‘Do you have another dollar?”
I honest to goodness heard it a second too late.
And what’s too late anyway?
Outside some urban churches, a man or woman — quite often multiple men and women — will reliably ask anyone entering or exiting for money, particularly right before and after Mass.
On this particular day, I had seen two men, one with a cup, as I was leaving Mass. I smiled, and the man with the cup asked if I had a dollar. I did, and I gave it to him along with a little coin bearing a message from St. Rose of Lima, to nourish the interior. I smiled at the second man, but he seemed to be otherwise occupied, and so I kept walking. A few strides away, I realized he was addressing me, and what he was asking belatedly clicked. It seemed awkward to turn around at that point. But it would have been authentic to turn around. It would have been the loving thing to do. To stay and talk. To be present. To be Christian, for Heaven’s sake.
We easily pass by many people daily, without actually encountering them. Cashiers, waiters, strangers on the street. It’s our reality outside of small communities. But these are missed opportunities, and falling into indifference divorces us from the obligations that come with our common humanity. How many of us have sick or lonely friends we don’t make the time to visit? Maybe it’s a modern thing. Maybe it’s fallout from the fact that, thanks to the Internet, we can have thousands of “friends” that we never actually interact with. How long has it been? And then one day you get a death notice, and it’s officially too late for that “perfect” visit you were going to make. Time will eventually be up.
I went to Mass that day after attending a forum with the Dalai Lama. Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute was hosting him. I walked to church with Howard Jones’s ’80s pop tune “What is loooove anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?” in my head. His song is but one of many asking the “What is love?” question on Billboard charts through the decades. With or without synthesizers, this is, of course, the stuff of art and life in more than pop-candy or rhetorical ways, as we grapple with our deepest longings.
We talk about love — whether real or an imposter we settle for — we sing about it, our senses are drawn to it. But are we living it?
We are on the eve of the Christian penitential season of Lent, as anyone in New Orleans making Mardi Gras preparations is well aware. As the Pope Francis of Rolling Stone and Time magazine covers reminds us, love isn’t candy hearts (now on wild discount at your local drugstore): It is wanting the good for another. Love draws from the depths of our hearts and requires a vulnerability and sacrifice. Love hurts — that’s another golden oldie of the music charts, which made the Everly Brothers (R.I.P., Phil) a hit because we know it to be true. So much so that, the pope reminds us, it isn’t love if it doesn’t hurt. Yes, love involves joy and then some. But what does love look like as an everyday matter? And in the long term? What are the implications of commitment and raising kids and growing old and all the times before and after and in between, as we love, always respecting the freedom of one another, with patience?
This is the way the pope puts it in his Lenten message: Dear brothers and sisters, may this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral, and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ. We can do this to the extent that we imitate Christ, who became poor and enriched us by his poverty. Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: No self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”
I write a lot about Pope Francis here. I do so because, while many seem moved by him, I’m not convinced we’re really hearing him. And, from the many questions and comments I receive, I think we want to get it. What is his joy? What is his peace? How can I have that? Filled with the spirit of God — which requires daily prayer and that self-denial Pope Francis talks about, real rigorous spiritual discipline — he is a Jesuit father trying to stretch hearts, in the tradition of St. Ignatius Loyola and his Spiritual Exercises and missionary charism. So that we see the love of God for us, so that we see Him in others, and so that we seek healing and forgiveness, receiving and giving, in hope.
Pope Francis talks so much about “encounter” and going to the “peripheries” to love. Sometimes the peripheries are right in front of us. It’s the stranger with a question, who is silently asking for more than a dollar. It’s the friend we’ve not made time for. It’s the love we think we don’t have the capacity for. It’s our vulnerability and sacrifice. It’s about doing more than we’re comfortable with — if we’re comfortable, if it’s not stretching our hearts, if it’s not hurting, it may just be a pop song or a lecture prepared in advance.
And as the Dalai Lama put it, it can start with a smile. Which had some effect on him at AEI, as he confessed he had a new respect for capitalists, who he had previously thought were all about money and exploitation. What miracles can happen when you simply have a conversation with a person you reach out to — it’s probably safe to say the Dalai Lama was going to the peripheries at a conservative think tank — or with the man who just so happens to be right in front of you.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She is also on the board of the Catholic Information Center. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.