Jean wrote a friend shortly before she was assassinated:
“The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave. ... Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine."
I was thinking how it’s relatively easy for me to identify with her commitment to the poor – in the distance, a detached kind of love. Paul Simon sang it this way: “Everyone loves the sound of a train in the distance."
For me, for you, for us, an up close and personal love of refugees, migrants and the poor is another thing altogether. They speak another language, smell and are poorly dressed, need help over and over again, to name but a few demands made of me, of you, of us. Some clamor about them being criminals, drug pushers, stealers of our jobs, living off the public trough and other erroneous characterizations. Moreover, my contact with them might threaten my relationships with family, friends and my employment.
Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, shed light on this struggle between detached love and real, day-to-day love when caring for and standing with the poor and disenfranchised by referring to, what was for her, perhaps the most important chapter of Dostoevsky’s book The Brothers Karamazov.
This chapter concerns a conversation between a wealthy woman and an elderly monk, Father Zosima. The woman asks him how she can really know that God exists. Fr. Zosima tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of "active love." He assures her that there is no other way to know the reality of God. The woman confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others—she thinks perhaps she will become a nun, live in holy poverty and serve the poor in the humblest way. It seems to her such a wonderful thought that it makes tears comes to her eyes.
But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she is serving will be. Some will complain that the soup she is serving isn't hot enough, the bread isn't fresh enough, the bed is too hard, the covers are too thin. She confesses she couldn't bear such ingratitude—and so her dreams about serving others vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there really is a God.
To this Fr. Zosima responds with the words, "Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.....I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you.” This is a scathing critique of charity as we know it, that is, a charity that controls and defines the one who is in need.
Let me explain how I have been struggling with this “up close and personal” kind of love in my own life. For years, I have been helping Christine and Fredrick (not their real names) financially. I know that the money I have is not my own, especially as a person with religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Yet, there never seems to be a letup to Christine and Fredrick’s requests which have increased in number and amounts. I must admit that I have often felt resentful at their requests to which, nonetheless, I usually respond in whole or in part. Begrudgingly, I must add. In fact, I have felt outright anger at them for “taking advantage” of me. As a result, I have stopped even accepting their phone calls or text messages because I invariably give in to their requests when I recall the times I was forced to steal cold-cuts and bread from the grocery store due to an economic downturn. Moreover, I know that my economic security is through no worthiness of my own. All is a gift from God through others. Regrettably, these truths make it no easier for me to decide the right course of action. And such is the struggle to love up close and personal with all the guilt and remorse it can carry.
As evidenced by my struggle with Christine and Frederick, I realize that such unconditional love does not rise spontaneously from my breast. It requires of me to first be open to the Spirit of the living God in my life and to pray as the founder of my religious community, Leo John Dehon, taught us to pray.”Make my heart like your heart.” Furthermore, it requires an act of the will, of faith, to love the other with all their faults and brokenness -- as I am so loved. Hopefully, ever so gradually I learn to love them because of who they are in and of themselves, which is in and of God.
Finally, loving up close and personal like that of Jean and her companions requires that I consider carefully the conditions and policies that drive our sister and brother refugees, and the poor of our own country, into such desperate circumstances. After all, as Rev. Cornell West reminds us, “Never forget that [social] justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.”
Clearly, love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.
Or so it seems to me.