Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Tenderness

Father holding his newborn baby pavlo kolotenko

Pope Francis’ words and actions during yesterday’s inaugural mass are rich in inspiration, where one could reflect on his adherence to the readings of the day’s feast of St. Joseph instead of those intended for a Pope’s installation, his choice to depart from custom and have the Gospel sung in Greek as opposed to Latin (surely in honor of Patriarch Bartholomew I - the first Orthodox Patriarch to be at a pope’s inaugural mass since 1054!), his nods both to Benedict XVI and John Paul II, and his insistence on “authentic power [being] service.” Of all the aspects of the day, it is the following passage from his sermon that spoke to me most:
“[L]et us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. […] Being protectors […] also means keeping watch over our emotions, over our hearts, because they are the seat of good and evil intentions: intentions that build up and tear down! We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness!

[… C]aring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!”
Taken together with the other things Pope Francis said since his election (and before it!), I see a very clear call both to making a serious commitment - a commitment that has its eyes on the cross, that understands suffering as participation in Jesus’ passion, that is concerned about the truth and that exercises control over oneself, one’s emotions and impulses - and to transmitting the warmth, compassion and tenderness that God has for us to our brothers and sisters. While it was his emphasis on tenderness that caught my eye here, I have also been thinking about his positioning it in the context of protection, which seems to have these two sides: one of strength and effort on the side of the protector and the other of gentleness shown to the protected. In many ways this mirrors John Paul II’s dictum: “Be strict to yourself and generous to others.”

In my personal experience I have had several friends who have come to the - to my mind erroneous - conclusion that a spiritual life ought to suppress what they saw as a purely human need for warmth, for tenderness, for personal connection. This has always been an attitude that has made me concerned for their wellbeing and sadly in many cases has lead them to deep crises and disillusionment, which for some resulted even in an abandonment of their erstwhile ideals. At the heart of such an assumed spiritual-affective opposition is, in my opinion, a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is to be human - a person made in God’s image.

God being three persons who love each other to the point of being one means that we too are made for communion, for closeness, for togetherness - a point also highlighted by John Paul II saying: “God is One, but not alone”. The tenderness that Pope Francis talks about is therefore not something outside what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and a human being made in God’s image, but very much at its heart. Even just a cursory glance at the Bible reveals that it is brimming over with God’s tenderness, where the following are just a couple of my favorite examples:
  1. “For God will hide me in his shelter
    in time of trouble,
    He will conceal me in the cover of his tent;
    and set me high upon a rock.” (Psalm 27:5)

  2. “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, Carrying them in his bosom, leading the ewes with care.” (Isaiah 40:11)

  3. ““Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them.” (Mark 10:15-16)

  4. “When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.”” (John 11:32-36)

  5. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

  6. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling!” (Matthew 23:37)

  7. “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.”” (John 19:25-17)
At the same time as placing tenderness at the heart of his message, Pope Francis also emphasizes that it - as well as the self-sacrifice implied by being protectors of the universe and of our brothers and sisters - is open to all: “The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone.” Where the Pope, and with him the whole Church, believes that every human “is a child of God.”