So the other night, just before I nodded off, I asked Jesus how he felt about 9/11, Iraq, North Korea and this whole “Ball of Confusion,” as the Temptations used to sing. The question was barely out of my mouth when the next thing I know, I hear:
“Well, I’ll tell you, Jack — it’s okay if I call you Jack?”
“Whoa! You really startled me. I mean, I wasn’t expecting a reply, at least, not like this. And, uh, sure, you can call me whatever you like.”
“I know no one but your family calls you Jack, but hey, we are family, right? The nuns taught you that you were a child of God, made in his image and likeness. So we do have that family connection.”
“We’ve never had a conversation before . . .”
“Yeah, I know, Jack. It’s always been pretty one-sided. With you just asking me for stuff or telling me how sorry you were for screwing up — again. You do have a finely honed sense of guilt, you know. Basically, I’d just listen. No offense, but there wasn’t much to respond to.”
“No. That’s okay. That’s what I’m here for, at least partly. Anyway, your question really touched a nerve. I couldn’t let it slide without saying something. I need to get this off my chest.”
“It’s not good to keep stuff bottled up.”
“Right. Anyhow, you asked how I feel about this mess. It’s like this: I feel sad and angry, Jack. Mostly sad, though, bone-achingly sad, in fact, almost to the point of despair. I want to weep, but the tears won’t come any more. I just feel incredibly weighed down and disappointed. Oh sure, there are exceptions. A few folks do understand, but as a people we still don’t get it, Jack. Notice I said ‘we’ not ‘you.’ I’m human, just like you. A lot of folks seem to forget that though. All they see is divinity.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry . . .”
“See, that’s the problem. All words, no action. I don’t mean to come down on you hard, because you’re certainly not alone. The thing is this: Our Father gave us life, but not for this — not for hatred and destruction. That’s not why we exist and not what we should be about. But what do we do? We take this incredible gift of life, this opportunity to know the Creator through the wonder of creation, and we throw it away, even steal it from others. Talk about ingratitude. When somebody gives you something beautiful, is that what you do? Crumple it up and toss it in his face? If it weren’t for the fact that a few folks get it, I’d be in total despair. Thomas Merton understood. He said, ‘Here is the unspeakable secret: Paradise is all around us and we do not understand it.’”
“Well, it sure doesn’t seem like paradise a lot of the time.”
“That’s because, like Merton said, we still don’t understand — despite my life — what we humans should be about. I get impatient some times. Read my lips: Thou shalt not kill. Do you see any ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ in that statement? Me neither. Gandhi understood. ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,’ he said. Where will it end? Isn’t it time to try a different approach?”
“Umm, right. But what?”
“Jack, Jack, Jack. Your question is like a dagger to my heart. What was the message of my life? I tried to show by example. I tried to put it as simply as I could. Man, I even reduced it to one sentence: ‘Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ I don’t know how I could have made it any simpler. This is not rocket science, kid. You know in the Gospel when John is talking about me and says ‘the word was made flesh,’ what word is that, Jack?”
“Maybe you do get it after all. Love is all there is, Jack. God is love. Love is what created and sustains the universe. It’s as real as gravity. A real force, guy. It’s God the Father. Love born into humanity is the word made flesh, Me. I am the way, the truth and the life. Get it? Love is what it’s all about. It’s why I came into the world and it’s why you did, too. It’s what you should be about. When Mary and Joseph found me at the temple when I was a boy, and I said ‘I must be about my Father’s business,’ what business do you think that is, Jack?”
" Uhh, love, I guess?"
“Don’t be so tentative when you have the right answer. Love is our Father’s business. It’s the family business. Understand? Since you’re made in his image and likeness, it’s your business. It’s why you exist. In this regard your job is to think like God and act like God, to love all humanity, all creation, as God does.”
“Easy for you to say. How can I act like God? I’m not God. I’m only human.”
“Oh, you’re human all right. All too human. Have you heard anything I’ve said? You can do it, and you must do it, Jack. If I can, you all can. Leo Tolstoy understood. ‘I believe that the reason for life is for each of us simply to grow in love,’ Leo said. ‘I believe that this growth in love will contribute more than any other force to establish the kingdom of God on earth. To replace a social life in which division, falsehood and violence are all powerful, with a new order in which humanity, truth and brotherhood will reign.’”
“Tolstoy was an insightful man, for sure. But how do you grow in love?”
“Practice makes perfect, Jack. The more you love, the more you love. The wider your circle becomes, the more like God you become. Part of the problem today is that people define themselves too narrowly. That’s dangerous. The more you close in on yourself, the more narrow and tight you become. Keep doing it and you become a nothing. The world is too tight now, Jack. There’s not enough empathy, seeing the world through your brother’s or sister’s eyes. It’s a lot harder to hate, if you see things through someone else’s eyes.”
“So how do I widen my circle?”
“Do you pray?”
“Well, sure. You know that. I mean you’re the one who pointed out that I’m always asking for things and apologizing.”
“The right kind of prayer will widen your circle. Soren Kierkegaard said, ‘Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.’ There’s something to that. If you pray for mercy and kindness, you’re more likely to be merciful and kind. It rubs off. It keeps you from forgetting who you are and what you should be about. The Hindu holy man Sankaracharya understood. He said that if a person loves Brahman — we could instead think of God — with an exclusive and steadfast devotion, he or she becomes Brahman. ‘By thinking of nothing but the wasp, the cockroach is changed into the wasp,’ if you catch his drift.”
“I had a hunch you weren’t ready for Sankaracharya. The point is this, Jack: You need to think about love more when you pray. That word ‘love’ is tossed around so freely these days, but nobody stops to think what it means. What does it mean to love someone, Jack?”
“Well, you know, you care about them . . .”
“Sure you care about them. You want everything good for them. You identify so closely with them, with their hopes, desires and all the rest that you almost become them. The boundary line dissolves. When they hurt, you ache. That’s how you love your family and friends. Now try to put your head inside God’s head for a second. You know the intense boundary-melting feeling you carry for those you love? Imagine being someone who has that intense feeling not only for you and all your family and friends but for every person and creature living now, in the past and in the future.”
“I’m starting to feel dizzy.”
“Not surprising. Now and then even I get a touch of vertigo thinking about it. That is powerful love.”
“My mind can’t wrap around something that big.”
“Of course, not, Jack. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. The world would be a much better place if folks made an attempt. If you need some help, try this. Do you have a rosary?”
“In a drawer somewhere.”
“Okay. Dig it out. The traditional way of saying the rosary is a wonderful prayer, but here is another way of using the rosary in a prayerful way. As you hold the cross in your fingers say to yourself, ‘This is love. This (dying on the cross) is an example of what it means to love. This is the Power that created and sustains the universe.’ Think about love, what it means to love someone, how you feel about those you love. Then think about God feeling that same way about all of creation.
“Next, go to the first bead set apart; these ‘stand-alone’ beads are always symbolic of you. As you hold it, say to yourself, ‘Let me, through my life this day be this love in the world. Let me, through my actions, answer someone’s prayer today. Let me, to the best of my ability, be this word incarnate today.’ Does that sound familiar, Jack? Whenever you come to a ‘stand-alone’ bead think about that.
“As you finger the beads of the decades, think about those you love, moving out from those closest to you to people you may barely know, even your enemies. In your mind, put a face on each bead. Imagine seeing life through their eyes. Try to identify with them and thank God for the gift of them in your life. Mentally, hold them, caress them, as God might.
“Go full circle with a face on every bead, back to the cross, Love, the all powerful Primal Force, the creator and sustainer of the universe. None of this had to be, yet it is. You didn’t have to be, yet you are. Because of Love. Think about that and be grateful, a good ending to any prayer. Maybe if more folks thought like this, prayed this prayer of empathy, the world would be a better place. To say this prayer you don’t really need a rosary. You don’t even need to be Catholic.”
“It’s worth a try.”
“Yeah, it’s worth a try.”
John Monczunski is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.