Year A Easter 2
St. Luke records that in the aftermath of Easter, the followers of Our Lord, “devoted themselves to the breaking of bread [meaning, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass] and to the communal life.” He goes on to describe how they share among each other and develop their friendships as they find solidarity and peace within the Church. St. John paints a similar picture, describing the Apostles as spending time together trying to figure out what in the world is going on in the aftermath of the Resurrection. They have no idea where Jesus is, where he’s going, or what it means for their future. But notice the one fact they do not doubt – they have each other. And as Jesus appears in their midst and extends his peace, the source of that brotherhood is revealed. It is from Our Lord that peace flows and through him we return it not only to him but to each other. He is our source of unity.
As Thomas reaches out his finger to touch the nail scarred hands of his Savior, he is at the same time reaching out to every other human being, because when we come close to Jesus we come close to all those he holds close. He is the source from which life flows, the very meaning of our existence. Thomas touches Jesus, and he touches the ground of his being, the divine essence through which we are made one with each other. There is a profound truth, here, that our souls are made to live in relationship with other souls, and in the Body of Christ we transcend our own, isolated existence through supernatural communion.
Now, compare that strong image of human solidarity with the world outside of the Church. We are told to find ourselves through competition, inevitably resulting not in satisfaction but in envy. Our surroundings encourage us to care for ourselves first and maybe if we have enough energy to then think about others. The symptoms of this isolation manifest all around. We mutter imprecations at people we don’t even know from our cars during traffic. We stare at our phones while waiting in line at the grocery store and barely even see the other people in line. Entire months may go by before we remember to visit our elderly relatives who are stuck at home, who are lonely and bored. Friendships atrophy, relationships have no room to survive, and our secular culture is profoundly unhappy. The result is that many seek false empathy in the comfort of television and the internet, which author David Foster Wallace warns us are broadcast by people who don’t love us and only want our money. When that becomes our steady diet, he says, in a very meaningful way, our souls die.
To use a familiar word, the root cause is that we suffer from a lack of empathy. When we dethrone Jesus from our lives, we lose even very basic human virtues along with him. The word empathy may be familiar, and it’s still common enough, but we actually have no idea anymore what it means. Empathy is mistakenly defined as the ability to walk a mile in another’s shoes, meaning that, if we are to comfort someone in a difficult situation we would first have needed to experience that specific situation. This view would have it that, if I have not had cancer I cannot comfort you when you find out you do, or if my mother has not died I cannot understand how you feel when your mother dies. This definition of empathy is common, and it is devastating. It is isolating, and means that we are, each of us, alone with our pain.
It means, for example, that Doubting Thomas cannot be understood by Jesus or the other disciples because they don’t doubt in the way that Thomas does. This isn’t what happens, though. Instead, Thomas is invited to reach out his hand. His feelings are understood, they are accepted, they are shared. The early Christians all had different experiences of the death of Jesus. Some ran away, some denied him, some stayed by his side, some were simply confused – but no one was left alone.
The problem of loneliness and isolation isn’t easy to fix, because we cannot simply will ourselves to being empathetic. We can, however, practice empathy. Edith Stein, also known as St Teresia Benedicta, has a lot of wisdom to share on this topic and she offers her suggestions.
- The first step is to be convinced that it is possible and that there is value in sharing the experiences of others. If the example of Our Lord, who gives up everything to share our experience isn’t enough motivation, it also helps to point out that when we enlarge our experience in this way, we become better people. It will make us more perceptive, able to see more of the universe than we are capable of seeing on our own.
The rest of the steps are fairly simple:
- Pay attention and actually notice what other people are feeling and experiencing. This means, look at the phone less, remember to stay in touch with family and friends in person, notice if something is going on.
- Extend the virtue of love to others and in learning to love them better we will come to appreciate even their foibles. We won’t judge them so much as accept and love them.
- Once we combine attention and love, we will learn to see people themselves as people. The secret to all Catholic moral teaching, the key to loving people the way Christ would have us love them, is to treat them at all times like human beings. Not as objects, or social groups, or political parties, or co-workers, but simply as wonderful, messy, unique human beings.
Edith Stein, in her own life, provides a good example. One of her sisters in the monastery says, “I was feeling depressed, it was Edith Stein who, as inconspicuously as possible, did everything she could to cheer me up. She found all kinds of opportunities for doing me favors or whispering a word of encouragement.” Edith paid attention and she loved her sister in Christ. She refused to leave her alone.
This is how we in the Church are called to minister to each other both in life and in death. This is why in the mass we invite the saints to pray with us, or sing the litany of saints at the vigil for those who are to be confirmed or baptized. The grace that we find in the Mass we are commissioned to dispense to others in our daily lives. Take time this week to reach out to someone, maybe a person you’ve been meaning to call for a while and keep forgetting. Find out how they are feeling and extend to them the gift of empathy, of being present for them. This is the human connection by which we find fulfillment, and that which connects us to God.
Children, by the way, you can do this too. You can talk to your parents at dinner, really talk to them. Notice the person who is excluded and bullied at school and talk to them, you may be the only person that talks to them all day.
A human soul isn’t itself until it is in relationship with other souls. Situate yourself in the bosom of the Church, the mystical unity of the Body Christ, and remember that you are never alone.