We all have ideals. Being Catholic gives us a set of ideals inspired by the Gospel. That said, every single day we are faced with all sorts of situations, in our own lives and in life in general, that don’t reflect these ideals or our sense of how the world ought to be — situations that we find challenging, that leave us feeling deflated, and some of which we just avoid thinking about.
As part of the Jesuit-organised Magis programme in Poland this summer I spent a week with children who are used to being avoided. These children had physical and mental disabilities and some of them were orphans too. Our hosts encouraged us to simply accept the children as they were, to give them the love that they longed for, to play with them, to pray with them, and to just be around. It was a very joyful week and we had great fun! Before we left we had a little service in the chapel. With a lump in her throat one of the young residents thanked us for treating them like real people, for seeing beyond their disabilities to the person inside.
I learned an important lesson: there have been times in my life when I have wasted a lot of mental energy comparing life with how I thought it ought to be. I have lived out of the question ‘Is this it?’, a question that contains an implicit judgement and consigns the world to an imbalanced weighing scales. This had an effect on my happiness. When life was as I thought it ought to be, I was happier. When it wasn’t, less so.
That week with the children taught me that we can experience joy not only when we feel that life is as it is meant to be, but also when we consciously accept that life is as it is. Instead of constantly evaluating things and asking “Is this it?”, it is wiser to live with the attitude of “This is it!” This does not mean that we are resigned to a bad situation that will never change. It means that we accept the present situation as an unforeseen point of departure.
Jesus names this attitude towards difficult realities — mercy. In Jesus’ encounter with Peter in the boat (Luke 5), His mercy unfolded in two steps. When Peter blurted out that he was a sinner he also asked Jesus to leave him — “Lord, leave me, I am a sinful man!” He wanted to hide his imperfections and put some distance between himself and God. But despite Peter’s request, Jesus didn’t leave. He didn’t recoil. He didn’t even flinch. He was comfortable. He stayed. This is it.
Jesus’s second move was not to offer a quick fix. He didn’t utter any magic words that would make everything better but said to Peter “I will make you a fisher of men.” He extended an invitation to enter into a process. The rest of the gospel tells how He faithfully accompanied Peter in the journey of becoming the man that he was meant to be — the leader of the early Christian church.
God calls us to accept and faithfully accompany one another through life because it is only under these conditions that our character can continue to develop, our goodness unfold, and our true identity emerge.
I am very grateful to God for being invited into the lives of these Polish children. It was very special.
– Niall Leahy SJ
Photograph: Niall Leahy SJ with MAGIS pilgrims from Ireland at World Youth Day in Krakow.