Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Lemons and Moons, or "How to Love"

When my grief counselor asked me to explain why I felt the loss of my mother so acutely, I couldn't come up with my own language for it.  It was all so natural and obvious to me.  She was my mother! But not everyone has a mother like my mother, I learned, so first we had to define and discuss the relationship, and then we could delve into the ramifications of its earthly end.  My therapist asked me to describe the relationship dynamic in one sentence.  Still, the words would not, could not, be my own.   I gave her an old saying I remembered; maybe it was Chinese--I didn't recall.  But it fit: "My mother gave me the moon; I had asked for a lemon." 

That really was it in a nutshell -- the overgiving, the extra mile, the details of my life and my feelings and my health that never slipped her mind.  Any need I had became a need SHE wanted to see fulfilled, and then some. My mother knew how to talk to me -- never with yelling or impatience -- that makes me simply shut down like a computer in sleep mode -- but always from her heart, and WITH her heart, not with her own expectations of her own needs as an ulterior motive.  

It occurs to one that this is a Christlike love, always based in truth, always exactly what we need exactly when we need it, and always more than we could ever imagine.  So many of us are trudging through life just hoping to leave here with a lemon, and Jesus wants to give us the moon.  

My mother's possessions were increasingly meaningless to her after she reached her late fifties.  If I admired something of hers, a piece of jewelry or a blouse, she'd ask, "You want it?" I would protest, but she would often force it on me.  There was no property line between "hers" and "mine" on her map.  I don't think I could even begin to understand that until I met my husband, and I learned that I could give that kind of love, too, not just revel in receiving it.   Parenthood should bring us there, should be the tutorial on selfless, BIG love.  For most parents I think it is.  For some, sadly, it's not, and selflessness remains a foreign concept and an untried practice. 

The truth is, we Catholics are ALL called to love each other in this way.  And learning THAT is where the sin of presumption crumbles and falls to the ground.  Any thought you have that you are a straight shot to Heaven because of earthly displays of reverence, numbers of Rosaries prayed, adherence to moral laws, observance of holy days, just flies out the window when you ask yourself to answer with brutal and complete candor:  Whom do I love? REALLY love?  My husband and children? A few friends? Siblings? Even the tax collectors and Pharisees do that much! And HOW am I loving them? Conditionally? That is not love--that is loving the way they make me feel, loving what they can do for me and how they can enhance my life. 

Do you offer unconditional love to all your brothers and sisters in Christ?  To every person who bears the Imago Dei? Do you recognize the dignity and the lovableness of every single person around you, every beautiful sacred soul you encounter during your day? How on earth can we achieve this? Maybe we can't on earth, you answer.  This side of Heaven, I'll never love my ex-wife, you say.  I'll never love the men on death row.  I'll never love a member of ISIS. I'll never love an active homosexual, parading around in blatant disobedience to God.  I'll never love an anti-Catholic bigot. Maybe in Heaven I can do that, but not here, not without God perfecting my soul first! But we are called to be perfect, as our Father is perfect.  Can't achieve that with strangers? Okay . . . 

Do you even offer unconditional love to your spouse and children? Your parents? Your siblings and closest friends? How would they answer that question?  Do they feel that your love is unconditional and over the top? Do they feel that your love is spilling over the brim of their cup, showing them the heart of Jesus that YOU embody as a Catholic? 

On my first night of RCIA, I was so ready and eager that I was practically jumping out of my skin.  I had my notebook and pen, my Bible, my Catechism.  We assembled at the long conference table and prayed.  Then, after we all introduced ourselves and gave a little background, Sister began the first "lesson." On a piece of paper, we were to answer the question: "Who is God?" I looked around the table, waiting for the rest of my group to have a reaction.  Who is God?  What kind of question is that? I'm here for the Catholic stuff! I know the basics already! I've read the entire Bible! Twice! Come on, let's get to the saints and the incense and the blood and guts of the theology! I'm ready!

But I wasn't ready.  Sister Ann Marie and Father Tom showed me that in short order.  To undergo "conversion," was not just a matter of signing my name and changing my title. It was about learning what love is.  To correct the errors of Protestantism, we didn't look at a chart showing the differences, what was lopped off after the Reformation, and how many denominations exist today, no--we had to go right to the root.  "Who do you say I am?" Who is God?  You say you want to serve God?  Who is this God you want to serve? Shouldn't you know? Do you know God as well as you know your spouse? The gal you're dating? Your best friend?  Do you understand that "God is love" is not simply a maxim written on posters in Christian schools all over the country?  This is the God, the only God, Being itself.  In fact, I think the statement has more impact in reverse: "Love is God." All good things are God.  All goods are from God and of God.  Any good you see in anyone, even if that person has committed many evil acts, is of God.  There is something of God in that person, and that person automatically gets love from God's followers.  That's the rule.  That's Catholicism.  

So if my neighbor asks me for a lemon, he should get the moon.  It all sounds beautiful, you say, until your neighbor is a hostile fellow who is quite possibly mad and perverted, and you wouldn't hand him a lemon with a ten foot pole over an eight foot fence, no less give him "the moon," whatever that means. Life, lived on the average Tuesday, with its many challenges and cheats, disappointments and drama, seems somehow like an unfair testing ground for this "love" stuff.  It seems more like a battlefield than a lovefest.  Well, that's appropriate, because we are all in a battle, every day of our lives, but it's not a battle against each other, it's a battle FOR each other.  To save souls, not to win against them. To do better by our neighbor, not to do better THAN our neighbor. 

The mistake we make is the mistake I made that first night of RCIA. We want to do what we see as the "big" stuff, the heavy lifting of Catholicism, defending dogma with our super bionic knowledge of Ludwig Ott, chairing five different committees at our parish, or, God forbid, but yes, we have all seen it, looking down on all the right people.  The practice of religion is much more elementary, as God Himself has told us: caring for widows and orphans.  And not just by slipping a check into an envelope.  That's the lemon.  The moon is when you go to your neighbor's mailbox and put an unsigned "thinking of you" card in it, and  a few flowers from your garden. 

Flowers for your enemy? Yes and no. The flowers are for God, and from God.  Give more than you can bear to give -- and you will be refilled over and over again.  

Then ask God for the moon, and see what happens.  Wow.  Get back to me with what He does next, because, my friend, it will be nothing short of miraculous.