Wednesday, October 1, 2014

rebellious to my roots

We behave as though God were expecting us to succeed and making His love conditional upon our achievements.
--Maria Boulding, Gateway to Hope, an Exploration of Failure

St. Thérèse once told a story (and I'd swear in court that it was St. Thérèse, but ever since I asserted that to a friend, I seem to have completely lost where I found said story) about one of her fellow Carmelite sisters singing off-key next to her in choir. Naturally enough, Thérèse would grow irritated when the sister would sing off-key, and she found that the annoying noise was distracting her from prayer. Until, of course, being the Doctor of the Church and one of the many resident spiritual bad-asses of the 19th century, Thérèse realized that the sister's off-key crooning was actually a gift for God, for it was a small little suffering that she could offer up.
Usually, in choirs not populated with saints like Thérèse, if someone sings off-key, the sopranos flutter a bit in annoyance, squirm, and look half over their shoulder so everyone behind them feels self-conscious about the notes they produce and grow quieter and quieter, until they are just a notch above the weakest pianissimo. Finally, one brave tenor pipes up and says: I think the altos are off. The altos roll their eyes, thinking that singers who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones. Nevertheless, the altos are forced to sing a single bar of music over and over again. And, knowing alto lines, the bar they are singing is either a jumble of intervals that have no rhyme or reason outside the context of the other notes in the chord, or an obnoxious repetition of the same tone over and over ad nasueum, or, until a blessed and welcome key change.
Eventually, it will become inescapably clear and painfully obvious that one among their members is tone-deaf and will never realize her error. Finally, the director decides to move on, abandoning the altos to their fate as a hopeless section of musical dunces, and dooming the sopranos to develop nervous tics from their incessant, anxious fluttering.
Thus, a choir devoid of the grace of the Little Flower usually proceeds.
Oh how gloriously different the saints, eh?

It is so easy to let the little things annoy you, rather than be an occasion of grace. Unsurprisingly, I have found that is all too easy to forget that our vocation is love when my neighbor is being a dickhead or when my siblings are being whiny little cretins.

I am very good at loving the student who raises her hand nicely, and asks good questions, and does her homework. I am very good at being patient with these students. I find that when they do things like ask the same question five times in the row, or call out: Ms.! Ms.! Ms.! Ms., please, can you come help me? No help me first, Ms.! like some sort of grating refrain over and over in class, I am less patient. My smile begins to grow strained, and I grow weary of being pulled in five different directions, with five hundred different demands.

And then I realize that parents who have children must feel this way pretty much everyday. And I remember that patience is only really patience when it's tested. To be pleasant when others are pleasant isn't a virtue, it's just common sense. Psychologists (who love to find fancy, scientific words for common sense) call it mirroring or emotional contagion, which basically means we mimic the behavior of the people with whom we surround ourselves. Of course it is easy to be virtuous and kind when everybody else is being virtuous or kind. It's right there in our psychology. But it is hard to be virtuous and kind when others are being little scabs. It is hard to be patient when people are trying your patience. But patience that is not tried barely deserves the name of patience.

Rather, I learned to be patient because I watched someone: a parent, a teacher, a friend remain cool, calm and collected when her charges were attempting to run her ragged. I learned what love was when someone was fair and kind to someone who did not deserve it.

I learn every day the painful lesson that my love is very short of God's love. If God loves me, even though I am a failure, do I love my neighbors who are failures? Not as well as I ought. Not with such patience and kindness and overabundant generosity as God does for me. God has high standards for me, higher than mine for any other human being, and I fail to live up to them. Yet, unlike me, He does not allow that failure to make Him desire my love any the less. Patiently, oh how patiently, He attends to my incessant demands. He listens even when I do not raise my hand, and He still smiles on me, even though I will not find a seat after being asked five times in a row.

This is not natural love; this is supernatural. It is above and beyond anything I can achieve on my own. But, having tasted it, I cannot help but aspire to love with a love like that in return.

The thought that Christ, in his life and death, belongs to the innermost reality of the world, would be less alien to us if we were not so prone to identify the world with the handful of crude and superficial data gathered from everyday sense-experience, of if we were better able to realize how profound, mysterious and filled with spiritual realities this world is, and how everyone draws life from the whole of the universe, which extends to such measureless depths.
--Karl Rahner, On the Theology of Death

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