In today’s First Reading there is an evolutionary pivot point:
“Brothers and sisters: If there is any encouragement in Christ, and solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also everyone for those of others.” (Philippians 2:1-4)
It is somewhat counter-cultural, and so evolutionary, to “regard others as more important than” ourselves. Paul does not suggest that we put ourselves down falsely, or to intentionally debase ourselves.
Rather, the letter suggests that we think from the perspective of other people. That we make the mental leap to imagine the world from another’s point of view.
What if there’s a plate of home-made cookies in the kitchen at the workplace. Tom had one earlier at the morning coffee-break. In the afternoon he swings through there again for some icewater. There is one cookie left. He considers, “Should I take it? I don’t feel that I need it at the time.”
But then Tom thinks: “Maybe someone else would really enjoy it. Maybe it would benefit them, and give them a boost of energy, and a bit of happiness. They might enjoy the taste even more than me. OK, I’ll let another person have it.”
Simple thought exercises like this are highly evolutionary. They get us thinking about other human beings. They get us thinking about the happiness of other people.
Men might find it harder than women do to think of the point of view of other people. Also, people who are not parents of children might find it more difficult to do this “wider perspective” thinking than adults who are parents. But all of us can do the imaginative labor of considering not only the perspective, but also the benefit, of other people. The happiness of others is at least as important as the happiness of me.
Could such thought-exercises actually transform us into more evolved beings? Could such attitudes begin to connect our souls in more profound ways?
The desert monks of Egypt, those great Ammas and Abbas who began Christian monasticism 1700 years ago, helped lead me to join the monastic life. Bruno Barnhart, a monastic teacher of many, once said about monks that he knew as a young man, “They were like tough old men with hearts of gold.” They helped him join the monastic life.
As a young monk I was trying to figure out how to love other people. Is it possible to actually love other people? Nietzsche said something very humorous about Jesus. He said that Jesus had an illness. The illness of Jesus was this: When people were mean to Jesus, Jesus’ response was to love them. Nietzsche hinted that this illness that Jesus had was not too contagious, because he also said that “the only Christian died on the Cross.”
Well, Nietzsche, that witty misanthrope, was just plain wrong.
Yes, learning how to love is difficult.
Yes, people can make us really angry at times.
Yes, there are distractions that would take us away from the pursuit of love.
Yes, in times of confusion, people tend to contract into themselves, and it is less inviting to reach out to others in love.
But look at how much humanity has achieved in recent millennia. There is so much love in the world, despite the evening news, and despite the chaos. There is much to be thankful for (and much work yet to be done).
So as a young monk, when I was trying to figure out how to more authentically love people, I asked Bruno, “How does one do that?”
Sitting up more sharply at his desk, making his eyes large, he said in a louder-than-usual voice, “One of the desert monks said, ‘Love my enemies?! I can’t even love those who love me!’”
He paused a minute to let that sink in.
Now, that day at Mass, the Gospel had been from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. One of Jesus’ brilliant teachings there is this:
“Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your bosom. For the measure you give will be the measure you receive.” (Luke 6:38)
Bruno said, “Do you remember today’s Gospel?”
I nodded yes.
He said, “The pivot is to give.”
To give. To get into the mode of thinking of others, of giving to others. This is the development of the verb-stature of Love inside of our beings.
When we love. When we love. When we overcome our fears…. When we have Faith enough to love: We find that the universe responds to us. With love. There are helps along the way that teach us how to love more effectively. How to grow. People help us out, too. People love us, too.
A great deal of this has already happened in our history. Thank goodness.
Somewhere on the internet this morning I read an Islamic author who said that Love is more like a river than a reservoir.