On loving despite.

Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.

Dorothy Day

Dorothy 1Another reflection read at the morning prayer sparks an inner dialogue in me – and here I go again, arguing with the author. Last time it was the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who might still turn out to have been St. Paul himself. This time it’s no other than Dorothy Day. I just can’t seem to confide my impudence to the family table.

The reflection we heard this morning in chapel is titled “Never Enough Love,” and let me say up front that I am with Dorothy Day on the excited flight of her heartfelt principle. I am with her on love and with the flapping of her wings as she takes off. I don’t land, however, where she lands.

When you love people, you see all the good in them, all the Christ in them.

So the reflection begins. All right. I don’t know that we are capable of being so deeply penetrating as to see all the good in someone, but I don’t mind striving for it. She formulates the ideal, and I’m on board. As God sees His Son in us, so we should see in each other, she says, and there is never enough of this love. I like that. That’s beautiful. Then Dorothy Day issues a warning: this is not easy to do.

Everyone will try to kill that love in you, even your nearest and dearest; at least, they will try to prune it. “Don’t you know this, that, and the other thing about this person? He or she did this. If you don’t want to hear it, you must hear. It is for your good to hear it. … You must stop loving, modify your loving, show your disapproval. …”

Assaulted herself by the cruel and petty reality of the world, Dorothy Day is cautioning us about gossip. It’s about judgment and envy and putting people down, about back-stabbing and back-room talk – and it is rather clear that she is weary of it, so weary that she will escape from it by any means, even away from her own principle, or so it seems. Because she doesn’t think it’s good of those nearest and dearest to try to kill her love – it’s obvious she sees this in them and it’s not good – but she says:

…we should see Christ in others, and nothing else, and love them.

“We should see Christ in others,” she says, “and nothing else,” and this is where I trip for the first time. Is that realistic? I try to imagine what it would be like and fail – because I know there’s more than good in us! Does seeing only good mean ignoring the bad? It’s not realistic, is it? But here is Dorothy Day:

See only the good, the Christ, in others!

So I insist, push on my imagination, and a strange and horrid world unfolds from out of my mind’s fog. Effervescent personalities roam around in it rare and random, darting about hunted glances of a perpetual prey. The land in it is covered by vast slave camps, where most of the human race spends its days in hard labor, buries its violently dead, consoles each other, prays for deliverance, and smiles kindly at its psychopathic torturers, who stroll among their captives freely and without fear, few but mighty, evil reigning over the good and spilling blood for pleasure.

If you think I’m going off the deep end with my little fantasy, just go back to everybody’s two favorite real-world dystopias: Hitlerism and Stalinism. And ask yourself how many of those who stood by and let it happen – silently lay down the foundation for two among the worst of history’s mass repressions – how many of them would have been good people if only they’d had the courage to face what was happening. To stop rationalizing or ignoring or postponing in time to realize what darkness they were seeing rise.

dorothy 2Here is the thing we all, I fear, know: humanity is not all good. Not all in us is Christ. And very, very bad things happen if we ignore the darkness in ourselves and in our neighbors.

I am fairly certain Dorothy Day had to know this, too, and I doubt she meant to suggest that we close our eyes to human failings, stick our heads in the sand, and let oppression run amok. She, for one, did not do that and managed to love quite well. So I suppose, my argument with Dorothy Day is not about loving people; it’s about what love entails.

“We should see Christ in others, and nothing else, and love them,” she says. And when her loved ones point out the others’ flaws, her resistance may be so extreme because she feels they are telling her to stop or decrease her love. But to me, this has only to do with love inasmuch as the gossipers are wading in the shallow end of it, not as it threatens Dorothy Day’s. See, I believe that love and approval are not the same thing. Love is not admiration, love is not like, not even respect. Love is the fundamental connectedness of souls through the medium of the all-interweaving Divine. What does it matter that I know this or that about you or you about me? Shall we become less connected? Or more?

We are uneasy creatures in an imperfect world, changing and pouring into itself, and Christ is filling vacuum and squeezing out emptiness, but caves and bubbles and pockets of rot and swirling funnels of foam are in constant motion everywhere, inside and out. It is our temporal nature to be so mixed, growing, shaping in creative process toward the Kingdom. We are so convoluted, so complicated, so braided that light and dark are intertwined in us, sometimes, it seems, inseparably. We are nobility, inspiration, compassion, and sacrifice – and we are shame, cowardice, greed, and brutality. We oscillate between hope and despair, it happens, ten times a day. And to love a human being, you must see him, at least somewhat, for what he is. You must be able to love him the way he is.

I don’t know exactly what Dorothy Day meant when she said we should see only good in others, only Christ and nothing else, and that way love them. Her life testifies to an ability to love people in the muck of their sin and hopelessness, to stay with the Church through its arrogant hostility, and she could not have done the work she did with the poor, could not have protested against the evil of war without recognizing it and loving in spite of it all. I think, maybe, she was just tired of gossip when she wrote this piece and said it. And I think, maybe, she didn’t say it right.

Because we should see Christ in others and everything else and love them.

Dorothy 3

Rabbinical student helps an inmate at Northern State Prison in Newark put on tefillin. njjewishnews.com

We love each other even though. We love each other despite. More often than not, it is good when people in our lives are realistic about who we are. Sometimes it is safer to know with whom you are dealing. Sometimes it helps to teach or to rescue a friend if you know with whom you are dealing. Sometimes you need to know for tough love, sometimes for a soft shoulder. We love each other no matter what, wounds and warts and all. Whole. Because we see good in each other, we see Christ in each other, and we see darkness – and we see it in ourselves, too, and recognize in each other a creature’s struggle to fill the vacuum with the Divine, and we feel in the immeasurable depths of our being the connectedness of all in One, which is Love, the fabric of Reality.

There is much in the Bible about sin, imperfection, and strife. Often more than I would like. Jesus yelled at people a lot, especially at the ones nearest and dearest to him. He knew what they were, he saw them quite clearly. And he said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” I imagine, he saw in them plenty of good and lots of potential, and growing, burgeoning faith, and weakness and doubt and violence and cowardice. He didn’t just see in them his own reflection.


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  1. Indeed! Not all persons are all good. Even then, those who seem to reach the pinnacle of virtue, can only be so within their cultural context, and every culture is necessarily limited. For example, my intellectual hero Thomas Aquinas argued that it was proper to execute heretics, for they killed the soul, which is more valuable than the body (and it is proper to execute murderers). I doubt that Jesus would have commended him for that. Another example: Myriads of “good Catholics” condoned slavery; but in today’s culture, it is an evil abomination. The same with the subordination of women, and……

  2. Dear Maria,
    Of course when one sees such brutal evil as still happening today, it is difficult to see only Christ in the perpetrators, and I believe God wants us to try to stop their evil acts against others and ourselves. Yet, underneath, all the evil they have submitted to and have become, God created them in love and still loves them and wishes their salvation. I think Dorothy Day is striving to have the kind of love for God as seen in all his created children before they submitted to evil and as was evidenced in Christ’s’ forgiving those who crucified him and in the brave martyrs who forgive their executioners because “they know not what they do.” Without grace this kind of love is inconceivable and impossible, but we are to pray for it::” You must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Mt.5:48.

    1. Dear Sister,
      I agree. In fact, I believe we are making the same point: one cannot forgive without truly seeing the wrong one forgives. We can’t accept the sinner without acknowledging the sin. When you say that God “still” loves us and wishes our salvation, you seem to mean what I mean: that God takes us Christ and all, mixed bags that we are, the will — as Paul said — to be perfect and the powerlessness to do so. Our Christ and our Christlessness. And so should we. In fact, we must.
      Jesus’s radical ethic of the Sermons on the Plain and on the Mount is not humanly possible, we all realize. It is a beautiful, ever-receding horizon to which we walk, and no one really thinks any living human being has become perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, do we? If we saw and loved only Christ in each other, how could we love each other? If God loved only Christ in us, how could God love us? “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son…” That was love for the parts that were lacking in Christ, because the parts that were full of Christ did not require the birth of Jesus. You know what I mean?

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