In the midst of the Ebola fearfulness filling the news in recent months, an odd thought has been floating through my brain: What if we were as aware of the contagion of love as we are of other forms of infection, and in the spirit of love casting out fear, expended maximum effort in creating a truly cataclysmic epidemic? What better way to celebrate the season of the Gift of Love than by infecting the world with it?
I once heard a description of how transformative it was to be in the presence of the Hindu guru Maharaj-Ji.Far greater even than the wonder of being in the presence of one who loved you completely, was that in that presence, you wanted to be that love yourself.
It seems likely that people experienced this revelatory urge in the presence of Jesus. At this time of year, it is good to remind ourselves that the enduring, central challenge for those who profess the Christian Gospel is to be that loving presence, to actually embody love…and, in a seasonal metaphor, to birth that love into the world.
All around us we see the ancient struggle played out, most personally in our failures to love those who irritate us the most, whether a relative, acquaintance, cable newscaster, or member of Congress. And then there are those we don’t see at all, those who Pope Francis calls “the ultimate victims of our ‘throwaway’ culture…..the excluded. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’.
I will go out on a limb here and suggest that almost all of our personal and social dysfunction is rooted in some perception of exclusion, often a profound sense of unlovability… the taproot of shame. So there is great need for an epidemic of love.
What might this look like? How can we be great sources of infection? On a threshold level, it means intentionally being the face of love for everyone, including all in our personal circle of exclusion. As someone once observed, there would be peace on earth if we could just get along with our families. And for those celebrating Christmas as a religious feast, it means fidelity to the Christian command to embrace those of us who are marginalized and invisible, to listen and respond to the cries of the most distressed.
I frequently see this generative love made visible in a sort of Mutuality of Presence at the Catholic Worker free clinic and St Francis Inn in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The love there is indeed contagious: staff, volunteers, ‘listeners’, guests and patients are engaged in a dance of love that benefits everyone. Those infected with this love on both sides of the relationships sometimes bloom and grow in surprising ways.
Recently, one of the patients at the clinic wrote about his experiences. He refers to volunteers and listeners as ‘Lovin Workers’, again and again referencing how their goodness infects him, validates his sense of himself as good, and worthy. This formerly catatonic man says he has been transformed by kindness, and speaks of “picking up” happiness, peace, and love from the ‘Lovin Workers’.
Here is a man who for years had a hard time seeing anything good in himself; for him and so many others, this feeling is compounded by society’s view of The Excluded as worthless and bad. If people whom society judges as ‘worthy’ struggle with powerful feelings of unworthiness, how much greater is the struggle of those who are already so judged and convicted daily?
But the mystery of love is embraced here. Why do hundreds of people travel to receive the hospitality of the clinic and Inn, sometimes at great inconvenience? Like the ‘Lovin Writer’ above, they come for community, and for love, to hearten themselves, find compassion and concern for their well being, affirmation of the good in them, and encouragement to connect deeply to it. There is always room at these Inns.
I don’t think that the impact of love can be measured; what objective criteria of love’s ‘success’ might there be? How could we quantify the subtle movements of spirit that make us feel, really feel, that we are Beloved, and good?
Yet even if quantifying the impact of love is impossible, its effects are observable. Love is energy; we experience it, feel it move between people. All of us can generate and witness the impact of a kind word, a loving touch, the straightening of spine when someone is addressed with respect and love. Think of what moves in yourself when someone responds to your own challenges and shortcomings with love, not judgment.
Does being loved and listened to create miraculous shifts in behavior? Move addicts into recovery? Stem violent impulses? Maybe. Who knows? Perhaps the real miracle, though, is the small shifts that love invites, the momentary, growing realization that, as Thomas Merton put it, we all “walk around shining like the sun”.
I know in my bones that listening to another, being love, being the mirror reflecting back the life of God that dwells in people, especially when they cannot see it themselves, is one of the most loving, healing gifts we can offer each other.
All of us need to be both vectors for and victims of an epidemic of love. No need to quarantine yourself; go ahead and breathe it on everyone you meet. Perhaps this could be an intentional spiritual practice for this Holiday Season and New Year. Infect as many people as you possibly can. And then joyfully celebrate the Miracle of Love, knowing deeply that it is who you are.