It’s Independence Day: a time to celebrate life and liberty in these United States. We are blessed, even in these strange days, with much of the country under some form of quarantine, protests in our streets and ugly politics blaring from every screen and speaker. God continues to guide us with His providence, though we cannot see His ends.
One of the things I love about the Catholic Church is her defense of meaning. For example, not everyone distinguishes between liberty—freedom to do the good—and license—freedom to do whatever you want. That’s an important distinction with real outcomes for society: A culture that espouses liberty believes in good and evil, and facilitates the good—but a culture that embraces license ultimately finds no common ground, no good to support—so what happens when what I want conflicts with what you want?
Justice means giving another his or her due. Love (or charity) means choosing the good of the other. We hear and use these words a lot these days without thinking about these meanings. In our faith, justice is not a legal concept, but a virtue: a habit to be actively practiced by individual believers. To give another person his due, we must recognize him as a person, understand him, and determine what is owed to him, always keeping in mind that he is made in the image of God, and (if baptized) is a child of God, no less that we are.
Love is similar—an action word we are called by Christ to habitually apply even to our enemies. To choose the good for another, we must recognize her as a person made in God’s image and seek to understand her so we can identify and pursue to the best of our ability what is truly good for her. And to love someone as Jesus does—sacrificially—we must identify and choose the good for her regardless of cost to ourselves, for her sake and God’s glory.
That’s a tall order. How do we even begin?
First, we pursue sympathy. I’m an emotional guy, so it’s easy to sympathize with people (even fictional characters) who are suffering—to recognize their pain and feel sorrow for their experience. Sympathy is real and good, as far as it goes, but it’s largely passive—and real love requires discernment and choice.
Next, we seek to grow in empathy, which is a bit harder: It means entering into the suffering of another and sharing their feelings and experiences. It requires effort to put ourselves in their shoes and see things from their perspective, which may be challenging or unpleasant.
Once we are empathetic people, we can cultivate compassion. Compassion is another word that has been watered down today to mean something like “I feel your pain,” but in truth, its meaning is much deeper and more active. Passion in its original sense means suffering. (Think The Passion of the Christ.) Com-passion, then, means to suffer with (as in com-munion and com-munity).
Compassion goes beyond recognizing or sharing another’s feelings and experiences to actively trying to help. We might begin by suffering for them—undertaking prayer or fasting on their behalf—but if we are loving as God loves, we will be willing to suffer at their side, in communion, as brother and sisters of Christ and members of His Body.
Suffering for another—family, friend, neighbor, stranger or enemy—is a beautiful act of love. But suffering with another—entering into their mess, walking with them, lifting them up, laying down our lives for them—is the height of love.
Jesus could have prayed for us from heaven. He chose to get his hands dirty.
Blogger’s Note: This post was written as a bulletin column the weekend of July 4-5, 2020, at St. Michael Catholic Church.