One of the most poignant memories I have of my mother’s funeral was the gesture that my father spontaneously enacted on the occasion. During the Lord’s Prayer he simply stood out from the pew and went and stood with his hands on my mother’s coffin and prayed the Our Father for the last time together with her. It was a beautiful gesture reflecting their very long partnership of over 61 years.
My parents enjoyed a long partnership. But at the same time their partnership had not been without its difficulties. In fact, for many years I think it was, for different reasons, no small struggle. Indeed, some of my own earliest memories were of that struggle. And so as beautiful as those moments at the end of their time together were, and as tender as Dad’s care of Mum was in her final years, I have never idealised their love for one another. I think my parents taught me both the profound joy that love is, and also that love can be painfully hard.
It is not easy for us to love. We know that without love we whither. It is the oxygen by which we discover ourselves and grow. And yet we are all too conscious that our attempts at love are often flawed. We stumble and we fail. Though we desperately long to love and to be loved we know that so much gets in the way to frustrate our desires. Patterns of fear and neediness seep in, and subvert our longing or overwhelm our intentions. We suffer from a myriad of complexes and addictions that often make us, and others, difficult to live with. We struggle to communicate with each other in the way by which we would truly want to. We look for love, and the satisfaction of our needs, in all manner of places, and some of them not always the healthiest. And in all of this we are forced by experience to recognise all our ambiguity and contradictions. Love is a wonderful ideal, but not one of us does not stumble along more or less, as we seek to realise it in our lives. And all of this makes our relationships never simple. We fail one another, we misunderstand each other, we disappoint ourselves and those whom we seek to love. Indeed, it is precisely in our relationships where we are confronted with the incontrovertible reality of original sin: that we are a curious mixture of both light and darkness, caught between a drive for wholeness and yet ever the possibility of fragmentation. There is not one of us who is not flawed. Each of us carries a kind of wound that simply complicates life and love.
As the community of disciples of the Risen Christ we, as the Church, have a very, very long tradition of understanding about the nature of the human person, sexuality, and marriage –centuries of reflection.
How do we hold the magnificent truth we enjoy and at the same time attend to where people struggle and even suffer.
It is no easy thing to do both of these things together: to be both faithful to our Tradition and to attend to peoples’ experience, and not to use one to cancel out the other. Pope Francis is very aware of this. As he once remarked, we have to work our way through two temptations:
“One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous . . .
And secondly, the temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful . . .
But this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.”
And in so doing we will take into our hearts the gospel today, and its clarion call to learn how to love truly, just as my own mother and father have taught me not only through their moments of delight but equally through their moments of agony.
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