What is harder to believe? That you’re going to suffer? Or that you’re loved, utterly and unconditionally? Perhaps one of the most reliable teachers of humanity is suffering. From the wailing infant to the senior groaning with pain, an entrance, an exit and the passage between. More than any companion we choose in life, suffering accompanies us, through anxiety, loss, disappointment, and heartbreak. In fact, our inability to find, connect with, and receive love is one of the great sources of suffering. Some have even painted Hell as simply eternal separation from God who is love.
As long as we have known God as Father we have struggled to connect with Him. We struggle to love each other and are often left unloved by others. It is this broken relationship to our fellow man that leaves us unable to comprehend the divine love of our God.
How do we find our way back? Fr. James Martin, SJ proposes one way across a chasm of disappointment and despair: a two- way bridge built of respect, compassion, and sensitivity, principles he draws from the Catechism’s statement on “Chastity and Homosexuality.”
A lot of controversy has swirled around the Jesuit priest and his recent publication on dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Gay community entitled, “Building a Bridge.” While he speaks at length about understanding and empathy, offering scriptural reflection on personal encounters with Christ, he neglects to address sexual morality. Why?
Does he wish to deprive anyone the truths of the faith? No, likely not. Does he believe the Church is wrong in its teaching on sexuality? I really don’t think so (see his chapter on Respect for the teachings of the Church). Fr. Martin does not discuss sexual morality simply because he is not speaking of sexuality at all. Though inspired by his work with the gay community, “Building a Bridge” is actually about the importance of friendship.
As ancient as King David and Jonathan’s brotherly alliance and profound as John, the disciple Jesus loved, laying his head on our Lord’s chest, friendship is at the center of the Christian life. In friendship, we attempt to share with each other the enduring love of God. It is in that abiding love that morality, and indeed all suffering, find their meaning. In other words, without friendship with God there is no comprehension of morality or suffering. And without friendship with man there is no comprehension of friendship with God. And without respect, compassion, and sensitivity there is no friendship at all.
As the Catechism acknowledges, enduring the marginalization and emotional hardship that can come with being LGBTQ can be, “for most of them a trial.” In addition, living out the teaching of the Church on chastity, even if one understands it, can constitute great suffering. Though we should grow to love holiness, the consequences of following Christ can hurt, whether loneliness, persecution, humiliation or even death. Jesus teaches us to embrace suffering and that it can actually make us better human beings and bring us closer to Him.
This brings me back to my original question. ‘What is harder to believe? That you’re going to suffer? Or that you’re loved, utterly and unconditionally?’ For most of us, the cross of Christ makes more sense than the love of the Father. We know there’ll be ‘crosses to bear’ in life but experience has told us we can’t always count on others, even God to help us carry them.
Consider the apostles. Before they were called to suffer for Christ, which, for all but one of them, meant martyrdom, they walked with Him. They ate and drank with Him; they learned from Him; they shared their joys and sadness with Him. He died for them. And it wasn’t until He left them His endu ring Spirit that they were eventually called to die for Him. Jesus, in His humanity, knew that the human heart would be slow to accept His divine love. But He also knew how essential it was that His love was made known before they took up their own crosses.
When I was a teenager I was watching after my younger sister and lost my temper with her. I yelled at her for not doing what I wanted and I was so upset that our neighbor heard me and was concerned. She was a little older than me and I looked up to her so when she invited me to go to the mall and hang out I accepted. It was nice to get out and we had a nice time talking about my life in high school and hers in college. Eventually she brought up hearing me getting upset and asked if everything was ok. It was a nice opportunity for me to talk about my frustrations and shortcomings. I didn’t feel judged by her and knew she just cared for me.
This was a very tame conversation with a person I had been friends with for years and I still felt a little embarrassed. Think of how sensitive topics of morality can be, let alone sexual morality. Feeling embarrassed, attacked, and isolated can cause people to cut off dialogue and retreat. Does our relationship with a given person match the level of intimacy required to discuss sexuality and chastity?
Besides respect, compassion, and sensitivity, friendship also requires humility. As Christians we must accept that, while we are called to spread the good news, people are not our projects. That is, we cannot expect to see someone’s spiritual journey through from start to finish. Other people do not belong to us, they belong to God. The best way to assure someone of God’s love is to be assured of God’s love for them ourselves. I can be as Christ to you but I am not your savior. Even married people, who are called to share God’s love and help each other to heaven, cannot totally fill our desire and need for God.
The US conference of Catholic Bishops recently put out a document on evangelization called, “Living as Missionary Disciples.” In it the bishops highlight the words of Pope Francis to describe “accompaniment” as an essential stage of evangelization, “Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others,” (Evangelii Gaudium, 46). In the gospel Jesus not only ‘slows down’ but walks seven miles away from Jerusalem where His Church is taking shape to “draw near” to his followers on the road to Emmaus. We should take note and take time to ‘draw near’ to others as well. And as we walk along the way we will find we are called, not only to be like Christ, but to listen as others reveal the Christ in them.
Fr. Martin writes about how to heal dialogue and how to foster friendship between communities of contention. He never claims to be perfect and neither is his work. However, this is his calling. On the many roads to a united life in Christ, this is his waystation. If we join him there we may find clarity ourselves on our way forward.
Anthony Esser is recently married and lives in Southern Maryland with his wife, Casey, and daughter, Noelle, who they welcomed in May! After serving in various ministry roles from Ohio to New Orleans and three years at the National Shrine, Anthony now works in evangelization in the Archdiocese of Washington. He considers himself an artist, a wannabe chef and a sometimes stand-up comic.