“The way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” 1 John 3:16 NABRE
Can you think of a time when you were in a position directly choosing between your own comfort, agendas or even health in favor of helping another? I am met with at least one of these opportunities every day, and I have become increasingly aware of them.
The idea of sacrificial love has come up a lot lately. The many tasks and goals that I’ve set for myself in the last month have brought me up against my limitations and sometimes brought me to complete exhaustion and pain. In these trying moments there have been times where my wife has wanted or needed me to continue to sacrifice, so that together we can complete tasks from weddings, PhDs, moving or even to provide her the emotional support she needs. Daily, I am faced with instances where I must consciously choose the good of another in direct contradiction to my own good. Sometimes I choose the other, sometimes I choose the self. I feel that I do choose the other often and as I become aware of each act of sacrificial, self-denying love I feel greater fulfillment and I am encouraged toward a love greater still.
I was slow to realize the virtue of self-sacrifice and in fact, one of the biggest challenges for people in our over-engaged, over-stimulated world is learning how and when to say no to people asking for our attention. The ability to say no is a necessary skill and in our culture of endless opportunities, it is important to understand our limits and manage our commitments; only then can we maintain a sustained engagement in our life’s primary direction or vocation. This constant demand on our attention and resources can be met with an over-reaction, leading people to retreat into themselves and prioritize their own needs and wants over others. The problem with this type of reaction is that we begin to start looking at people in terms of what they can do for us, or how they can return favors. However, it has become clear to me from the continued practice of the Catholic faith that love, and indeed a sacrificial love, is the greatest fulfillment our lives. In fact, in all things we are striving to emulate the love of Christ, a perfect and self-giving love. As S.t John reminded us, Christ became the example of love through surrender and self-sacrifice, redeeming all of humanity as a suffering servant.
I can think of a few examples in my own life when I was confronted with this choice for sacrificial love, but there are two that stand out in my mind. In 2006, I had been working as a missionary on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. While I encountered many different people in great need of food, housing and any comfort they could get, there was one woman that I will never forget. At this time in my life, I had become accustomed to pre-packaged answers to common questions and habitual prayers that were safe to say in public, and even during my time as a missionary, I managed to stay relatively secure within my comfort zone, building hogons for a homeless family on the reservation, and watching after the children during Sunday services. In short, I was complacent. While counseling and feeding the homeless displaced Navajo on the streets of Winslow, AZ, a woman reached out and grabbed my hand, explained to me that all of her family had passed, leaving her alone, homeless and hungry. She pleaded with me to pray for her, a genuine plea for help. In this moment any material and intellectual assets I thought I had, dissolved away and I was put in a position where it was necessary to live out my faith in an unexpected and uncomfortable way. I had endeavored to cultivate leadership qualities. From my time in the Air Force, fraternity life, student government and countless other mentorship opportunities, I had tried to serve others. However, in this moment the inadequacy of serving people’s physical needs became undeniably clear. With such an authentic need, I wanted to help in any way I could and my only recourse was prayer. I was put in a position that exposed my vulnerability in a moment of earnest, heart-felt prayer.
This moment revealed a flaw in my world-view and while I had begun to explore some of the lesser developed dimensions of my character, like emotional or spiritual intelligence, my over-focus on the physical and intellectual had suddenly became stark. In order to serve others and to live out the fundamental call of my faith, it was necessary to seek a holistic development. St. Paul’s words rang in my ears to “be all things to all” (1 cor 9:19-22). I needed to find new deeper ways to empathize with my brother, to understand different perspectives, and to be an instrument that points to the transcendent truth we are all looking for. Sacrificing my own needs and traveling into the desert to serve others, led me to this moment, where all of my advanced education and training abandoned me. I turned to God in complete dependence and petitioned him on her account, so I could be what this woman truly needed.
More recently, I was walking home after a day of work in Cambridge. My wife, Sarah, had joined me for an after-work soiree and we were walking home. Since my motorcycle accident two years ago, I have had mobility issues and consistent pain in my knee. I was beginning to feel the fatigue and the resulting strains on my fledgling ACL and was resolute to maintain my pace and make it home before I degraded into a full-on limp. I had a legitimate concern for my health and when Sarah began to fall behind I encouraged her to pick up the pace and pressed on. Before I realized it, I had left her behind and made it to our house well before she did. Now, she was essentially safe in a well lit and policed public area, but that did not help her feelings of abandonment and exposure. I could have chosen her needs and put her comfort, safety, and emotional well-being before myself, but I didn’t. After a candid and somewhat contentious discussion over the next day or so, I was humbled, and the choice I had been presented with became more clear. I was faced with this issue, choose the self or chose the other and I had chose myself. While it was perhaps understandable and even rational, I missed an opportunity to grow in a new way as yet unseen.
This happens everytime we walk by someone who is clearly in need and they ask for help. Does it make you uncomfortable? What is the right response? What should we aspire to? Inspired by the teaching of Jesus in Matt 25 and the Church’s subsequent articulation in the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy we are shown acts of charity that help fulfill our neighbor’s bodily and spiritual needs. James 1 says that “pure” religion is “caring for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Ultimately, we should pay more attention to these opportunities to practice sacrificial love and put others before ourselves. These continued acts of self-sacrifice is how we unite with God’s purpose and answer St. Paul’s exhortation:
“I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” Rom 12:1-2 NABRE