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Along the Way
People Along the Way
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As one travels "along the way," the road signs can be quite confusing. Most road signs have the name of some destination and an arrow pointing in that direction. On this road the arrows often point in both directions!

Christ tells us that to save our life we must loose it; to find freedom we must submit to the truth. The saints tell us that to find happiness we must seek God but that in the end it is not we who find God. God is the one who finds us! We are told that to seek God we must look into the depths of our hearts, yet God reveals Himself to us in community.

For example, the Church is the means we have been given by God to come into relationship with Him. That relationship is nurtured and strengthened through prayer. Thus, our image of the Church often takes the form of worship, devotions, and meditation, all activities that take place in a church building or in private. Maturity never comes to that relationship however, until it goes beyond the church building and involves other people.

The social justice teachings of the Church are as much a part of the life of the Church as its teachings on abortion, the sacraments, and the nature of the Trinity. They are just as old; rooted in the New Testament and the long Tradition of the Church. Though that tradition has developed strongly in the past century. Yet, it is often difficult for people to appreciate the importance or centrality of the social justice teachings of the Church. When the Church attempts to give its social justice teachings a rightful emphasis, a common reaction is to feel that the Church is becoming politicized. It might even be felt that the Church is "taking sides" or conspiring for or against one group or another in the community, depending on the nature of the social justice issues involved.

A Church that is not faithful to its duty to be a conscience, a prophetic voice, in the community is not faithful as a worshipping community. It may be saying, "Yes, Lord." in public but in its heart it is dead. Indeed, the Christian whose faith is something for the public, but who doesn't practice that faith in his or her life, is spiritually dead.

Thomas Merton is an excellent example. Merton was a writer and young lecturer at a Catholic College in upstate New York just before World War II. He went searching for a deeper relationship with God. Before long he joined a Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, withdrawing from "life in the world" for the solitude of a monk's vocation. The strangest thing happened. The deeper his spiritual life grew and the more important solitude became for him as a means of spiritual growth, the more he was drawn into "the world". At first this worldly involvement was as a popular spiritual writer and teacher. He did not stop here however. The deeper his spirituality became the more he was drawn into issues of social justice. This showed itself first in his involvement in the civil rights movement. Later, his social justice concern was expressed with regard to America's deepening involvement in Vietnam.

This may seem to be a strange progression but in fact it is quite logical. Merton's writings describe a spiritual journey in which one seeks God through prayer and through a greater attention to God's presence in one's life. As one encounters God's presence and power in his life, as he realizes the extent to which he or she is loved and cherished by God, the insight begins to dawn that everyone else is cherished and loved by God as well. Indeed, God is present in them, as he is in oneself.

Someone who is blind to this spiritual fact can find it possible let others take care of their own problems. One who does not see God's light in everyone around him can permit injustice to continue, especially if it only involves turning one's back to the situation. One who is spiritually immature can put his own needs first and ignore everyone else, especially someone who may stand in the way of getting what he wants.

An example of this is with the parable of the Good Samaritan. There are four characters in this story; the man who is robbed and beaten, the Samaritan, the priest and the levite. All four were cherished and loved by God. When the priest and levite walked down the road they saw only someone who they didn't have time to help. The man may have been victimized ""but it was his own fault," "he should have been more careful!" As they continued down the road they saw only their own interest, only what made no demands on them. Religion was a way to protect them from seeing God in others. The victim however saw God present in the Samaritan who helped him, for the man's compassion made God's presence evident. The Samaritan saw God present in this poor and beaten man, "the least of his brothers." Faith that did not find expression in compassionate action was only a lifeless show. The faith of the Samaritan, which was realized in compassionate action for the man who was victimized, brought life to the Samaritan and the victim.

Once the scales fall from his eyes however, and he begins to see "with God's eyes", it is impossible not to seek the welfare of others. The Gospel story of the Last Judgment, when Jesus gives salvation and condemnation based on what one has done for the least of one's brothers, is not a pious image. It is a clear statement of a fundamental reality. To find God we must look deep within our hearts in prayer. We will find however, that the God we find leads us to care for those around us.

The fourth chapter of the First Letter of John, verses seven through 12, speaks about love as one of our basic purposes as human beings. Knowledge assists us to encounter the Truth, who we discover is not some abstract principle but a person, Jesus Christ. An encounter with the Truth is not simply a nodding acquaintance. We are drawn into a relationship that engages us totally. We find that God is present in that relationship and in all of the human relationships we enter into where love is present, for according to John, God is love.

The fact that love is a person, Jesus Christ, and not just an abstract concept, means that love is experienced individually. If you say the word love, many people have an idea of what you mean. However, to really know what love is, a person must experience love in relationship with another. Love is not something that can be experienced with large and anonymous groups of people. It is realized in the relationship of two human beings. We love individual human beings in relationships in particular situations.

Our relationship with God is experienced in this personal encounter as well. Our relationship with God is a personal relationship. God is not some impersonal force, like gravity. God is a person who we encounter and with whom we can experience love. Our relationship with God is experienced not only in our spirituality but in our human relationships where God is drawn into that relationship.

Sometime during this century we lost sight of God. He seems to have gotten lost in clutter of our lives. Television, jobs, investments, social obligations, cars, travel, multiple marriages, affairs, and dozens of other distractions occupy every moment of our waking lives. God has become a pleasant memory from our childhood, a mystic force of little relevance to our lives. The personal experience of God has been lost. As our encounter with God has become a rarity, so our ability to love has decreased proportionately.

The image of love we see portrayed is, at best, two people finding comfort and pleasure in each other's arms. At worst that image is one person viewing another as an object to be desired and possessed. Relationships become games in which people stalk one another until they are able to gain possession of the other. When the goal is attained the game is over, interest is lost, and the game begins again with another set of players.

Love is not an act of taking in or possessing some person or object. It is a going out. It is a giving of ourselves to another. This is the love Christ speaks of when he says that there is no greater love than this, that one would lay down his life for another.

One has a right to expect fidelity when love is present because there is a true giving of oneself to one's beloved. Such fidelity is the fruit and proof of the presence of love in the relationship. Fidelity is freely given. Where jealousy and possessiveness mark the relationship, the presence of love is in question. Jealously and possessiveness are characteristic of taking rather than giving.

Sexual love is a glorious expression of divine love in men and women. An entire book of the Bible is dedicated to it, as a metaphor of our encounter with God. It is an expression of the divine love that draws us into God's act of creation, bringing forth new life.

Yet, love is not limited to sex. Love is active and powerful in friendships and in family ties. The love of a parent for his or her child is a sharing in God's sustaining love for us, his children. The love of two friends is the experience of the strengthening love with which God supports us. The compassion that moves our heart to help a stranger in need is a sharing in God's love for each of us, a love that opens our eyes to the common humanity that unites all of us.

If love is not presented as sex, then its most common form is a vague sentimentality. We are subjected to some cues that are meant to trigger warm fuzzy emotions. A few tears leak from our eyes and we assume that is love. Love is not weak. Love is not sentimentality.

While love is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it is also the most demanding of the virtues. It is a choice that demands self-discipline. Discipline is necessary because the giving of oneself to another, with the trust and fidelity that it demands is contrary to our fallen human nature and we rebel.

It is for this reason that any relationship that endures and is characterized by love is one that is worked at. A loving marriage is the result of a great deal of work and discipline. A good child-parent relationship just doesn't happen, it is a habit that is strengthened over time. A friendship that endures the years is one that is characterized by forgiveness and reconciliation. Our developing relationship with God is one that is characterized by the loving discipline of prayer and the commandments, and given special expression our human relationships.

My father taught me about God. We didn't speak about God that often. Mom was more expressive than dad on religious topics. Dad spoke through his action.

When I was a little kid dad would take me with him to the Catholic orphanage in the city where we lived. His union sponsored a recreation program for the kids each week and he was the one in charge. When I was older we did the same thing for the kids in detention at the local equivalent of DYS.

Dad taught me to respect everyone and to look down on no one. One guaranteed way of earning one of the relatively few spankings I got from my father was to repeat a racial or ethnic slur I picked up from classmates. Our home was open to everyone. His friends were of every race and every ethnic heritage. He served on the County Human Rights Commission for years, trying to build bridges between the communities in our city that were being ripped apart by suspicion and fear.

There were times when mom and dad had troubles with their marriage. It wasn't easy for them. It is not easy for anyone to make a good marriage. They tried though and never gave up. They got through their difficulties. They celebrated their fortieth anniversary about a year before mom died.

My father taught me many important things. Dad taught me that a man never hits a woman. He taught me that a man always keeps his word. He taught me that a man honors his duties and carries them to completion. Dad taught me that a man helps those in need. He taught me that honest emotion is manly; pity the man who has no depth or passion in his heart. He taught me that there are priorities in life and that family is a top priority. Dad taught me never to give up and to walk on even when grief and pain weighs you down

There were times when I felt overwhelmed by responsibility and difficulties. Dad may not have been able to give me useful advice in all those situations but he was there for me. His hand on my shoulder gave me more support and encouragement than any words could have.

Dad was the chairman of the social services committee of his union. He held that position for the last thirty years of his life, even after he retired. It meant that once a week he would go to the union hall and do everything from handle intake interviews, to do case work, to oversee the work of the other committee members. Providing this direct assistance to people was important to him.

One Wednesday in March two years ago, he spent the day doing case work like he did every Wednesday. He stopped at the store to pick up some frozen lasagna and cookies. Then he went home, ate, did the dishes, watched some television, took a shower, went to bed, and died.

Alwayseven the last day of his lifemake your life count for something. Be of service. Try to make this place better, the lives of those you meet a bit happier.

When my son was still a newborn, I remember holding him in my arms one day and being overwhelmed with the knowledge that I was being held in the arms of God. The paternal love I felt for my son was an echo of the powerful love that God had for me and for that baby. I understood what it meant to be a father with that experience and I began to grasp the Fatherhood of God. I could understand God as Father so easily because God revealed himself to me daily in the person of my own father. As I raise my children, I try to be a father to them as I have experienced God's fatherhood in my life. The funny thing is that at times I see myself echoing my father.

Much of my adult life has been spent working, directly or indirectly, with young people whose lives are troubled. So many of those youngsters suffer because they lack a father in their lives or the father they do have is so damaged that he is incapable of being a father to anyone.

For those of us who have been given the grace of being fathers, there is nothing more important for us to do than to be the fathers our children need. Of course, this also involves being the husbands we have vowed to be before God and our wives.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.