When my time with the Karenni refugees came to a close this summer, I wrote a blog post on a great lesson I learned from them about the nature of love. It’s been a month since I’ve last had a meal consisting of rice, spices, and sake with some of God’s most precious children and I still find myself learning new things based on the experiences I had with them. Recently, God pierced my heart with another revelation of the ways in which the Karenni taught me about love; more specifically, about God’s love for me and my inability to properly respond to that love.
At the beginning of last school year, a group of around fifteen brother seminarians and I all piled into our rector’s office. We had yet to be assigned to an outreach project for the school year. Our rector listed off all of the opportunities: “We need someone who can teach religious ed at St. Agnes parish,” “We need a pair of guys who would be willing to lead Bible studies on campus every Tuesday night,” etc. At the mentioning, “We need a pair of guys who would like to work with refugees that live in the area,” my ears perked up. There was a noticeable stirring in my heart, as if God was trying to say, “This is the one I have prepared for you from the foundations of the earth.” When I found out not only that I would be assigned to this outreach but also that a close friend of mine would be joining me, I felt overjoyed. I was surprised at just how excited I was to delve into an environment filled with so many uncertainties. I immediately went to the chapel to thank God for the upcoming mission, to thank Him in advance for the many blessings I had confidence He would bestow on me through the refugees, and to pray for those I would be serving.
I had not yet met the Karenni and could not even locate Burma on a map, yet I was already looking forward to the opportunity to love them and to lose myself in their lives. I felt what I imagine a father would feel upon finding that his wife is pregnant; speculations (driven both by joy and a fear of the unknown) on what the future will hold and a great love for a child whom he has not yet laid eyes on. It also brought to mind stories I’ve heard from seminarians who begin praying for their future parishioners before they are even assigned to their first parish.
The adventure began and, admittedly, it took a long time for me to feel comfortable around the Karenni. It felt strange just entering into their daily lives with a desire to love them, especially since many of them had no idea who we were or why we wanted to spend time with them in the first place. This in turn caused myself and my fellow interns to constantly reflect on the questions, “Well, what am I doing here,” “What kind of difference will my presence make,” etc. Eventually their trust in the authenticity of our motives removed many of the barriers of suspicion they may have had on their hearts and true friendships began to be formed.
As I shared in “What Refugees Taught Me About Love, Part One,” the time I spent this summer developing those friendships and meeting new families entailed a variety of unforeseen struggles. It was in this classroom of love that I learned first-hand the true meaning of com-passion: “to suffer with.” Recently I’ve been reflecting on the dynamics of my friendship with one of the young adults in particular (I’ll refer to him as “Nate”). I’ve come to see just how similar my relationship with Nate looks like my relationship with God.
Nate, along with a majority of the other Karenni refugees, did not respond to my love (or attempts at loving) the way I had expected and desired. He seemed to remain indifferent towards any words of affirmation I gave him. Small gifts seemed to be unappreciated. He didn’t seem to want to spend a ton of time together. It was hard to read him and this led to some bouts of discouragement. Yet I desired to spend time with him, to affirm his existence, to let him know how much I cared about him in whatever way I could communicate that. I had been praying and fasting for him for so long- even from before we’d met. I had so much love I wanted to show him but I often felt like he wasn’t being open to receiving that love and he certainly didn’t seem to be reciprocating it.
It was at this point in my reflections that God whacked me over the head with a spiritual-2×4: I am Nate when it comes to the spiritual life. Here’s why:
St. John reminds us that God “first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The words in the book of the prophet Jeremiah depict this heart-piercing reality when God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). This calls to mind the image from earlier of a father loving (in some sense) his child even before he/she is born. The child is loved before he knows he is loved. The child is known before he knows he is known and before he knows the one who knows him. I experienced this sense of God’s love in reflecting on the love I had for Nate before I had even met him; a love which was purified and which grew deeper as I got to know him over the year.
Because I approached the summer with the intention of “loving the Karenni and losing myself in their lives,” I was willing to take that journey of love wherever it led me; even (or, more appropriately, “especially”) when love led to some sort of sharing in the Cross of Christ. Very often the causes of this suffering were my own human weaknesses and my inability to love as purely as I am called to. Yet one of the hardest parts for me during those times of suffering was knowing that Nate and the rest of the Karenni didn’t even realize what they had caused me to go through. A mixture of their own personal hard-wiring and the upbringing they had in their culture led them to be a people difficult for me to love through no fault of their own. As a result they did not and could not know the lengths I was taking to stretch my heart in an attempt to envelop my heart over theirs.
With all this being said, I can say with great confidence that I am like Nate in at least two ways: 1. I have been loved by God before I knew Him or knew of His love for me, yet 2. So often I fail to acknowledge that love in my daily life and forget what my unresponsiveness to His love led to.
1. Each and every day I find myself trying to explore the depths of God’s knowledge and love of me. I would have to say that the first time I really got a glimpse into how real this knowledge and love for me is was when I was on a retreat in ninth grade. Yet I was tapping into a knowledge and a love that had been present before that moment. It had been present before I attended my first Sunday school class. It had been present before my parents first whispered the name of Jesus into my ear as an infant. It had been present before I was born. As a result, my love for God at every point in my life is a response by it’s very nature. My love is like the “Polo” to His eternal “Marco.” He has taken the initiative to love me first, which requires that I open up my heart to receive, to soak in, to rest in that gift, and then respond. Consequently, I follow Him because He has called me and not vice-versa. As Our Lord says in John 15:16, “It was not you who chose Me but I who chose you…” It became clear to me that I have been loved by God in a way not too dissimilar from the way Nate was loved by me.
2. Yet, also like Nate, I fail every day to acknowledge that love as it ought to be acknowledged and I take the Cross for granted. I set aside about two hours every day specifically for prayerful purposes. Of those two hours, I relish in the incredible gift of God’s love for me and the knowledge He has of the depths of my heart for a total of maybe three minutes on a good day. It’s not that I don’t care about God, I just don’t give Him the time, the thanksgiving, and the service to Him in my neighbor that He deserves. I simply take for granted the fidelity of His love and only appreciate it when I go to Him and don’t feel it as strongly as I once did.
By the same token, I will never be able to fathom what my sins put Him through. Once in a while He shows me glimpses of my contribution to the Cross and it sends chills down my spine; not just because I realize that my sins were responsible for the shedding of His blood, but also because, based on the way I live my life, it would appear as though I could care less.
I think an example of God’s great mercy is the fact that I am not capable of grasping just how ungrateful I am for God’s decision to empty Himself to become a man, to be scourged, to be crowned with thorns, to be humiliated, and to be crucified for me. I go through most of my life failing to acknowledge what I know of His love and failing to thank Him for the love which I will never be able to fully realize and thus unable to be properly appreciative for. Though my love is nowhere near as selfless and pure as Our Lord’s, I experienced a lesser degree of this kind of suffering and hidden love in the ways I tried to reach out to Nate. I’ve come to realize that if I’ve been responding to God’s love in that manner for all these years and He still hasn’t given up on me yet, I must pray for that same stubbornness of heart to love those whose reciprocity is not as I think it should be.
I pray that you would all find your own Nates so that, in recognizing your good intentions and your failures to love as purely as you’d like, you too would be able to explore God’s great love for you. In closing, I wanted to share a quote from my good friend Pope Benedict XVI on this important lesson we can learn in the classroom of love:
“In the love-story recounted by the Bible, [God] comes towards us, he seeks to win our hearts, all the way to the Last Supper, to the piercing of his heart on the Cross…Nor has the Lord been absent from subsequent Church history: he encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist…He has loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love. God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has ‘loved us first,’ love can also blossom as a response within us.”
-Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est