For a Friend: A Conversation on Love

After having a discussion with a friend I decided that I would write an article to explain my viewpoint in greater depth. The subject of our sharing, my favourite topic, was love.

 

There are few words used in the English language that exists within so many different meanings and contexts. On one hand someone might say, “Ohhh, I love that shirt!” This statement carries quite a different connotation than a gentle whisper from a husband’s lips to his wife’s ear, “I love you.”

 

Paradoxically we tend to overuse the word love for the mundane, but under use it in our relationships. We are more likely to exclaim that we love chocolate, then to remind a friend or family member that we love them. One need only look closely into the hearts of the people abounding in this city to see how many of them are longing just to hear the three simple words, with sincerity, “I love you.”

 

As my friend and I discussed the topic it became clear to me that our misunderstanding was increased by the fact that we defined the word differently. Secular varieties of the word love are most common in popular culture and movies. Lust is commonly labeled as love. Steamy romance novels are filled with one night stands that stem from “love at first sight” type scenarios. We are given an idea that love is summed up by passionate feelings or uncontrollable emotions. If this is true, then true love is something fleeting and short lived, something unattainable within a long-term marriage, and ultimately something completely out of our control. Such a shallow understanding of love fails to explain the example of those like Mother Teresa, and many other Saints. Though passionate emotions may play a part in love, relationships based on emotion last only as long as the emotions do.

 

Hollywood tells us that sex is love.

 

Sex is one of many expressions of a loving relationship, but in and of itself, it is not love. In terms of physical intimacy, sex is the most intimate and powerful gift that can be made between two people. Sex devoid of emotional intimacy, however, inevitably loses it’s “zing” and the participants start looking elsewhere for a new high. In this context sex can be used, or degraded, into momentary gratification and the use of a human person as an object, or as a means to our own end: an orgasm, asserting control, or something resembling, but falling short of, true intimacy.

 

If love isn’t being equated as sex or raw emotions, then we are bombarded with the thought that love is merely kindness, or continual affection.

 

Again, though affection may be an integral part of love, love is neither affection nor kindness. It includes these things, but it is greater, and has far more depth. If love is just physical intimacy then when one person in a relationship falls seriously ill and physical intimacy is no longer possible, is the love then dead? If love is just showers of affection and kindness, then how can we explain a mother disciplining her children? I would argue that any parent who does not use appropriate punishment, fails to properly love their children. As was the case with a friend of mine who had to rouse me from a self destructive path, at great risk to himself, love often involves doing the opposite of what the beloved wants, for their own good.

 

If love is neither sex, nor passionate feelings, nor affection, then what is it?

 

With so many sources supplying false ideas of real love, where can we find a more authentic and wholesome definition? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “to love is to will the good of another” (1766). Here in this short sentence is an essential piece of love: focus on the other. In a culture which says, “I’m not getting mine, so I’m out of here,” this is a very contrary way of thinking.

 

Here’s another direct quote: “The most fundamental passion is love, aroused by the attraction of the good. Love causes a desire for the absent good and the hope of obtaining it; this movement finds completion in the pleasure and joy of the good possessed” (1765).

 

Notice the usage of the words desire, passion, aroused, attraction, pleasure, and joy: they are words we use commonly in conjunction with sexual intimacy and pleasure, but here they are used within reference to the good of the other. The coincidence is not accidental; in this concept lies the real meaning of true love.

 

Our attention is drawn towards the other quintessential piece of love: action towards the beloved’s good. To love authentically, we search for, hunt out, and seek to obtain the greatest good for the other. We do not find completion, until this end is achieved. Thus, love is not an easy path to walk. It means pain, discomfort, and the need for bountiful amounts of patience. There is help for the journey, however.

 

The pinnacle of what of authentic love looks like was defined quite succinctly two thousand years ago by Saint Paul:

 

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;
it is not arrogant or rude.

Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends…” (1Cor.13)

 

As we continued to have our discussion, and as I tried to elucidate just how I defined and saw love, I got the impression that my friend did not think authentic love was possible. Truthfully, I can’t say that I completely disagree. To achieve such a depth of love takes years of trial and error, learning from others, and accepting and growing from painful mistakes. To climb such a mountain requires humility and patience, but it also requires faith. With my own self-knowledge, and knowledge of other human beings, I do not believe that achieving true love is possible by human strength alone.

 

At one time or another, most people are jealous, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, resentful, and do insist on their own way. I strive to rid myself of these uncharitable attributes, yet, if I look only a short distance into my recent past I find many failures to succeed in this goal. So, yes, I do agree it’s not easy, but with God’s grace and our cooperation it is possible. We honor those who climbed this mountain with real passion and sincerity; though they are not perfect, they are the ones whom we call Saints.

 

Which world would I rather live in?

 

Do I want to exist in, and participate with, a culture that sells me lust, self-gratification, and selfishness, because love is impossible? Even if authentic love is impossible, I’d rather live in delusion and seek every day of my life to become better at loving, then to accept such a culture. I’d rather strive to deny myself the gratification of this moment, so that the other could have it instead, then to believe that “me” is the most important part of a relationship.

 

The Catechism breathes life when it states that “the fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy”(1829). It is the season of these fruits, that I will await eagerly.

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Atheism: The Paradox Between Liberty and Tolerance

 

Some years ago while on a walking pilgrimage through Ontario I stopped in a small city. I had walked hundreds of miles to get there and hadn’t spoken to more than a person or two in three days. Unwary of where anything was in the city, I approached a man and his son at a nearby park. I asked him for directions to the city center. He supplied me with some directions and I said, “Thanks, God bless you my friend.”
 

He replied curtly, “I don’t believe in God.”
 

Taken aback, I decided it needed no further comment and departed. This man’s reply represents something I’ve been trying to put my finger on for some time. If we observe the conversation closely we can see the deeper underlying messages. By outright stating that he didn’t believe in God when I wished him to be blessed, he was not making a unbiased statement in response to a question. He made a verbal attack on my beliefs. When someone wishes me a happy Hanukkah, I do not turn around and slap away their well wishing and tell them their belief is wrong. No, I accept their gift with an open heart and say thank you. I seek to understand the true intent of the statement.
 

I realise this man does not represent all atheists, but he does represent a recurring pattern in our society: atheism advocating intolerance, in the name of “tolerance”.
 

Some groups, in the name of atheism, are wielding lawsuits in order to push around schools. Most schools, lacking adequate funding for lengthy legal battles, are incapable of fighting back and thus crumble under the pressure.
 

One such example was when a school was forced to remove a painting of a shepherd with his sheep from it’s walls due to legal action. Please help me understand something: how does an innocuous painting of a shepherd and his sheep, if God does not exist, pose such a threat to these apparently deeply threatened atheists?
 

Another recent example is how the American Humanist Association closed down a schools Christmas box drive because of its affiliation with a religious group. Again, using the threat of legal action, the school was forced to give in, not having the funds to fight back, and the box drive was canceled. There has been no reports of the atheists filling the gap and supplying the toys and school supplies to the children who will now receive nothing. Merry Christmas.
 

Such lawsuits are on par with Russia’s draconian laws enacted towards homosexuality.
 

They are acts of intolerance, plain and simple. Some groups of atheists are beginning to rival extreme fundamentalist Christians in the propagation of their beliefs. Much like these Christian groups, the atheists’ proselytization is coming at the cost of tolerance and respect. You need only hear a reference to “fairies in the garden” or other popular atheistic rhetoric to know what I mean. There is a tone in such language that is unavoidable and intentional: your beliefs are stupid and irrational. This is tolerance?
 

Just as the man I met in the park completely missed my intention to wish him well, so these atheists are missing the point altogether. If atheists want the freedom to express their beliefs “outside of their homes”, then it behooves them to start respecting the rights of believers to express their beliefs. Catholicism represents and defends religious freedom. It recognizes the fact that in order to ensure human freedom, religious freedom is necessary. To allow such freedoms means to allow public display, education, and celebration of religious practices and belief. Catholics work to ensure the freedom of believers and non-believers alike, atheists included.
 

Outfits like the Freedom From Religion Foundation are dogmatic institutions with the goal of eradicating religion. The battlefront today is our schools, but they won’t stop there. Here’s a direct quote from their “winter solstice sign”: “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds”. This was written by a softened, compassionate heart? The statement lacks insight, maturity, and respect. It shows no indication of a person who is “enlightened” or overflowing with kindness. For a foundation that represents free thought, they seem to have closed their minds to particular subjects.
 

True tolerance is always filled with respect.
 

Underlying all tolerance needs to be a deep love for the other. If any Christian hates or rejects someone because they choose a homosexual lifestyle, then they have failed in tolerance. Likewise, anyone who attacks or belittles someone with religious belief, have failed to be tolerant. Neither side of this struggle is without error. If life giving dialogue is going to exist, then both sides need to analyze their usage of language and their motives. Without respect we will only slide deeper into childish ravings and bullying tactics.
 

Good Shepherd painting: http://www.whiznews.com/content/news/local/2013/11/15/decision-made-regarding-jesus-painting
 

Winter Solstice Sign: http://ffrf.org/news/news-releases/item/19547-ffrf-places-%E2%80%98natural-nativity%E2%80%99-winter-solstice-sign-in-wisconsin-capitol
 

Christmas Drive Closed: http://www.bizpacreview.com/2013/11/16/school-cancels-christmas-toy-drive-over-anti-religious-groups-lawsuit-threat-87245

Walking With Tolkien: A Journey From Desolation to Life, Part 3 of 3

 

Though Frodo is crushed by his journey, we are given insight into how this pain and suffering can be translated into opportunity for gift and life. No other situation highlights this effect more than Frodo’s interactions with the miserable and pitiable Gollum.

 

Isn’t Gollum a bit like the pain and discomfort in all our lives?

 

Without Gollum the Hobbits could have actually had some good sleep, but instead they needed to be on their guard. Without Gollum they could have relaxed somewhat and enjoyed each other’s company, but instead the vile ex-Hobbit acted as a wedge, creating conflict between our two protagonists.

 

Gollum invokes pity and ire, but we must admit, without Gollum’s selfish desires, there would have been no guidance to Mordor, and in the end, all would have been lost.

 

Gollum contributes almost no good actions of his own intention to the entire story, but he cannot be removed from the tale. The undeniable reality that pain must be a part of our earthly lives rings true. Frodo was spared from his final caving into the power of the ring by Gollum removing the ring along with his finger. Ironically, the power of the ring over Gollum, is what spared Frodo from the pain and inevitable torment of accepting the ring as his master. Frodo would have become as dark and faceless as Gollum. It is my own pain that steers me from my pride. My agony showed me what some people endure throughout their entire lives. Now, when I meet someone who’s grumpy and vile I wonder, trying to understand, “What dark days have they suffered in their life?”

 

When Gollum became the Hobbit’s guide to Mordor, is when the story really began to strike home. The endless journey through the stinky, damp, and uninviting swamps, for example, was easy for me to imagine. I too looked down into the water and saw death looking up and was almost consumed if not for a select few who stood by and pulled me up. I smelt the stench and hated it; I wanted to be free.

 

Sam and Frodo continued forward, and with every mile their weariness grew. The ring crushed Frodo with its physical weight as well as its pressure upon his very will. Always, Frodo fought the temptation to give in, end his struggle, and accept the ring. Failure hung over me with the same effect. Joe, like Sam, was nearby to remind me of the goodness and light I was pursuing in such an endless endeavour. I experienced a deeply spiritual process in which, despite not hearing the words of someone who cared and continuing on a self-destructive path, somehow, I would register the words in a subconscious place and would be strengthened when I least expected it, but needed it the most. Joe’s words often served this function, like Sam’s for Frodo’s sake.

 

Despite many incredible challenges, the two Hobbits kept moving onward.

 

They survived Shelob’s onslaught and escaped Gollum’s betrayal. They even pushed forward with the realisation, always in their minds, that there wasn’t enough food for the return trip. Their final stretch through Mordor is the most intense and bleakly described setting in the book. The region is nauseating and filled with pockets of pain and orcs. It was here that I recognized a complete resemblance to my own struggles. It seems like you never get any closer, but you get more and more tired. Yet, within this desolation, the love of Sam grows and carries Frodo further and further. Eventually, Sam literally carries Frodo towards the cave of Mount Doom. This is sainthood. To achieve true love it is not enough to simply care, but we must carry the one we love.

 

Love this strong is real.

 

The Lord of the Rings didn’t appeal to me because it is fanciful, but because it is powerfully descriptive of reality. The setting, races, and lore are fascinating and outlandish, but every person in that story could be a breathing living person. Watching Sam struggle with real life decisions draws to mind the battle of discernment in a loving relationship. It might be argued that Sam’s love would never have become so strong if not for the harrowing nature of such a journey. Heartbreakingly, their bond is cemented only to have Frodo ravaged and affected permanently from his travels and inevitably sent away.

 

It was hard for me to forgive Tolkien, but they had to be separated.

 

Their separation was the ultimate manifestation of their love for one another. They let go, when their emotions said everything contrary, for the sake of the other. Inevitably, I had toseparatemyself from the ones who did so much to help me during my duress. It was less final however, because I still have contact with the people who were so helpful and dear during my dark hour. Joe remains a steadfast friend and support in my pursuit of a University Degree and the fulfillment of my dreams.

 

So to finish my own story, or at least bring it up to the present: Eventually after increasing my boundaries enough to look after my own needs I moved out into a friends house. After a few months of learning to feed and take of myself I felt confident enough to start an easy job. As providence would have it, an old friend who was my boss at a restaurant I once worked in, was now working as the general manager of a nearby branch. To my delight, he took me on as an employee. Like everything else in my recovery, I started small. I worked for three hours, two or three times a week. From there, I worked my way up, and after one year I was working full time as a waiter.

 

In conclusion, Tolkien played an integral role in my realisation that my suffering was united into a greater cause and purpose. Tolkien showed me that no matter how dark my life became, I was struggling for a reason and it was worth the toil. Like Tolkien, I’m using story to convey God’s love and that in Him is the real great pilgrimage. The worst of my recovery is over, but I still have many obstacles to overcome. I do not find myself distraught by my inabilities, but in awe that God walked so closely with me during every step.

 

As the great eagles came in to save the day, exactly like in Tolkien’s story, so I saw the workings of the Holy Spirit in my journey to freedom. I saw the fires of mount doom with my own eyes and tasted the ash of death in my mouth and I looked back upon the most impossible journey and felt Him lift me up and away from the desolation. Like with Frodo, my journey left permanent scars, remnants of the awesome struggle that will never go away. This is a unintended consequence of many great adventures. If I had stayed indoors and shirked the immense risk I took upon myself, for fear of such consequences, I would have brought upon myself an even greater tragedy: I would have denied myself the very occasion to make real the extraordinary, majestic, and beautiful qualities waiting to be born within every person’s life.

Walking With Tolkien: A Journey From Desolation to Life, Part 2 of 3

 

So Adam, Joe, and Megan journeyed together. A pilgrimage of many now.
 

Admittedly, I clung to anyone who showed me authentic support. Long before this time I came to realize how my condition alienated me from people; understandably, they never knew how to react. To be confronted with someones utter vulnerability is not an easy thing to do. The one major exception being the kind ladies at my parish who took me into their hearts! It was just like Frodo and the Ring. The Ring had a strange effect on the people around him, it seemed to polarize people. Either they began to turn on him, for lust of the ring, or they rallied behind him. More on Frodo later! 
 

I became obsessed with counting.
 

It gives me chills to look back at the calendars of meticulous records I kept. I could tell you how every day went: I counted how many stairs I did in a day and even detailed how many constituted right legs and how many left legs, how many seconds I listened to an audio book, how many minutes I’d spend sitting, how many times I swung my arms around, how many times I shook my protein shake in the morning and with which arm, the number of dishes I removed from the dishwasher, etc. Anything I did, I counted. Through these records I could control to the smallest degree how much I increased over time. Also, I had factual numbers to argue against my over-active imagination and anxiety, and this was a critical weapon in my arsenal.
 

I crept and nibbled at my boundaries.
 

From walking I went to stairs, from darkness I went to tiny amounts of light, from silence to small snippets of audio books. Every increase ran a heavy risk of increasing my pain for varying lengths of time, varying from hours to days. If I remained steady without panicking, usually the pain would settle back to what it was at before the new increase. Once I was steady for a time, I could try upping the amount again. I’d go from doing twenty four stairs a day to twenty six and try that out for a week. It was grueling and exhausting work, but I kept chipping away, one step at a time.
 

Another unforeseen difficulty arose after my initial successes.
 

Sometimes I’d be so encouraged by my new abilities that I’d develop “Superman Syndrome”. Essentially, I’d feel like I was in control again and make some large new advancements. This usually didn’t cause pain immediately, but after it was too late I’d receive heaps of pain signals which would last for days. Imagine having all the chocolate chip cookies in the world, a completely empty stomach, and being told by a cranky old miser that you could only have one. Wouldn’t you try to sneak another? It wasn’t totally unlike Gollum’s insatiable hunger for the ring. It took great strength to resist these temptations, and to continue on at a healthy pace.
 

Every time I took more than was good for me, Joe was there to help.
 

He took my calls, told me a thousands times that the setbacks where just as important as the victories. He calmed me, told me I wasn’t doomed for failure. He confirmed my trust in God’s plan and carried me when I had no strength left. Notably, Joe never called me, and this was the way it had to be. I learned to ask for help and to express what I needed or didn’t need. This distinction was crucial because it taught me to exercise my own will again, to fight with my own action against the obstacles set before me.
 

I had Joe for aid, but Christ was the greatest support in my journey. Every few months after receiving the Holy Eucharist I would go to the chapel and let it all out. There, I would allow all the pressure and sorrow to release in an effusive outpouring. It was a small gift I could make to the most compassionate love in my life.
 

How could God allow such a horrible event in my life?
 

It was irrelevant. I knew He was guiding me, and on more than one occasion He showed me the depth of his love and care. When truly in love and knowing that we are beloved, we become more willing to exercise trust. I learned to exercise this trust, and it became a solace in the desert of my afflictions. There’s something a person may experience in the depths of their heart that is as undeniable as their own existence. A whisper, a soft word, or rather – The Word. Christ was the primary person who brought total trust to my otherwise dismal and hopeless condition.
 

At the two year point I hit the halfway mark.
 

I was spending just as much time walking around as I was lying down. Though I was limited by where or how I could walk, it was a remarkable achievement. In order to train myself to walk on uneven surfaces, I began making trips outdoors during my “up” periods. Imagine your neighbour making seven trips to the mailbox and back each day! Not only that, but he’d swing his arms around like a madman (Megan made me in order to increase my arm flexibility) and wave at you when you just wanted to drive quietly into the cul de sac unnoticed. What fond memories! My neighbours really rooted for my recovery.
 

As you can see, up until this point I’d seen some pretty harrowing and overwhelming obstacles. Tolkien shows great insight into human suffering and grief. The Lord of The Rings is a beautiful revelation of the deeper realities contained within our own lives. His epic tale is a poetic parallel to my own great adventure.
 

Once I decided to introduce sound back into my repertoire, my father picked up an audio book from our local library. The first story I would hear in many silent months would be The Fellowship of The Ring, the first book in Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of The Rings. Those few seconds I got to enjoy the spoken tale were unbearably delightful. As Gollum waited for his chance to snatch back the ring, so I waited in agony a whole day just to get three more minutes of the story. This was my only entertainment at the time, so it was a long wait. It also meant that when I did get some audio book time I listened carefully and enjoyed all aspects of the story I could pick up on. My tolerance for audio increased and likewise the amount of time I could listen. After a few weeks, I could get fifteen minutes a day comprised of smaller chunks. I progressed through book one and then on to book two: The Two Towers. My investment into the characters was enormous. Tolkien captured beautifully the essence of a long tedious journey done on foot; I could easily apply the story to my own experiences.
 

Frodo and Sam became extensions of my own capacity for adventure and the fellowship something akin to supporters.
 

I took the death of Gandalf with great sorrow. The pain of the characters was vivid and personal. It was irrelevant that I already knew of Gandalf’s eventual “resurrection”; I too needed a respite in the forests of Lothlorien to recuperate my desire for more adventure. On the flip side, I remember literally thrusting my arms in the air and cheering when Gimlee, emerging from the shadows screaming a war cry, saves Éomer during the siege of Helms Deep. My victory thrust was followed by half an hour of elation, and occasionally skipping, as I reconstructed the scene in my mind over and over again.
 

Inevitably and fortuitously, the company split up.
 

Sam’s burst into the icy waters of his own doom made me cry for appreciation of the beauty of such an action. His utter devotion to the end was stupefying. For me, Sam’s act of devotion was totally believable, thanks to Joe. I had seen my own friends depart and so it would be with the fellowship. The full support cast is whittled down to a skeleton crew. The extras peel off and the real fight comes down to the most unlikely characters, our friends the Hobbits.
 

My recovery didn’t carry the same heroic goal of “saving all good things”, but it was heavily weighted with consequence.
 

I had no days off. The thought of taking even an hour off left me in cold sweats. I couldn’t stop, to go back was unthinkable. To admit defeat would be to give up the last chance I ever had to succeed. The pressure was horrible; I had nothing which I could use to say, “Ok, lets stop for a moment and do something else.” I could do nothing else. The soft prison, my couch, was there waiting for me endlessly. Months and eventually years of darkness and little mobility crushed my spirit. The immensity of Frodo’s undertaking weighed heavily upon his shoulders as well. How could one small Hobbit carry the enormous burden of the ring? I also wondered just how much pressure I could endure, before I could take no more.
 

I hope you have enjoyed Part Two. Soon, I will post Part Three.