In this episode, Malcolm and Peter Land continue discussing the first chapter (and some themes from the second chapter) of Let Us Dream by Pope Francis. This is the third part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here and the second episode is here. The following are some of the points we discussed.
According to Pope Francis, we face a pervasive “virus” of indifference. He says:
We see it in the story of the poor man Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel. The rich man was his neighbor; he knew perfectly well who Lazarus was—even his name. But he was indifferent, he didn’t care. To the rich man, Lazarus’s misfortune was his own affair . . . He knew Lazarus’s life but didn’t let it affect him. . . . Hence people judge situations without empathy, without any ability to walk for a time in the other’s shoes.
Here in Italy you often hear people say che me ne frega when you have a problem. It means “So what? What’s it got to do with me?” In Argentina we say: y a mi que? They’re little words that reveal a mindset. Some Italians claim you need a healthy dose of menefreghismo—”so-whatism”—to get through life, because if you start worrying about what you see, how are you ever going go relax? This attitude ends up armor-plating the soul: that is, indifference bulletproofs it, so that certain things just bounce off. One of the dangers of this indifference is that it can become normal, silently seeping into our lifestyles and value judgements. We cannot get use to indifference.
The attitude of the Lord is completely different, at the opposite pole. God is never indifferent. The essence of God is mercy, which is not just seeing and being moved but responding with action.
We are all tempted to avoid seeing or hearing about things that make us uncomfortable. Often times, we don’t want to hear about the poor, because then we might realize we are required to care for them. This is an ancient problem in the Church. The Shepherd of Hermas, written in the first half of the second century, discusses the rich who hold back from joining the Church for fear of being asked to help the poor! We have to resist this temptation, have to widen our gaze and be affected by the struggles of others.
This willingness to see has to come before we make changes. Otherwise, we’ll end up seeing other just as problems, and impose our own solutions on them. To avoid this, we need to break out of our own perspectives.
Indifference not only blocks out the people around us; it also blocks out the movement of the Holy spirit. The Spirit of God is always attentive, always responds to us in a relational way. We need to imitate this openness so that we can see the new things God is trying to do. Indifference cuts off this possibility.
Showing Mercy to Others
We are supposed to be showing God’s mercy to others. By reflecting on our own failures, we will realize how indebted we are to God’s mercy. Everything we have is a grace from God; we aren’t inherently better than others. If we’re virtuous, this may simply be the result of a better background and other unearned gifts. This perspective makes it easier to show mercy to others.
It can be difficult to be attentive, particularly in the modern world. As I pointed out in a recent essay, the evil in us tends to resist “re-collection”.
One practice that can help to build attention is to go for a walk without an agenda, merely to experience the surrounding reality. By turning off the constant stream of mental “commentary” and experiencing things for themselves, we’ll develop the skills we need to pay attention to God and to our neighbors.
This matches the advice given by a Desert Father to a young monk who was having spiritual difficulties and wanted to know if he should pray special prayers or perform other spiritual exercises. Instead, the young monk was told to just sit quietly in his cell, eat when he was hungry, drink when he was thirsty, and sleep when he was tired. This was supposed to help him get back into touch with reality, with life stripped down to the basics. We’re dependent beings, and we need to realize this.
The media can help us to be in touch with reality . . . or it can keep us away from reality. Media platforms can become performative, catering to the prejudices of listeners, profiting off division and distortion. Such platforms can make it impossible for us to have the perception of reality that Pope Francis calls for.
When dealing with media, it is important to avoid platforms which take a polarizing stance. A media outlet which takes as given that there is only one answer to every question and that all opponents are evil or stupid is unlikely to be a good guide.
Searching for source documents is also important. Even if reporters and journalists aren’t intentionally spinning a narrative, quotes and summaries can only get one so far. If a document or book or speech is under discussion, reading it for oneself can be very clarifying.
Even more importantly, we have to deeply experience reality. In this way, we can become “media” for others. If we become truly quiet and attentive, and so get in touch with the reality of things, we can then become an ambassador of truth for others. We can act like the Apostles, who had a deep experience and knowledge of Jesus Christ and then went forth to proclaim his Gospel to the world.
Discernment is a key theme throughout Let Us Dream. We’ll be discussing it in more depth in upcoming episodes.
One of the prerequisites for discernment is the awareness that one does not have all the answers. We have to begin by asking questions, both about the situation and about what God wants us to do in the situation.
We can’t be quick to jump to an answer or reject a particular way of thought. Polarization is superficially attractive, but the Catholic way is often the “both/and”. We see this “both/and” solution being applied to many of the most famous disagreements in Christian history; Jesus is both God and Man, we need both Faith and Works, we revere both the Bible and Tradition, we value both celibacy and marriage. We have to hold divergent perspectives together in charity.
Peter Land discussed experiencing this in his own life. At college, he found that the students were more or less divided into “conservative” and “liberal” groups, and each group attended different events and listened to different speakers. He found that by attending a wider range of events and speaking with a wider range of people, he could come to a deeper understanding.
Starting with Small Things
We have to start with little things, little habits that we need to break or change. Peter gave a good example. He discussed learning to clean up after himself when he was living at college; that change of attitude helped to produce a change in the overall culture of his college dorm, making it more responsible and charitable.
Discernment should be started there, in the small things. Focusing on the big things can be counterproductive; big things grow from small things.
Trust in God
Trust in God is vital to true discernment. We’re inadequate to the task, and yet called to it. That’s why Pope Francis calls us to realize that we don’t have all the answers. We have to trust in the Lord to open doors that we don’t even know are there.
We have to be willing to be led into the void, onto the water, into a foreign land like Abraham was. We’re called in this time to create new ways for the future, by being open to God’s grace.
St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use
In Simone Weil’s beautiful essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”, she explains that prayer is simply the turning of one’s attention to God. It isn’t a busy activity, but rather a peaceful practice of being present before God and attentive to him.
Attentiveness can only be gained through practice. According to Weil, the development of this capacity for attention is the real purpose of school work. Each particular subject has a “useful” purpose, but any subject serves to build the capacity for attention, and this deeper purpose is more important. Even if someone has no natural aptitude for their studies, the attempt to concentrate is still beneficial for building attention.
This means that a student should strive to do the work well (otherwise they would not be truly attentive) but without worrying too much about goals or ends. Instead, they should strive to do each thing for itself and as a preparation for prayer.
Weil explains that every time we pay attention, we “destroy the evil in ourselves.” Evil divides and dissipates. This can be seen in the division between God and humanity, in conflicts between individual human beings, and in the internal battles we each fight against our lower tendencies. By concentrating, we “pull ourselves together”, overcoming the evil impulse to dissipation.
What is Attention?
To pay attention well, we need to know what attention is. Weil writes that attention is a negative effort, the act of holding the mind open in the presence of something. “Jumping” on a concept or idea too quickly is not attention, and can close the mind to the truth. At the same time, we can’t “jump” away from the idea or person before us. Weil describes attention while writing as waiting “for the right word to come of itself at the end of the pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.”
This negative effort of attention is hard for us. We’re very busy, and we want to stay that way: it makes us feel important and protects us from ourselves. We don’t like to be “re-collected” with ourselves and passively present before God in prayer, or before another human being or even an idea. Yet this is what Christ asks us to do. In the Gospel, the servants who were found patiently and attentively waiting are called blessed.
This virtue of attention is necessary for community, and also fostered by it. Weil points out this connection:
“Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”
Community is all about giving others our attention, emptying our souls of self so we can take the other in; so we can, as Weil put it, say to the other “What are you going through?” Without this attention, community becomes soulless and sterile. “Companions” are literally those who share bread with one another; in a more extensive sense, they are those who share their lives, share their attention.
In doing so, we’re imitating Christ, who emptied himself for our sake. Not only will we imitate him, but in imitating him through attention we will truly find him. It does not matter what we are doing, whether studying, working, or serving our neighbor: if we are open and attentive to the things around us, we will find him there before us. For “in him we live and move and have our being”. All things are kept in being by the loving attention of God, so that when we look on anything with love and attention, our gaze meets his.
“Prayer is a surge of the heart, it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”—St. Thérèse of Lisieux