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July 5, 2010

universal loveOne of the obvious things about our world is that it is hurting. Wherever we turn we are confronted with a suffering and incomplete humanity. We may be especially surprised by the capacity of individuals and groups of persons or nations to inflict violence on others. And when we consider the already realized potential for evil and injustice, we may choose to look away, to try to forget the world with its overwhelming needs, and to evade our personal responsibility to minister to that world.

    The problem is unfortunately compounded by the condition of our own hearts. If we look there with an honest gaze we shall find many of the same ills that beset our world. This moment of truth turns many persons away from themselves as well as away from the world. The result is a kind of schizoid existence in which neither the self nor the world is ever realistically appropriated.

    We are nevertheless called to witness to the world and to minister to its needs: “The Spirit of Truth will bear witness to me, says the Lord, and you also will be my witnesses” (Jn. 15:26, 27). Jesus sends us out into the world as “his Father sent him into the world” (Jn. 17:18). Can we hope to share in the mission Jesus extends to us? And what must we do to ready ourselves for authentic missionary activity in our world?

    First of all, there can be no doubt that we are called to share in the ministry of Jesus. “I shall not call you servants any longer, because a servant does not know his master’s business; I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learned from my Father” (Jn. 15:15). There are two valuable points to consider here: one is that our relationship to Christ is one of friendship; and the other is that Christ has transmitted to us what he himself has received from the Father.

    Both of these considerations – our friendship with Christ and the access we have to a special knowledge he offers us – require us to enter into our heart. The heart is the workshop wherein we ready ourselves to be the unique witness that God calls each of us to be. It is also the repository of the spiritual teaching Jesus alludes to when he tells us he has taught us what we need to know to carry out his mission. The knowledge Jesus means is not easily conveyed in words. Rather, it is a kind of knowing that comes from having one’s heart continually touched by the Lord. It is a way of understanding with the heart that has been created by a gradual, if at times painful, preference for being schooled in the mysterious ways of the Lord.

    A person who begins to respond to a call he senses from the Lord enters into his heart and finds there the courage he needs to face the darkness and the emptiness of his own heart. He will not become dismayed or “lose heart” for he has already discovered a Presence greater than his own which bears him up and renews his fainting spirit. The knowledge he gains is an increasing awareness of the insufficiency of his existence in relation to the fullness of the Eternal Being of God.

    The need for healing that we may uncover in our hearts can serve as the beginning of our formation as witnesses to God’s love. The recognition of inner poverty effects a spiritual integration in the Body of the Lord, and the depth of our solitude provides a space in our hearts for the Spirit to inspire us according to God’s ways, to transform our hearts, and to convert us from self-centeredness to God-centeredness.

    The essential loneliness of the solitary heart is necessarily open to the healing Presence and Friendship of Christ. When the ego dominates a person’s life, loneliness may be denied; but as a person inhabits his heart as the center of his existence the loss of his ordinary self and its controls leaves him feeling powerless, abandoned, alone. He appropriates his need for contact with a love that transcends the bounds of his ordinary ambitions and aspirations. He yearns for an experience of love that is boundless and universal. The haunting experience of appropriating one’s need for God’s love, and the faith that comes from having that need met by an uncompromising offer of friendship and affirmation, are two foundational events that enable a person to return to the world as a messenger of love.

The Return to the World

    “The Ox and His Herdsman,” a familiar Zen text, teaches that whoever experiences truth in himself (in his heart) goes into the world to liberate others: he immerses and concentrates himself in liberating. In the final stage of the Ox-herding pictures, the Herdsman enters the market-place with open hands. This he does out of compassion for those who may need his guidance. The Herdsman enters the world of multiplicity to visit wineshops and fish stalls and to awaken drunkards to themselves.

    The image of the open hands refers to the generosity, the open-heartedness, of the Herdsman. After a long search for his ox, i.e. his original self, he and the ox become invisible, leaving the original self free to return to the ordinary world. The original self appears as a “holy fool,” wandering about from morning till night in the town, “face smeared with earth, head covered with ashes,” like a fool in the dusty world.

    Similarly, after being wounded by God’s love, the Christian witness is restored to the world as a messenger of love. The solitude of his heart has broken him open to transcendent meaning and love and brought him closer to his original self as created by God. In humility and self-forgetfulness he returns to the world in order to participate in it according to the unique image or form of Christ in his soul.

    Pope John-Paul II has stated that the new missionary aim is to be a sign and expression of universality in the midst of all local churches and continents of the earth.  Those who have followed Christ into their own hearts are best prepared for this missionary task. In the silence of their hearts they have learned to let go of their compulsive pursuits and to cling instead to the universal truth of God’s love and faithfulness. Having experienced this love and faithfulness themselves, they become friends of Christ and his mission and, in their turn, go forth to bring the message of universal love to all people.

    Each man or woman who witnesses to the universal dimension of God’s love has been given a responsibility that is uniquely his or hers in ministering to the world. This unique responsibility flows from the ability each person has to respond to God and to the persons, events and things of the world. No two persons bring exactly the same healing gifts.

    The originality of each person in Christ also prescribes the messenger’s limitations as an instrument of universal love. The time he has spent in the desert of his heart will have taught him the value of humility and self-possession. The messenger who overzealously immerses himself in the world’s varied needs risks personal exhaustion and collapse, and he may end by having done many things, but failed what was uniquely his to do. No single messenger is called to save the whole world or to respond to every need, but only to be faithful to the tasks that God gives her to perform during the unfolding of her life.

    Because the messenger of love is a witness to God’s love and faithfulness, his presence to the world is marked by God-consciousness as well as social-consciousness. His presence is an expression of the Lord’s love and care for all persons, whatever their social class, profession or cultural style. In personally congenial ways the messenger is present to those who are underprivileged in any material, social or spiritual aspect of life.

    The messenger of universal love places a strong value on his personal relationship with the Lord, and he finds in prayer the means of remaining in his Presence. His access to the Lord through prayer sustains him in the midst of sometimes wearying and apparently fruitless social action. As he learns to rely more on the Lord than on his own strengths and criteria of success, he grows in the Presence of God which provides a continual backdrop for all of his actions in the world. Finally, the presence of the messenger radiates peace, for it is the Absolute Presence of God that takes over in him and relativizes the pains of a suffering world. Thus, while the messenger of love participates in alleviating the “cry of the world” he also celebrates God’s unwavering presence to that world:

I will celebrate your love forever, Yahweh,

Age after age my words shall proclaim your faithfulness;

For I claim that love is built to last forever

And your faithfulness founded firmly in the heavens.

                    (Ps. 89:1-2)

Compassionate Presence

    We have seen that the witness to God’s universal love is formed for her mission by an encounter with the Lord in the depths of her heart. The formation of her heart leads to self-knowledge, to a realistic awareness of her sinfulness and her need for redemption. Her heart has been transformed by the encounter, and she becomes a freer instrument of God’s love and mercy.

    In Waiting on God Simone Weil writes: “The world needs saints with genius, just as a plague-stricken town needs doctors.” The compassionate presence of the messenger of love is an inspired response to the world’s need for saints with genius. By witnessing to God’s forgiveness and mercy, the messenger reflects the Lord’s compassion for all of Creation. Her attitudes of gentleness and acceptance make it easier for others to accept themselves and their situations; her patience with herself provides hope for those who despair of being loved in their present condition.

    Above all, the compassionate messenger incarnates universal love by offering the emptiness of her heart as a means for others to return to God. The space in her heart that has been created out of solitude and self-recognition is now a place where others may awaken to the uniqueness of their original selves and to their responsibility for ministering to and forming the world.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.