Friday, May 16, 2014

An Unexciting Life: corporal works of mercy

From An Unexciting Life

This post is one of a series on passages from the book. You can read the others by clicking on "an unexciting life" in the list of topics on the right side of this page. I've read a LOT of books over the years that are meditations on the holy life - both Catholic and Protestant - and this is my favorite.

FROM THE CHAPTER "Strangers to Worldly Ways":
"Attention to the things of God leads us to tend the needs of our brothers and sisters. Hence [we are reminded] of our obligations to the poor, the needy and the unwell. By offering ourselves in service, by putting ourselves out for others, we are freed from the domination of our own immature need for comfort. This has always been one of the puzzles of the Christian way: why is it that a person makes greater progress on the way to God through self-forgetfulness and service than through teeth-gritting determination?"

The man on the right is a neighbor who has a profound mental disability and is unable to speak intelligibly. Everyone calls him "Jefe" (boss), and he is a fixture at the neighborhood gringo cafe, where he sits on the steps and waves at everyone. He is watched over by the Mexicans in the neighborhood, who treat him like a family member. He attends mass at our neighborhood chapel and shakes everyone's hand as he goes up to receive communion.

I think we would all be mucher richer for it if we all had a "Jefe" in our neighborhoods, someone whom we can't ignore because he hangs out at our local cafe or grocery store. Someone who needs the whole neighborhood to make sure he's okay, getting enough to eat, not getting run over because he doesn't know not to walk in the middle of the street. In the US the strategy has been to keep the sad, broken, desperate people as far from our view as possible. But WE NEED THEM! We need them in order to be fully human ourselves.

"[Let us consider] the monk's reactions to the fact that the ideal life is rarely achieved and the consequent existence of conflict, disharmony and even violence. His response is a generous, unflinching patience - quite at odds with the anticipated secular response to being victimized. He does not return evil or initiate it. He bears it patiently and loves his enemies."

Our culture, among other distortions, has elevated victimhood to an exalted position. This, of course, keeps many lawyers busy but it does nothing to strengthen society, which depends on people taking responsibility, not only for their own actions, but also for their own responses to the actions of others. Think of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, or Blessed Titus Brandsma, or Corrie Ten Boom - all put in German concentration camps, two of whom died there. But their lives testify to non-victimhood. They all were exemplars of love conquering evil. And of course there are many such stories (if you have a favorite, please leave me a comment with the name or names of people who showed the same refusal to be victims).

I take comfort from these paragraphs because there are so many examples of people who have lived in service to others with self-forgetful love. It is possible to be a saint! And it's clear that even in the face of extremely stressful circumstances, people who put the well-being of others before their own are given the strength and joy that we all long for. As our former priest used to say to everyone about everything, "animo!" Take courage! Be encouraged! And give encouragement to others...


  1. From these excerpts it sounds like a wonderful book, and your real-life example of the people practicing love in your community is a joy to read about. Thank you!

  2. I love this post.
    Please accept my {{cyber-hug}}.
    Yes; we do need a "Jefe" in our neighborhood...and I think if we take a moment to look, we can easily find one...I am guilty of wearing blinders; having my head down...

    I also love the 'animo!' Thank you for sharing.


  3. Truth be told, I tend to keep my head down as well. It's my husband who is amazing at recognizing and honoring people who others ignore. I'm learning...we've only been married 46 years so it's taking awhile!


I'd love to know your thoughts!