a spirituality of tenderness - part five...

NOTE: my reflections on a spirituality of tenderness - a work in progress - continues today.

Two of my mentors in the quest for a spirituality of tenderness are Jim O’Donnell and Jean
Vanier. They are role models as their ministries are about embodied tenderness – the practices that change self and society – for both men gave birth to small communities committed to caring for the most vulnerable. Fr. Jim in Cleveland, OH – who was formed by the wisdom and experience of Charles de Foucault and the Jesus Caritas movement – continues to transform a small neighborhood on the East Side of Cleveland through his ministry of presence.

After he retired as a Diocesan priest, Jim went on a lengthy vision quest for discernment. Like Jesus, he literally went to the desert, the mountains, the waters and then the cities; through prayer, fasting and conversation he concluded that what he needed to do was create an oasis house in the heart of the ghetto. It became a place of beauty and solitude in an area saturated with crime and fear. In time, people gathered for Mass on Thursday evenings.  There was room in the oasis house for guests to come on retreat. And after a few years, as strangers started to experience the serenity of this oasis in the city, they formed a community. The Spirit led them into a relationship with Habitat for Humanity and soon they were rebuilding a burned out neighborhood right next door to the ferocious King-Kennedy Projects. Where houses could not be rebuilt, the land became an urban garden where flowers and fresh produce flourished. To my mind, this ministry was a clear sign of what a spirituality of tenderness meant for my generation – and it spoke to my soul.  For two years, Fr. Jim was my spiritual director.

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, was first called to serve God and community in the Royal Navy of England during WWII.  He sensed the battle against fascism was essential and gave himself over to making peace through war.  After eight years, he left military service and began a quest for another type of peace-making.  In time, a priest introduced him to a small community that cared for those with intellectual disabilities who had been abandoned by society. This led to his own calling with L’Arche that has grown into an international movement of compassion.  His wisdom, tenacity and caring presence documents the way tenderness can bring healing to the most wounded in our world. His is a sacrificial and sacramental way of living that embodies Christ’s calling.  Vanier makes me think of what Jesus said to the disciples of John the Baptist:

John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Both Fr. Jim and Jean Vanier are clear: unless the love of Christ becomes flesh something is missing.  Jim was friends with Henri Nouwen – and Nouwen only truly became himself after starting to live and work with Vanier in Toronto – and this has shaped my understanding, too. Vanier taught Nouwen and others that there are seven practical aspects to love that are crucial to letting the Word of God become Flesh in our humanity. He describes them in the small book Becoming Human like this: “There are… seven aspects of love that seem necessary for the transformation of the heart in those who are profoundly lonely. They are: to reveal, to understand, to communicate, to celebrate, to empower, to be in community with one another and finally to forgive.”

·    To reveal:  the call is to reveal another’s beauty to themselves by sharing your “time, attention and tenderness. To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their own uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention… The belief in the inner beauty of each and every human being is at the heart of L’Arche, at the heart of all true education and at the heart of being human. As soon as we start selecting and judging people instead of welcoming them as they are – with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses – we are reducing life, not fostering it. When we reveal to people our belief in them, their hidden beauty rises to the surface where it may be more clearly seen by all.”

·    To understand:  all of our brokenness has meaning but that meaning is often obscured or buried. To love in a spirituality of tenderness is to know that “all violence has a message that needs to be understood. Violence should not be answered just by greater violence but by real understanding. We must ask: where is the violence coming from? What is its meaning?” The work of L’Arche is clear that all of our wounds point to a deeper truth that sometimes screams to be undersood.

·    To communicate:  one of the keys to giving shape and form to tenderness is helping one another name the source of our pain. “When nothing is named, confusion grows and with it comes anguish. To name something is to bring it out of chaos, out of confusion, and to render it understandable. It is a terrible thing when certain realities, such as death, are never talked about and remain hidden. When these realities are not named, they haunt us… people of my grandmother’s generation knew that it was forbidden to speak of sex, so sex, because it was unnamed, became powerful and controlling.” But as we listen, and name, and begin to understand the source of our wounds, tenderness becomes a two way street where we help one another. Vanier insists that in this process it is essential to “listen to our bodies… and hear our reality through our experiences.” The same is true of the earth as our own bodies: everything that has been created has something to communicate to us about tenderness if we learn to listen.

·    To celebrate:  “It is not enough to reveal to people their value, to understand and care for them. To love people is also to celebrate them… only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.” To celebrate what causes us fear or shame, to know that we can go on with life without fear, is to become truly free.

·    To empower:  Our work with those we love in tenderness is “like that of a midwife: to bring forth and help foster life, to let it develop and grow according to its own natural rhythm… for as we become more conscious of belonging to one another in our mutual dependence” we begin to see God’s plan and order for creation: community. It is not coincidental that one of the words for compassion in both Hebrew and Greek has roots in the womb, the heart and our gut feelings.

·    To be in communion:  “community and communion is mutual vulnerability and openness to the other. It is liberation… where we are allowed to be ourselves and called to grow into greater freedom and trust with the whole universe.”  Trust is at the heart of communion. “In trust we give ourselves. But we can only give of ourselves if we trust that we will be well-received by someone… that is why communion implies the security as well as the insecurity of trust. It is a constant struggle against all the powers of fear and selfishness in us, as well as the seemingly resilient human need to control another.” It is a never-ending dance between joy and freedom alongside vulnerability and insecurity – and this dance goes on forever.

·    To forgive:  because all of us carry within us brokenness, “as well as shadow areas, dark corners of the spirit where uncomfortable things are hidden, human beings cannot be constantly attentive, loving and nonviolent. If this is true in the greater world, it is even more true in the smaller world” of our communities. Thus, as St. Paul noted, because all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – all of us – tenderness is rooted in forgiveness:  forgiveness of self, others, society and all the sources of our brokenness.

As should be clear by now to live into the promise and presence of such a sacred, embodied tenderness requires practice.  I will share some of my thoughts and insights about those practices in the next installment of this quest for a spirituality of tenderness.

photo credit: Dianne De Mott


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