Very often Ill get the greatest lessons when I least expect them, or, more appropriately, when Im least prepared for them.
The Holy Spirit has a pesky tendency to intrude on our reverie and our distractions and then hit us with a reality that we cant deny, which usually makes us uncomfortable and jolts us out of our complacency. Sometimes its a lot louder than that "still small voice."
I can still remember the cold Sunday morning when the pastor of the small church in New Hampshire stepped to the pulpit and looked out on a sleepy congregation of a few dozen people huddled together on cold wooden pews.
The radiators began knocking as the furnace struggled to heat the old clapboard building. It was so cold, I wanted to get up and leave, but instead I sat there and shivered.
Then, he started to talk about the meaning of love and forgiveness and all the things we should be doing but have neither the desire nor the inclination to do.
My middle-aged mind, which constantly hovers between forgetfulness and distraction, was already wandering from fantasy to anxiety and back again.
What would I do with that ailing 401(k)? Should I move my investments out of stocks and into money markets? They were taking a beating, and if I were to be lucky, I might be able to retire by 80 or so, judging from the way things were going. Should I borrow from my account and buy a cabin on the coast of Maine? What if I moved to Bermuda and bought myself a moped? Could I find work? Would I find happiness?
And then the priest said something that wrenched me from my wayward thoughts: "The person who needs love the most is the one who deserves it the least."
Was he talking about me? Whom was he talking about?
"The person who needs love the most is the one who deserves it the least."
He was right. I could think of a half-dozen or so no-good scoundrels who exemplified this principle. They were typically prominent men and women who were successful by worldly standards. They were people I had no intention of even trying to love. They were liars and cheats and manipulators and self-promoters who were incapable of love stop me before I get carried away.
Yet, deep down in my heart, I knew they needed love. I just wanted someone else to give it to them. Wasnt it enough that I avoided them? Though, actually, when I thought about it, Jesus never said "Avoid your enemy, stay away from those who hate you." That, I suppose, would have been too easy.
Every so often, I realize love is more about giving than getting. Its being rebuffed when you struggle to do good for someone. Its making yourself vulnerable. Its opening yourself to insult and rejection but still trying to love anyway. Its knowing youre bound to be hurt but being willing to suffer that pain for someone else.
Its letting your spouse have the last word even if its a hurtful word and he or shes dead wrong. Its forgiving a person who doesnt deserve to be forgiven.
Throughout my life, Ive struggled to love unselfishly, but Ive never been successful, and Im convinced unconditional love is something Ill never achieve as long as Im looking for something in return. So many times Ive mistaken fantasy love for real love.
When I do, Im reminded of what the great Russian writer Dostoevsky said: "Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams."
Thats a terrifying thought. It was something Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement liked to remind people of, and she knew, because much of her life was spent helping the down and out, and very often they were people who were "unlovable" in the dreamy sense that we define love as. There was nothing warm and cozy about her love.
Sometimes I wish I could perform one only one act of unselfish love to an undeserving soul. It would be a good start, but my love is capitalistic love. I always expect a return on my investment. But thats not the way Jesus wanted it. Yes, love is a harsh and dreadful thing.
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.