“Love is a Downpour of Shelter” (Easter 2017)

(Mosaic by Marko Ivan Rupnik, SJ)

“Love,” the poet Andrea Gibson wrote, “is a downpour of shelter.”

This is a year in which many feel more vulnerable than ever. The list of cities struck by acts of terrorism has become an ever lengthier litany. The machinery of warfare rains violence everywhere, and the threat of still further conflict broods on the horizon. It displaces immigrants and refugees from their homes, and these are then turned away from their wealthier neighbors’ gates. The earth itself is sick, and those responsible for protecting it deny that there is even a problem.

How can we live in such a world?

I feel the need to remind myself that on the morning after Election Day in 2016, I was living at L’Arche, a community of adults with and without intellectual disabilities, one of whom saw the IT’S TRUMP headline on the newspaper on the kitchen table and gleefully exclaimed, “He won!” … not because she knew who Trump was and approved of him, but because her instinct was simply to revel unconditionally in any person’s joy. This was the same community I thought of on Holy Thursday a few days ago. The Gospel on that day told us that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, and I remembered the small acts of love that go into life at L’Arche — the preparation of meals, the washing of dishes, the flossing of teeth — but also the great meanings behind them, which often flow from those whose feet people like me are, metaphorically, washing: acceptance, tenderness, community, and forgiveness. Indeed, how many times and in how many ways did the people at L’Arche forgive me for my impatience with them, for my tendency toward self-absorption, and for my other radical disabilities.

When Peter refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet, Jesus replies, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me”; in other words, unless we share our simple humanity with one another, we cannot share together in the richness of God. But when Peter then replies, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well,” I wonder if he actually meant this more humorously than the tradition imagines. Maybe he wasn’t just being zealous old Peter, but had, thanks to intimacy in community, found a way to poke fun of himself, just as at L’Arche I laughed more often, and more authentically, than I have in a long time. Maybe Peter actually got what Jesus was saying about sharing our simple humanity with one another, after all.

L’Arche is the French word for “Ark”: it is like Noah’s ark, where all are welcome in the midst of the storm. As I look back at this difficult year, I must recall in gratitude that I spent it with one of the most beautiful communities I could have asked for, a community that was an “ark” for me.

Love is a downpour of shelter.

And now I find myself finishing the fourth month of my second Jesuit experiment of this year, working in campus ministry at Santa Clara University. As at L’Arche, I am less a servant here than a guest. I have once again been provided with an abundance of community, and an invitation to stand in awe of people’s hard work and goodness. On Good Friday this weekend, I recalled two “Ways of the Cross” put on by student groups on campus this semester. One featured reflections written by students for each Station commemorating Jesus’ path to crucifixion. With extraordinary vulnerability, the students revealed their own struggles and sufferings; even more impressive to me was the way they consoled each other afterward. At a second Way of the Cross, they remembered the travails of immigrants in our world, and ended with spontaneous prayers for those students on campus whose families are menaced by inhuman immigration policies. This campus is not a haven untouched by pain, tragedy, and exclusion, but I see time and again a dedication to one another, a conversion of pain into fellow sympathy.

This vulnerability runs counter to the pressures of a high-performing academic environment in Silicon Valley — an environment light years distant from the humility and unpretentiousness of L’Arche, yet one whose demanding values I’ve internalized, myself, living as I do with the unconscious assumption that I must be very impressive in order to be loved. (Isn’t this the tragic reality of Trump himself, whose pathetic psychodrama is now on display for the world and is actively determining human history?) How much I could learn from the students’ own vulnerability; for in fact, the most important moments for me this year have been times when I have found appropriate venues to admit my weakness and confusion to others, and have found that I can be loved despite my tremendous imperfections and shortcomings, that I not only can be but have been accepted for who I am, and not for the idealized self I often try to be.

Love is a downpour of shelter.

Tonight was Holy Saturday, when the Easter narrative of loving service, and of pain and death, culminates with the hope of resurrection. Two students were fully initiated into the Catholic Church tonight, and this was a reminder for me of all I am grateful for in Catholic Christianity: the way it has taught me to pray, and the monasteries and retreat houses it has offered as spaces of prayer; the music learned at liturgies and which echo in my heart every morning when I wake; the preferential option for the poor, the suffering, and the marginalized, and the mobilization of networks of service and solidarity; and the support of friends and community, the connection to a larger human reality which we celebrate at Mass in a shared meal called (there are few more beautiful words than this) “communion.” For all this, the church is certainly no less imperfect than the world at large; yet fully aware of its sinfulness, the church offers its greatest gift of all, which is its commitment to looking square in the face of the joy and sorrow, the good and evil, which are all mixed up in our nature, and to reasserting our basic belief that “as profound as evil may be, it is not as profound as goodness” (Ricoeur) — that “nothing can ever come between us and the compassion of God, whose human face is Jesus” (Romans 8:38-9).

Love is a downpour of shelter.

I was struck by another moment in the Gospel of Holy Thursday: when Jesus became “fully aware” that “he had come from God and was returning to God.” We all come from God, and we are all returning to God. (If only we could live in this awareness always.) And I find it poignant that Jesus sees the need not to wash Peter’s whole body, but just his feet: that part of us which, on our journey from God to God, descends to touch the earth. I am grateful that on my own spiritual journey, my humanity has been held, caressed, and washed by the good people at L’Arche and at Santa Clara, and by countless friends and family who offer me forgiveness and understanding. I am extremely grateful to be a Catholic Christian together with others groping our way towards an infinite love. Ending this Triduum — these three days of Easter — with the reception of our two candidates into the Church, I felt a desire to be available to welcome others into this communion that has meant so much to me; but more than anything, I felt a desire to do a better job touching others’ humanity — the feet of our souls, which touch down for one ephemeral moment on this broken and beautiful earth — with tenderness.

In the midst of so much that assails us and assails our world, love is nonetheless a downpour of shelter… and the Lord is truly risen.

Happy Easter!