Thursday, March 8, 2012

One of Us

This was one of the  morning intercessions listed in Magnificat today:

For those who are rich in the gifts of the heart,
- that they may find blessing by loving those who are unlovable and unloved.

I was struck by the notion of being "rich in the gifts of the heart." What does that mean, exactly? When I was younger, I imagined that I was rich in this way, but I was mistaken about what the gifts of the heart really are. I fancied myself someone who had a limitless capacity to love, especially when it came to the men who interested me, men who tended to be sad, troubled, angry, addicted, oddballs or misfits, or some combination thereof.  Like many other women, I convinced myself that these particular men needed me in particular --  needed my own peculiar "gifts of the heart." I believed I had some sort of solace to offer in my love, something remedial, therapeutic, even redemptive; I even went so far as to believe that my ability to love gave me some sort of power.  I pictured myself wading out into deep waters, saving troubled men with the power of my love, men who would, in gratitude, love me forever in return. Strangely, that never happened.

Nonetheless these men were by no means entirely unlovable, just lonely (though a friend of mine used to caution that lonely guys were lonely for a reason). Still, they were intelligent, and relatively clean. When I ask myself now who is truly unlovable, a parade of images comes rushing into my mind: mentally-ill homeless men and women whom I saw on the subway or the street over many years; barefoot men and women whose feet were toughened and blackened with dirt, or who had improvised plastic grocery bags for shoes; men and women with wild hair and bulging eyes; men and women who stank so badly that they could clear a subway car; men and women I would shrink from. It would take someone rich in the gifts of the heart indeed to love these men and women, these brothers and sisters, these children of the Father. I was not that rich.

Our son Jude, who is coming soon, is a "waiting child." That is, he is in danger of being forgotten and unloved, and he might even be considered unlovable by some, because he has a birth defect.  But there are parents far richer in the gifts of the heart than I could ever be -- parents like self-professed Jesus-lovin' Air Force wife Sonia.

When I read the petitions in Magnificat today, what came to my mind, in addition to homeless men and women, was the cult-classic horror film Freaks. Freaks was made in 1932, before the Hays code began to be strictly enforced in Hollywood, and I'm quite sure it could never get made even today -- perhaps especially not today. It's the story of a circus troupe -- compellingly acted by a cast of actual sideshow performers with a variety of disabilities and deformities -- and its moral is that these "freaks" are more loving, more human, than the attractive, able-bodied strong-man and trapeze artist who are having an affair, and who plot to destroy their disabled colleagues. "One of us" is the motto of the freaks, who accept the trapeze artist as one of their own, in spite of the fact that she is an outsider who knows nothing of their own culture of mutual aid and kindness and who seeks to exploit it (this motto comes again at the end of the film with a chilling twist -- if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it).

"One of Us" is also the name of a song by the little-known American composer Theodore Chanler, the last number in a song cycle called The Children, in which Chanler set poems by, of all people, Leonard Feeney, S.J.  I could not find any Youtube videos of this song, but here is the text:
Husbands and wives!
Are we not your little lives?

Fathers and mothers!
Who but we will be your others?

Why do you fear us, freeze us out of your heart?
One of us was Jesus;
He played our part,
In His little manger,
Smiling in His smallness,
To protect us from the danger
Of nothing-at-all-ness.

One of us was God.
Has this not been told abroad,
To some by song,
To some by star?
Then when will we be known
For what we are? 

I have heard this song performed several times by my friend and colleague Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, a gorgeous soprano and a scholar of music and disability studies. Fr. Feeney, who must have written the poem in the 1940s, was most likely referring to contraception, but Stephanie has noted that it also speaks eloquently to the question of who has the right to live. 

Since we can all accept that everyone has the right to live -- even the most disabled, the most deformed, the most likely to suffer, the most likely to cause suffering, the most likely to invoke horror, the most likely to die -- may we all become rich in the gifts of the heart. These gifts, like all of what Amy Welborn calls "gifts 'n talents," must be disciplined, and this is the hard thing. Love should be prodigious rather than prodigal. We must not be reckless in love; we must learn to love in the right way, that is, to love steadily rather than wildly, and with quiet force rather than frenzied ebb-and-flow. If everyone has the right to live, then we must not just accept that right in theory; we must somehow find a way to love everyone, even the unloved and the unlovable. I'm pretty sure that to do so is what differentiates Christians from pagans. 

As Father Zossima says in The Brothers Karamazov:

Brothers, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. 


ex-new yorker said...

This couldn't be much further from the type of music you write about, but did you know that movie Freaks was the inspiration for the Ramones', uh, "song," entitled "Pinhead?"

I have never really been an "overly" self-sacrificing kind, or maybe even sufficiently self-sacrificing kind, either because I lacked the inclination or because I lacked some of the skills needed to perform many of the more external works of mercy. It has been distressing to me to realize that I may not have it within my power to change the latter very much (may end up even less able than I was before, as I am now at least temporarily), for medical reasons, but here's hoping medication can still help prevent or reverse that.

There's plenty else to think about in this point, but I don't think I can say much else about it right now.

BettyDuffy said...

From the meditation today in Magnificat: "The rich man is condemned not because he is rich, but because he never even saw Lazarus at his gate."-(father John R Donahue,SJ)

Sort of punched me in the gut this morning.

Pentimento said...

I'm embarrassed to admit I don't know that Ramones song, Ex-New Yorker. Have you seen the film? It's great.

BD, I can't tell you how many times I've seen Lazarus at the gate and looked away.