus: “These are our Jews!”, she said. She had also said–or written–“Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world”. And, “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows or prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick and the prisoners? That is all I shall be asked.”
Note how Mother Maria identifies love–not by a mutual good feeling of togetherness but by demanding deeds. Not that I feel good from what I did but that I did what is needed. That can be an experience of learning from my mistakes rather than calculating to achieve the good. Even when it seems to happen easily, it’s humbling. It’s not my achievement; it’s God’s grace at work. It’s not my calculated and finely buffed persona achieving this. It’s only trusting in God, being docile to God’s desire to work through me. I don’t have to have the satisfaction of knowing whether I did well or not. That can be contemplating the image of the distorted and suffering Christ not only in the other, not only in me, but on the face of God, too! When that happens, it doesn’t matter how monastic or productively marginalized I’ve become; the crucial thing is that it’s happening and I’ve been swept up in it.