One take away that I have gained from Amoris Laetitia is to pay attention to the little things because they do matter. Like many people, I am seeking to follow the Holy Father’s recommendation and read the exhortation a little at a time in order to reflect as I go. I am doing my best to obey the pope in this regard and I have found that the document does lend itself to this style of reflective reading.
The exhortation is rich in scriptural and theological thought on love and marriage and there is much worthy of reflecting upon but one thing that I believe this pope is keenly aware of is that all that richness regarding love and marriage which our tradition affords has to be lived out in the daily and in the ordinary and that our daily choices do make a difference. Love and marriage do not exist locked away somewhere in a hermetically sealed vacuum but are made and grow (or sadly torn down) by the daily choices we make. This is not to deny any of the teachings that the Church has but rather to both see and put them in context and to acknowledge that context does matter.
If God does not disdain the daily and ordinary (i.e. creation and the incarnation) then why should we? Pope Francis is aware of this and through his exhortation he is inviting the Church to this awareness.
One part of the exhortation that brings this awareness out for me can be found in chapters 127 and 128. It is shared below. Notice how the Holy Father offers some astute theological and philosophical reasoning right alongside some very practical and daily observations and advice. The two are not separate for Pope Francis.
…Loving another person involves the joy of contemplating and appreciating their innate beauty and sacredness, which is greater than my needs. This enables me to seek their good even when they cannot belong to me, or when they are no longer physically appealing but intrusive and annoying. For “the love by which one person is pleasing to another depends on his or her giving something freely”.
The aesthetic experience of love is expressed in that “gaze” which contemplates other persons as ends in themselves, even if they are infirm, elderly or physically unattractive. A look of appreciation has enormous importance, and to begrudge it is usually hurtful. How many things do spouses and children sometimes do in order to be noticed! Much hurt and many problems result when we stop looking at one another. This lies behind the complaints and grievances we often hear in families: “My husband does not look at me; he acts as if I were invisible”. “Please look at me when I am talking to you!” “My wife no longer looks at me, she only has eyes for our children.” “In my own home nobody cares about me: they do not even see me; it is if I did not exist!” Love opens our eyes and enables us to see, beyond all else, the great worth of a human being. (AL, #127-128)
The innate dignity of the human person is affirmed along with the solid teaching that no human person should be treated as a means to an end. We can develop the ability to recognize this worth through the profound spiritual truth of making the free choice to love. These are profound truths of our faith grounded both philosophically and theologically and the Holy Father immediately ties them in to our everyday lives when he then goes on to write: Much hurt and many problems result when we stop looking at one another.
It is not enough to just contemplate the idea of love, we must be willing to live the choice to love and that choice is made in the very ordinary and daily context of our lives. In this regards it is the choice to simply gaze on the other person and simply make eye contact. And it does make a difference.
Not that long ago I ran into a parishioner from a previous assignment and she shared with me that one of the things she appreciated about my ministry at her parish was that I actually made eye contact with her and other people when I distributed communion. This assignment was years ago and she still remembered the simple exchange of eye contact and not just hurriedly handing out the Eucharist as if in an assembly line! The little things we do matter for people, more so than we may often realize.
Going further, I think that Pope Francis has recently given the whole world a lesson in this in his willingness to have the Vatican (assisted by the Community of Sant’Egidio) take in and provide shelter for twelve Syrian refugees. The Church and Popes have consistently taught both the dignity of the person and the dignity of refugees. Pope Francis has continued this teaching and he has demonstrated his willingness to go beyond just a theoretical teaching and make the choice to love specifically in the context of our day by welcoming these refugees! Before the whole world, the Pope is practicing what he is preaching. By welcoming these refugees, the Holy Father is demonstrating that he has “made eye contact” as it were; he has gazed upon these men, women and children in their need and has recognized their innate dignity and worth and has made the choice to help them.
Choices made in the daily context of our situations do make a difference including the choice to gaze on the other person with love and respect.
In the gospel for this coming Sunday (Jn. 13:31-33a, 34-35) our Lord gives us the new commandment to love one another. It is important to note that this commandment is not given as a theoretical abstract but is given within a specific context: after our Lord humbles himself and washes the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. Throughout that sacred meal our Lord gazed upon his disciples with love (John tells us that he loved them to the end) and they humbly looked on as he (the teacher and master) washed their feet. Love here is not an idea contemplated but a choice lived for the other.
Choices made in love do matter. They do make a difference. Even the most daily and seemingly mundane of choices to love and show love matter and they connect us, as disciples, to our Lord himself. Pope Francis knows this. Hopefully we can learn from him.