Saturday, February 8, 2014

Dying to self: the path to life in a world of destitution

Our readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time set before us both the need to let our light shine, which light is that of Christ, as well as gives us instruction as to how we do it.

Beginning with our reading from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, we see that letting the light of Christ shine in us and through us is not a matter of self-glorification, but of self-sacrifice. It is only through sacrificial, self-emptying, service, through which I am crucified with Christ, thus heeding the Lord's command to take up my cross and follow Him, not through many eloquent words, elaborate arguments, or noticeable pious practices, that I even have a chance of demonstrating God's "Spirit and power" (1 Cor 2:4).

The prophet Isaiah, anticipating Jesus Christ, declares that by sharing "bread with the hungry," giving shelter to the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked, and taking care of our own (something that is often overlooked when we consider such exhortations), "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard" (Isa 58:7-8).

As Catholics what Isaiah exhorts should be recognizable to us from the teaching of Jesus, especially that sobering passage from the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, the one in which Jesus responds to the question He puts on the lips of the "righteous" (i.e., the ones who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison), "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?" (Matt 25:37) Along with burying the dead, we call feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless, the Corporeal Works of Mercy.

In his first Message for Lent, Pope Francis challenges us along these same lines: "In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it. Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope." He goes on write about three kinds of destitution: material, spiritual, and moral. The call Christ gives us today through these readings is about material destitution and our individual responsibility to assist those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, and homeless. If my fasting does not involve spending more time praying, more time serving others, then it is merely dieting, that is, there is nothing spiritual about it.

"Material destitution," the Holy Father explained, "is what is normally called poverty, and affects those living in conditions opposed to human dignity: those who lack basic rights and needs such as food, water, hygiene, work and the opportunity to develop and grow culturally. In response to this destitution, the Church offers her help, her diakonia, in meeting these needs and binding these wounds which disfigure the face of humanity. In the poor and outcast we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ."

Last night I watched the movie Che: Part 1. I was again struck by the life of the Argentine doctor and revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. The film uses his quote about what must motivate a revolutionary:
At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality. Perhaps it is one of the great dramas of the leader that he or she must combine a passionate spirit with a cold intelligence and make painful decisions without flinching. Our vanguard revolutionaries must idealize this love of the people, of the most sacred causes, and make it one and indivisible
Ernesto "Che" Guevara

Contrast this with something said by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta: "Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you." So-called "Revolutionaries" are obsessed with material destitution and the immorality that brings it on and/or sustains it. Largely because they tend to be materialists, they do not acknowledge even the possibility of spiritual destitution. In my view, this is usually what leads them to violent solutions.

What Bl. Teresa proposed vice Guevara's "idealization" of the "feeling" of "love," is not "making" love concrete, but acting in the recognition that true love is only ever concrete. This is what the Incarnation of the Son of God shows us clearly and what Christ's life, teaching, death, and resurrection demonstrate. Nothing is as dramatic as reality!

A friend, who is a non-profit director of development, shared a story with me about a friend of hers, who worked in the same field. For a short time her friend worked alongside Bl. Teresa, attending fund-raising events in the U.S. and Europe with her. Of course, these events included people with money to give (i.e., wealthy people). Sensing her feelings towards these folks, Bl. Teresa told her that spiritual poverty (in our schema, read "destitution") is worse than the material variety and that until she learned to love those from whom she raised money as much as those for whom she was raised money, she would have difficulties.

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