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Seeing the world in communion

| Monday, September 28, 2015

“You may say that your parents do so much for you because they love you, and that’s correct. But it is also the case that they love you so much because they do so much for you. You love who you pour your heart into.”

These thoughts, recently spoken by University of Notre Dame Provost Tom Burish, may sound familiar. He shared them near the end of Notre Dame’s opening of the school year mass. I am grateful to my colleague Leonard DeLorenzo, associate professional specialist of theology, who recently drew my attention back to these words.

I believe Dr. Burish has provided two different but interrelated lenses that hold implications for all of our lives as we seek to better understand the challenges and demands of love.

The first part of the quote offers a lens into one of the most common experiences of love: a love that is lived receptively and seen retroactively. In Dr. Burish’s example, this begins from a reality in which love exists within our parents and is shared with us as its recipients.

In this case, we have done nothing to earn their love. Rather, our very existence motivates them to respond outwardly and tangibly with support and care.

Considering the final two sentences of Dr. Burish’s quote invites us to consider another lens of love. This lens examines a love that is lived actively and seen retroactively. That is to say, a love that is recognized not in receiving, but in giving.

Allow me a moment to explain.

When we give something to another person, we establish a relationship with him or her. This “gift” can be something material, but is more often the gift of our time or attention. This act of giving directs our attention for a particular time and can then lead to short-term or long-term relationships.

In the cases where we give extended attention, like in the cases Dr. Burish mentions with parents, or in the cases of friendship or romantic love, we make a claim to the recipient of our attention. This claim assumes that this extended commitment means that they matter in some way to us.

Of course, this should make sense. We pay greater attention to the people that matter. We become connected to them. Our well-being becomes tied-up with their well-being. We feel responsible for them.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved classic “The Little Prince” expounds it this way, using an interaction between a fox and a young prince: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

“[To tame] means to establish ties … to me you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”

Acknowledging that we need each other (and acting on that need) offers us another way of seeing the world not in isolation, but in communion. And it’s love’s job to make sure we can build that world.

A love lived in giving in the world works to combat the fundamental error that sees a hundred-thousand strangers. A giving love anchored in the light of hope knows, by contrast, that there are others for us on the journey.

In the midst of a doubt that blurs commonalities and creates confusion, love seeks to at least try to offer the gift of oneself. Love works with the knowledge that there are others for us, pieces that together will make up the larger mosaic of God’s love. Through this lens, a hundred thousand strangers will appear as a hundred-thousand opportunities for communion.

Dr. Burish invites us to consider the relationship between giving and receiving love. That is, receiving love leads to giving love and giving love leads to receiving love.

Fortunately, we have a God who has given us the reminder that we matter. Receiving his love should give us the strength to pursue other opportunities for communion, moments when we are called to remind others that they matter too. In those moments, we must not be afraid “to establish ties,” to echo the tender offer of: “I would like to journey with you,” an offer we have already received from God.

And we must step toward communion knowing that we might not find the right “pieces” immediately, and that we might get chipped as we try to find those who might fit alongside us.

But, we must not be afraid to give and do much, for we might receive back abundantly the love and communion we were most looking for.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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