“As members of one and the same mystical body of Christ, Christians are bound to one another and must bear one another’s burdens.”—Pope Francis
Bearing the burdens of another in a community is a difficult thing, particularly if those burdens come in the form of grief, shame, or exclusion; yet as St. Paul tells is in Galatians 6:2, sharing burdens fulfills the law of Christ—or in other words, it enables us to become Christ-like. Jesus “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at” and instead came to share the burden of human existence in humble solidarity with us, not even shrinking from death and from “being made sin” for the salvation of sinners. He was “reckoned among the ungodly” and took our curse upon himself; “cursed is every one that hangs upon a tree.” Jesus presented himself to be baptized in the Jordan, even though John’s baptism signified repentance of sin; Jesus was sinless, but “got in line” with the sinners nonetheless. This association with sinners continued throughout his life, even though it drew down upon him the ire of the Pharisees. He healed the man with the withered hand, even though the result was a plot against his life. He restored Lazarus to life, though this action precipitated his own execution. Even the subtle details of the Gospels show Christ’s solidarity; in Mark chapter 1, he heals a leper, a man whose disease caused exclusion from the community. Now the leper was able to reenter the town . . . and the result was that Christ was unable to enter the town himself! In a certain symbolic way, Jesus had exchanged roles with the leper.
The Christian calling to bear burdens can help us during these troubled times in the Church. Today individual Christians are often shamed before the world by the sins of prominent Christians. In the autumn of 2017, I left a traditionalist community in order to gain a greater unity with the Catholic Church. The group I belonged to wasn’t formally schismatic, but fostered an extremely separatist, schismatic mentality. I rejoiced to suddenly find fellowship with so many fellow Catholics from whom I would have previously held aloof; I rejoiced to find myself truly united with a local church under a local bishop, unhampered by a sense of superiority or grievance. Then the scandals broke in the summer of 2018, and I saw the other side of the coin; I was grieved and mortified to the depth of my soul, not only by the crimes and cover-ups and the resulting divisions in the Church, but by the fact that I was in some way associated with all this rot. I felt deceived; I’d given up my insular world of traditionalism for the wider Church, and this was what I got! Then it dawned on me that if I’d remained a traditionalist, I wouldn’t have been feeling this hurt; I would have merely shrugged, or even worse felt a certain satisfaction, shaking my head knowingly over the corruption of the Church. The fact that a wound inflicted on the Church hurt me was a sign that I was “connected”, that I was alive in Christ by being alive to my fellow Christians; the traditionalist numbness of heart had thawed, and I could feel again; and as anybody knows, the thawing of chilled fingers is an unpleasant sensation!
There is a great temptation to freeze and harden our hearts against all the betrayal and malice in the world, but that is not the way of Christ, who loved those who hated him and died for us “while we were yet enemies”. A solidarity with others in and through Christ will lead to a sharing in his suffering. Hardness of heart was not the way of the saints. St. Paul tells us that in addition to all his physical hardships, he feels “the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.” He goes on to say “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” In fact, this sharing of burdens may, in a certain sense, be the purpose having an institutional Church; if we were each alone before God, we might be able to fool ourselves into thinking that we were doing just fine, and didn’t have to “account for” all these other people, might be able to imagine that we weren’t our brother’s keeper.
Even harder than bearing one another’s burdens, but just as essential, is letting others carry our burdens. Our culture tells us to be self-reliant; even if we’re in the depths of despair, we respond to the question “How are you?” with a casual “OK”. We’re embarrassed if others find out that we are suffering financial difficulties, and don’t want to “be a bother”. Compassion, after all, means “suffering with,” so if we receive compassion, we’ve caused someone pain. There is a lot of pressure on us to just “get over” things so that we don’t “drag everybody down.” We honor the “self-made man” who isn’t reliant on others, is always “OK.” In the Christian life, however, being able to receive is even more important than being able to give; it is more connected to humility. We’re all weak and helpless before God, and receive everything from him as a free gift. That’s why the message of Christ is to the poor and the weak, not the rich and strong; the rich can become contented in their wealth and feel self-sufficient. Wealth doesn’t mean just a large bank account; anything we have, such as skills, knowledge, even virtues, can become an obstacle to humble dependence on God. In one sense, the repentant thief who asked Jesus to remember him is the archetypal Christian; a man who knew his own total failure, but was willing to ask for mercy. As C. S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce, none of us will get our “rights;” we’ll get something much better than that!
In this, as in sharing the burden of others, Christ is again our exemplar. As God, he was all-powerful, yet he accepted service from others; from the beginning of life when he received care and teaching and nurture from Mary and Joseph, to the end of his life when he was strengthened by an angel, required assistance to carry the cross to Calvary, and was buried in another man’s tomb.
These virtues, so necessary in living the Christian life, are even more necessary in building Christian community. In our last podcast, Aaron Pott spoke movingly about how humbling it is to have the burden of his family borne by other community members, and about how in the close proximity of community life, he is unable to wear a “good Christian mask” in order to hide his weaknesses. The sharing and bearing of burdens that community necessitates is certainly difficult and painful at times, and I’ve often failed to properly carry the shared burdens of others. Perhaps that is one of the key values of community life; it helps to show us our weaknesses, but it also helps us to encounter the unconditional love of God through the love of community members who are willing to receive us as we are, burdens and all.
In podcast episode 6, we discussed the danger of agendas; we always have to be doing something for some reason, to produce some result. Father Simon Tugwell, in his book The Beatitudes, observes that we’ve become suspicious about doing things simply because they’re enjoyable or because we want to do them. He points out that we come up with pseudo-justifications: taking walks for “exercise,” or riding a motorcycle “for the experience,” or having tea with someone “in case he wants to talk.” Worst of all, he says, we “go all solemn and declare something to be ‘important’.” (I think this dynamic is particularly prevalent in aesthetic matters; it sometimes seems we can’t just enjoy a particular style of art or music without claiming it to be the only “proper” style, to be defended at all costs against imaginary barbarians.) Fr. Simon goes on to explain that in one sense, God doesn’t have “a purpose” for what he does; he “is his own purpose”!
Why do we have this inability to relax, this need to feel “busy” and “important”? Perhaps it is that we are uncertain of our value before God, or even before ourselves. We may say that we are pro-life, and that a feeble child with Down’s Syndrome is just as valuable as the most brilliant scholar or powerful ruler, but when it comes to valuing our own lives, we are not so sure; we feel that we have to do something to earn God’s love and validate our own worth.
The reality, however, is that we are feeble, inconsequential, and precisely because of this, God loves us tenderly, no matter what our mistakes and failings may be. A few years ago, a transitional deacon preaching at our parish told the story of his visit to “Purgatory Island” in Northwestern Ireland, spending three days barefoot and fasting, praying constantly, in a harsh environment. On his last evening, he stood looking out over the ocean and presenting himself and all his spiritual exercises to God. And all God said was, “I like your smile!” He came to understand that God wasn’t impressed by all the heroics, but instead that God loved him for himself, for who he was.
These two themes, the danger of agendas and the unmerited quality of God’s love, are beautifully brought together in a short story by J. R. R. Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle. Niggle is a little man, an artist who has a vast project underway; a great picture of a tree in a landscape. The painting becomes the lens through which he comes to view both his own identity and that of others; in particular, his burdensome neighbor becomes a mere obstacle to the completion of his painting. And yet as the story unfolds, he comes to realize both the relative unimportance of his plans and dreams, and the great and merciful love of One who “knows we are but clay”, and yet gives us more than we could ever dream. In the final analysis, Niggle “was never supposed to be very much, anyway” but his very insignificance was transformed into beatitude by the mercy of God.
Leaf by Niggle is both a beautiful meditation on the true meaning of life and a cautionary tale, warning us against measuring our own worth, or the worth of others, against our self-imposed agendas. The warning is particularly critical for those of us with a “mission” for cultural renewal or evangelization or Christian community building. Our projects and imposed agendas can become self-defeating, dividing us from reality and from the true meaning of things. We can come to see others not as splendid, unique beings made in the image of God, but as mere allies or enemies of our projects. We can become proselytizers rather than evangelizers, always trying to advance our ultimately petty projects instead of bringing the “good news” of God’s love to others. The time we “waste” with friends or with God is the truly important time. Every useful activity is for the sake of the “useless”: for rest, for leisure, ultimately for beatitude. What, after all, is the purpose of happiness? In the end, all projects, ideologies, “purposes” will pass away; there are no purposes in Heaven.
Photo by Andreas F. Borchert / CC BY 4.0