“We spoke of Thérèse of Lisieux. For her, this togetherness [with God] meant a silver thread of naked trust, with the absolute minimum of feed-back. Poems which she composed during her months of inner darkness gave no hint of the seeming godlessness of it all. Explaining the brightness of her verses, she said, ‘I sing what I will to believe.’ ”
–Iain Matthew, The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross
One piece of common wisdom often heard in recovery circles is to “act as if.”
What does that mean?
One thing it doesn’t mean is being a phony. Acting as if doesn’t mean pretending everything’s “all right” and that we’re not in terrible pain; it means not transmitting our pain to, or blaming our pain on, others. Phoniness means claiming to understand God; “acting as if” means choosing to proceed in faith in spite of our weaknesses, uncertainty and doubt. Acting as if is trying to be civil and kind, often at great effort, to people we dislike; phoniness is being nice to people to their face, and badmouthing them behind their backs.
Not long ago, a friend who hopes to enter the religious life was badmouthing someone with whom she was forced to be in relative proximity and who grated dreadfully on her nerves. "She wants to be my friend," my friend said of this other person. "She thinks she’s going to be my friend."
I understood all too well. I’ve had similar thoughts, many times, about people in my own life. But Christ calls us to be a "friend"–not an intimate, but a friend–to everyone. The Gospels militate against picking and choosing the people with whom we’re going to walk the road, who are going to be our teachers, to whom we’re going to be kind.
We don’t waste our time with people who don’t want what we have to offer. But if they do, one form of martyrdom is to give a listening ear or an understanding smile to all comers: the borderline-personality alcoholic who’s trying to get sober; the co-worker with a broken heart that refuses to mend; the followers of Christ and resolute non-believers and everyone in between whose sensibility doesn’t remotely jibe with ours.
We’re called to speak to people to whom we often don’t feel like speaking; to refrain from surrounding ourselves with people “just like us,” whose thoughts, ideas, and actions we can more or less manage and control; to share not just with the poor, but with the rich, the mediocre, the irritating, the Republicans, the Democrats, because we never know who the poor are. We never know whose heart is hemorrhaging. We never know who needs a consoling word, a smile, a helping hand.
Thérèse is exactly right: such a life can only be lived on “naked trust, with the absolute minimum of feed-back.” There’s no cheering squad when we go beyond our comfort zone to welcome the stranger because as servants of Christ we’re only doing our job: we don’t get extra credit. No-one hits “like” when we refrain from rolling our eyes, sighing, or making the catty comment, because no-one knows. No-one writes us up in the paper when we silently ask God for help in forgiving the person who has hurt us, or wishing well the person of whom we’re jealous. Yet those are exactly the small, invisible actions that built up the Body of Christ: in us, in the Church.
Most of all, we are not recognized for our daily discipline of prayer, praise, purification of heart, and examination of conscience: all, in other words, that makes us truly Catholic. All that makes us able, ideally, to meet man, woman, or child, old or young, rich or poor, and to say: Tell me your story. In a speech to the business community, Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, observed:
So we need places, laboratories, the creation of places which could be each one of our homes, where we invite people who are different, and we listen to each other, people of different class groups. Tell me your story. Where is your pain.
To be open enough to receive another’s pain takes a lifetime of inner work. To be present enough to sit quietly and truly listen while another tells his or her story requires first allowing ourselves to “hear” our own story, to face our own brokenness, to forgive ourselves and each other. To consent to not know the answers and to abandon ourselves, instead, to the God of poverty and mystery is to know, like Christ, that our kingdom is not of this world.
Easier said than done—but that seems to be the road. To stumble forward “acting as if.” To sing what we will to believe.
Heather King is a Catholic convert, sober alcoholic, and writer whose most recent book isSTRIPPED: Cancer, Culture and The Cloud of Unknowing. She speaks nationwide and blogs atHeather King: Mystery, Smarts, Laughs. For more, see her newAbout page.