Avoiding the detour

  • August 6, 2009
{mosimage}How can I help? A question that lurks everywhere, ubiquitous with suffering.

Emerging into adulthood, I discovered the world is tilted: a few at the rich end, a multitude at the poor end. More shocking: everyone knew, and still it didn’t change. Didn’t people want to help? Or were they unable?

Recently, a 16-year-old let go his fury. He’d been raging a long time, repeated arrests, failure in school and nothing seemed better; childhood traumas had erected mountains he couldn’t scale. Family and professionals had seemingly tried and failed. Why couldn’t love help?

On the large scale and the small, the same perplexing question.

Christianity’s response, unchanging for two millennia, may seem weak and inadequate. Become one with one another, by becoming one with Christ. Not too practical. But once we make that change, the practicalities flow. 

Back in the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo probed what it takes for humans to change. Augustine is a major theologian of the Western church, a brilliant thinker whose influence is unequalled. He’s often been misinterpreted and has at times been separated from the wider Christian context with harmful effects. Both a spiritual and a practical man, he lived through events as shattering as the sacking of Rome in 410. With age, his optimism about human goodness dwindled drastically, as he increasingly witnessed human depravity. Yet he never gave up the notion that the image of God in each of us is never eradicated, though it may become tarnished, scarred, almost invisible. We have the capacity to respond to God, be changed into what He meant us to be, participate in the life of the Trinity.  For him, the Trinity isn’t just a devotion but the heart of Christian revelation.

Augustine wrote about the soul that’s lost its way, “running after less and less, mistaking it for more and more.” It’s what happens, he thought, when we mistake lesser beauties for ultimate reality and fail to see God’s presence shining through them. This leads us on an endless, hopeless detour — we become weak, miserable and suffering, unable to diagnose or stop our illness. We may know there are higher things, but can’t get to them. We may know there’s God, but not know how to find Him. It’s humanity’s despair.

Unless there’s Christ. He becomes one of us, pitches His tent in our pigsty and shares our suffering. Unceasingly His love calls us until the day we can turn and see. And run towards Him, embrace Him, take Him in. When we do (through baptism), this cures the soul; but the cure is only the beginning. We must let the cure work its way into all our parts, in preparation for the final cure, the ultimate union of ourselves with God when we behold Him face-to-face after death.

What can Augustine teach 1,500 years later? He teaches how God gives Himself to humanity, and therefore how we are to give. Helping others involves being with them, becoming in some way one with them — following the model of Christ who became one with us. Do we want to help the poor? We discover our own poverty. Do we want to help the suffering? We enter into our own suffering. This teaches us what practical steps to take. 

I once lived a month with abandoned children and single mothers at Pro Vita, a pro-life community in Romania. The locals shared their lives, and at times their small homes, with the kids and moms. Without electricity, running water, transportation, I entered a little into the community’s reality — very little, for I had a plane ticket home. I remember the day a shiny green car sped along the dirt road and into the compound where we were having lunch outside with the kids (thin soup with cooked corn mush, their standard meal). Well-dressed North Americans spilled out with candy and toys, wielding fancy cameras; I remember the children’s awe of the cameras. Soon the shiny car sped away. I don’t know their story; likely they were raising needed funds for the orphanage. But I felt sad they didn’t pitch their tents there a little longer, at least to break bread with the children.

God’s law is love and His Gospel is peace. What if we could love those we seek to help, whether across the world or across the street, and let them love us? Remembering that we’re humans together? Communion is our destiny, but we claim it here and now. There’s no more important word in the Christian vocabulary. Communion, with one another, as with the divine Trinity. This doesn’t mean doing nothing for others; nor does it mean that helping is easy, or quick, or even materially productive. We’re asked to learn the way of love, together, making mistakes along the way, suffering our own seeming failures, again and again. We have a lifetime to learn and a patient, merciful Physician who knows how to heal.

Feast of St Augustine, Aug. 28.