Attentiveness to the person

The other day, I learned about this interesting section in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Gifts to the Poor 7:3) concerning charity which says:

One is commanded to give to a poor person according to what he lacks. If he has no clothes, they clothe him. If he has no utensils for a house, they buy [them] for him. If he does not have a wife, they arrange a marriage for him. If [the poor person] is a woman, they arrange a husband for marriage for her. Even if it was the custom of [a person who was rich but is now] a poor person to ride on a horse with a servant running in front of him, and this is a person who fell from his station, they buy him a horse to ride upon and a servant to run in front of him, as it is said, (Deut. 15:8) Sufficient for whatever he needs. You are commanded to fill whatever he lacks, but you are not commanded to make him wealthy.

My professor, in remarking upon this passage, noted the two-fold dimensions to charity being discussed here.

First, there is the idea that giving charity involves restoring the person in need to their proper dignity.

Secondly, and perhaps more beautifully, there is the implicit virtue that this demands of showing real attentiveness to the person.

In order to perceive that a person is lacking in some respect, it is necessary to be familiar with their ordinary standard of living.

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“Angry enough to die”

In today’s reading, the prophet Jonah became so frustrated with God for not carrying out the evil He’d threatened against Nineveh that Jonah said, “I would be better off dead than alive.”

Then, when God asked Jonah if he had reason to be angry, Jonah responded with pathos, “I have reason to be angry. Angry enough to die.”

Recently, I met up with a friend who I hadn’t seen for quite some time. We were having one of those conversations that immediately cuts to the heart.

“What have you wrestled with God over lately?” my friend asked, as though this were a casual question friends discuss after years apart. “What has caused you even to be angry with Him?”

The deepest friendships and the deepest relationships admit such pathos and consternation.

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The Shelter of Wounds

Recently a friend of mine said something to me that was an epiphany. She reflected, “I don’t know anything about suffering being redemptive without others’ suffering being open to me.”

This immediately struck a chord and resonated within me profoundly.

Sometimes we need a friend to speak the truths we’ve known all along with the credibility of living witness.

In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI explains the way in which suffering that is shared becomes transformed:

Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers, means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. The Latin word con-solatio, “consolation”, expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude. 

Something else that comes to mind in thinking about this is the line from the Anima Christi prayer which says: “Within your wounds hide me.”

What is it to be hidden within another’s wounds?

How can a loved one’s wounds actually be a shelter for us?

Have we considered the ways in which a wound creates the actual space for greater openness and depth?

Without attempting to justify any evil, hurt, or injustice, how can revealing our woundedness to others create the hospitality in us for others in their woundedness such that “suffering is penetrated by the light of love”?

The Practice of the Presence of Persons

There is a short spiritual classic by Brother Lawrence titled, The Practice of the Presence of God in which the 80-year-old author exhorts his 64-year-old correspondent to live and die in the presence of God.

This letter says:

I pity you much. It will be of great importance if you can leave the care of your affairs to, and spend the remainder of your life only in worshipping God. He requires no great matters of us; a little remembrance of Him from time to time, a little adoration: sometimes to pray for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, and sometimes to return Him thanks for the favours He has given you, and still gives you, in the midst of your troubles, and to console yourself with Him the oftenest you can. Lift up your heart to Him, sometimes even at your meals, and when you are in company: the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to Him. You need not cry very loud; He is nearer to us than we are aware of. It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church; we may make an oratory of our heart, wherein to retire from time to time, to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love. Every one is capable of such familiar conversation with God, some more, some less: He knows what we can do. Let us begin then; perhaps He expects but one generous resolution on our part. Have courage. We have but little time to live; you are near sixty-four, and I am almost eighty. Let us live and die with God: sufferings will be sweet and pleasant to us, while we are with Him: and the greatest pleasures will be, without Him, a cruel punishment to us. May He be blessed for all. Amen. Use yourself then by degrees thus to worship Him, to beg His grace, to offer Him your heart from time to time, in the midst of your business, even every moment if you can. Do not always scrupulously confine yourself to certain rules, or particular forms of devotion; but act with a general confidence in God, with love and humility. You may assure – of my poor prayers, and that I am their servant, and yours particularly.

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The Day I Almost Died in the West Bank

Since today is the three-year anniversary of a near-death experience of mine, I thought I’d blog about the day my friends and I were attacked in the West Bank.

It was a Friday night in Bethlehem when, unlike Jesus, my American friend Ashley and I had managed to find overnight accommodations at an AirBnB there.

The following morning, on July 7, 2018, our Palestinian Christian friend Khalil came to pick us up, greeting us with the cappuccinos he’d brought for us.

Next we picked up my Canadian friend Amy and set off on our West Bank adventure. I remember we said a quick prayer for our trip.

The first place we visited was the Shrine of Our Lady of the Garden at Artas. “Tour groups almost never come here and it isn’t really a tourist site,” Khalil told us. “But this is my favourite place in Bethlehem and the most beautiful.”

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Can the old and young be friends?

Here is a short piece I wrote a few ago on the value of and the possibility for intergenerational friendships.

During the Year of the Family, Pope Francis devoted one of his Wednesday addresses to the elderly and another one to grandparents. He thinks that part of the culture of death is a poverty of intergenerational friendships: “How I would like a Church that challenges the throw-away culture with the overflowing joy of a new embrace between young and old!” What are the obstacles to such an embrace? In his Ethics, Aristotle observed that young people tend to seek pleasure in friendships and that the old tend to seek friends for utility, but that good, enduring friendships involve being friends for the other’s own sake. Given the distinct tendencies to which the old and young are prone, can they actually be friends?

Aristotle observed “the old need friends to care for them and support the actions that fail because of weakness” and friendships aimed at useful results tend “to arise especially among older people, since at that age they pursue the advantageous.” Because of their frailty, older people may depend on others to ensure their physical wellbeing and because of their age, they may be especially concerned about conserving their acquisitions. He says, “Among sour people and older people, friendship is found less often, since they are worse-tempered and find less enjoyment in meeting people, so that they lack the features that seem most typical and most productive of friendship. That is why young people become friends quickly, but older people do not, since they do not become friends with people in whom they find no enjoyment—nor do sour people.”

This is coherent with 89-year-old Douglas Walker’s account of life at a retirement home: “Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.”

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“All My Friends Are Dead.”

Never underestimate how much it can delight an author to hear from an appreciative reader.

On this date five years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the author of a book I really enjoyed.

It was the day after I had attended the 2016 Templeton Prize Ceremony honouring Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks when I set off to Oxford to meet the author of a biography of another Templeton Prize winner, Cecily Saunders.

Saunders’ biographer Shirley du Boulay was in her early 80s. She had received my handwritten letter of approximately eight pages praising her for her beautiful biography of the founder of the modern hospice and palliative care movement in the U.K. and eventually sent me an email in reply.

Naturally, I was thrilled when she invited me to her Oxford home for tea should I ever be passing through.

I took a cab from the Oxford bus station to her address and arrived just before 1 o’clock.

I rang the bell and, a moment later, she answered.

As I followed her inside, she hurriedly began to prepare a light lunch even though I’d insisted on only coming for tea.

The table was set in a lovely manner and there was a bottle of rosé, meats, potato salad, green salad, bread, and butter.

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The Sweetness of a Short Life

Today my friend Max told me the story of a turning point in his life.

It was summer vacation and he was a seventeen-year-old teaching English in Spain at a camp for boys.

During the camp, he came across this prayer card with a short description of Venerable Montse Grases, a young woman who “knew how to find God in the loving fulfillment of her work and study duties, in the small things of each day.”

Montse had been diagnosed with bone cancer as a teenager and, “throughout her illness, she never lost her infectious cheerfulness or her capacity for friendship.”

Max was totally struck by the fact that Montse died when she was 17 – the same age he was then.

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“I should be dead, so what’s the worst that can happen?”

Recently, I spoke with Ottawa resident Darryl Sequeira about his near-death experience fifteen years ago.

In September 2005, Darryl was a 20-year-old university student in Saint John, New Brunswick.

He got drunk at a party one night and was passed out in the back seat of the car of a friend’s friend.

Unbeknownst to Darryl, the driver was also drunk and so, “It was the wrong car to fall asleep in.”

When the drunk driver crashed, the driver broke both his legs, the front seat passenger broke his right arm, the guy to Darryl’s left broke his left arm and the guy to Darryl’s right managed to get just a few cuts and bruises.

Because Darryl had been the only one asleep in the vehicle, he suffered the worst consequences. The car flipped over three times and he flew forward.

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Where are your wounds?

Thanks to a dear friend of mine who recommended this fantastic episode of The Rubin Report in which David Rubin speaks with Bishop Robert Barron and Rabbi David Wolpe about what Easter and Passover teach us about freedom and hope.

I am equally recommending the episode and could not be more impressed by the quality of Jewish-Catholic relations presented in this cordial and substantive conversation.

In the course of the discussion, Rabbi Wolpe says, “This South African author, Alan Paton, has a beautiful scene in one of his novels about a guy who goes to heaven and he comes before God and God says, ‘Where are your wounds?’ And he says, ‘I don’t have any wounds.’ And God says, ‘Why? Was there nothing worth fighting for?'”

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