Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Understanding Without Being Understood

Emily Garcia is in her second year as Kellogg Fellow at ECH. She’s a Postulant for Holy Orders in this Diocese, sponsored by ECH, and will be attending seminary next fall. When she’s not at ECH she’s working in Children’s Formation at St. John’s, Charlestown; waitressing; and working at a start-up.

At our Leadership Retreat last Saturday, as we sat in the sunshine in Manchester-by-the-Sea, our Vice President Alice Kenney mentioned some conversations she’d like ECH to have as a group. Alice and I are often on the same page, and this was the case with the topics she mentioned: doubts and questions, beliefs in relation to the church, and how we (mis)interpret “love thy neighbor as thyself.” I think Alice and I both have a tendency to take this to mean “love your neighbor more than you love yourself,” and even “love your neighbor potentially to the detriment of yourself.”

I kept pondering how we might approach the topic in the Chaplaincy, and the next day at St. John’s found myself singing Hymn 593, “Lord, make us servants of your peace.” I’m always moved by St. Francis’ prayer, and especially by the line rendered in this hymn as “[May we not] look for understanding hearts, but look for hearts to understand.”

Here was the same problem though! It’s distressingly easy to go from this prayer to the idea that we should never need consolation. Many of us have accidentally come to believe that being a good Christian means giving to others without ever receiving anything in return. This attitude is certainly appropriate in tithing, but it becomes very problematic if we apply it in all areas of our life. For many, it leads to burn-out or an inefficient exhaustion. In the worst cases it can lead to serious emotional and mental strain and suffering, as people give and give without receiving the love and energy they need to keep giving.

Later that same Sunday I sat in the Chaplaincy listening to Paul’s heart-rending, imperious appeal to his “dear friend and co-worker” Philemon to accept “his own heart,” “his son,” Onesimus. Surrounded by students and friends new and familiar, I heard two very simple and clear responses that cut through the potential risks of Christ’s commandment and St. Francis’ prayer.

First, it becomes easy and simple to accept help, consolation, and love, if we remember our ultimate weakness in comparison to God’s complete strength. We know that we depend on Him; God loves, strengthen, and consoles us in many ways, and one way is in the voices and hearts of those around us.

Second—if everyone only ever looks for hearts to console, there won’t be anyone to be consoled! Both the commandment and prayer seem to assume an interdependence—we depend on each other. Because we’re dynamic creatures, going through times of more obvious strength and weakness, we can be always on the lookout for hearts to understand as well as God’s own understanding from others’ hearts.

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