When we think back on our experiences visiting the homes of our neighbors, we are justly proud of the many times that we “solved the problem,” often with a little money, or some food; sometimes with advice and encouragement. We may not always change the lives of the poor, but we can often check off one problem from the list, and share in their happiness at that. But this is not always the case.
Sometimes it seems that there is nothing we can do; the problem is too big, or the situation too complex; we don’t have money, or the expertise, or it’s just…too much. Often, we know this before we even schedule the visit. So why do we go?
St. Vincent taught about affective love and effective love. Effective love is not emotional, it is active. It is an act of will, to provide for another – to give them the things that they need. This is the love we think about when we commit ourselves to serving for love alone. [Rule, Part I, 2.2] So what happens when “effectiveness” is off the table?
Think, for example, of the neighbors we visit who have no homes, who live on the streets or in the parks, and who suffer from all of the health and wellness problems that often accompany long-term homelessness. In severe weather, we may sometimes be able to offer a shelter that will prevent death. We may be able to provide clean clothes and some food, and then…we send them off again.
Effective love, though, does not come at the expense of affective love. When we sit with the suffering, perhaps especially those who are suffering what we can barely comprehend much less alleviate, we may sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed with emotion. We try to choke it back, certain that we can be more comforting if we can remain more placid. But affective love, Vincent taught, “proceeds from the heart” making us “continually aware of the presence of God”. [CCD IX:372]
It is in your silent tear that you share the burdens and the pain of the neighbor. For so much of their lives, these suffering people are unseen by so many who avert their eyes when walking past. When we see them clearly enough to shed a tear, they know that tear is “an act of love, causing people to enter one another’s hearts and to feel what they feel”. [CCD XII:221] We share both God’s love and our own.
Ours is a ministry of doing, but it is first and always a ministry of loving presence. Just as Christ shared in our suffering, that we might suffer no more, we share the neighbor’s burdens that they might know the promise of His kingdom, where He will wipe every tear from our eyes.
After all, this world is not our home. We are only visiting.
Do I fully open my heart to both tears and joy with the neighbor?