“There are inequalities in the order of grace, just as there are in the order of nature.
We do not mean the inequalities that come from sin, from injustice, against which we ought to fight. What of the natural inequalities of men? Why do they exist? Saint Catherine of Siena says: so that each one may be, in regard to all the rest, both a giver and a beggar.”
--Cardinal Charles Journet, The Meaning of Grace
Near the Colorado line on a cross-country road trip a few years ago I stopped at a convenience store to use the restroom, glanced into the mirror, and realized that I looked like a member of the Donner party. I’d been fancying myself a bold, brave seeker, but a middle-aged woman, alone in a grungy bathroom hundreds of miles from home and looking like hell was closer to the truth. The truth was that I had no particular emotional, financial, spiritual, or artistic support in my life, no guarantee that I’d be able to get a book out of this experience, as I hoped to [and in fact did not], no guarantee that the memoir I had coming out in a few months would sell [it did not], or that I would ever publish another one [I did!].
Not to put too fine a point on it, but a childless, partnerless, middle-aged woman is in some sense a beggar. I had to beg companionship on that trip, beg human contact, beg conversation, and if not beg food, beg the sacrament of a shared meal (often when I would “rather” have been alone), beg a moment of shared awe. Beg for someone to say along with me, Isn’t life beautiful? Beg for someone to understand when I asked, In spite of all its conflict and pain, would you trade a minute of it for anything? Beg not to be pitied. Beg to be forgiven for allowing others to mean more to me than I meant to them. Beg for the full value of what I was doing to be treasured while knowing that it wasn’t going to be, not knowing whether God himself saw its value.
Part of the tension I'm called to hold when in pain is to resist my impulse toward isolation; to stay connected with others. As a matter of humility, I must interact with others. I must stay connected to the material: food, faces. I have to acknowledge my own terrible need; I have to continue to give, even if all I have to give is my puny presence, even if I feel that I have and am nothing.
One manifestation of the miracle of the loaves and fishes is that wounded people can help other wounded people in a way "well" people can't. I first noticed this phenomenon back in '86 when I was in rehab. The people in white coats with their certificates and degrees were useful enough in their way, but they were not who I or any of the other drunks/addicts there truly wanted to hear. We wanted to hear from another person who had suffered. We wanted to hear from another person who was coming back from the dead. We wanted to hear from someone who needed us as much as we needed them.
For a well person to give is nice enough in its way, but for a person who's suffering to give is sublime. With the person complete in and of himself who doesn't need anything, the giving only goes in one direction. When the wounded person gives, there is a completion, a participation, a flow out and in, an exchange. We suffer, we beg, we share what little we have, and in the vulnerability, lo and behold, there is something for us. We get to be part of the feast. We get to eat, too. Even St. Maximilian Kolbe, who offered himself up to starve in another man's place at Auschwitz, got to "eat." Because you can be sure that while he was starving to death, and every moment since, he has been sitting with the other martyrs, saints, and lovers of Christ at the very head of the banquet table.
Christ draws us lonely people close; he has a whole constituent of lonely-hearts. We move through life not knowing, not quite daring to believe, and yet we believe anyway.
In The Eden Project, Jungian analyst James Hollis observes that fear is the great motivator and that we tend to deal with fear in three main ways: by becoming a caretaker, by becoming aggressive, or by withdrawing (I like to do all three, often at once). And that, interestingly, one other way we can sublimate fear, if we’re lucky enough, is through love itself. Sometimes our soul enlarges to the point where we’re willing to open ourselves to the power of the other, to the capacity of the other to wound us. “The magnanimous person,” Aristotle called such a soul: the one with a big enough sense of self to allow the other to be the other, and simultaneously to risk opening to the other--because inherent in enlarging the soul is that the risk is no longer quite so precarious.
On my walk the other day I saw a black man, a young man, by his bike, just a normal human being with one pants leg rolled up and a Vons bag slung over his handlebars, and I swear I almost stopped and said to him: Would you just put your arms around me for a minute? We don’t have to say anything, but would you just hold me in your arms?
I wonder what would happen if we all did that for each other--and for ourselves. I bet the whole world would be instantly, utterly, saved.