One of the ways that I use social media is to gain insight into the perspectives of people whose lives and beliefs are radically different. Recently I came across a video that was titled something like, “Egg Donor is Reunited with Babies!” Curious, I clicked on it. That video led to another, and another, and to insight into a complicated family system with beliefs radically contrary to my beliefs as a Catholic.
When faced with these videos of smiling faces promoting lifestyles that are contrary to Catholic teaching on marriage, family, etc. I was faced with two options. My first instinct was to feel deep sadness and even anger. My initial feelings made it easy for me to distance myself from them and their very different lifestyle.
But I also felt — as many faithful Catholics feel when faced with the current state of our society — helpless. And, if I’m honest, any anger that I felt was primarily coming from feeling helpless. What can I possibly do to change our society? Even speaking out in any way on social media would brand me for “hate speech.”
Then, it occurred to me. I could love them.
Love as Action
The word “love” is used liberally by our culture, but what we mean by love is different than what the culture means. Love is more than a feeling. Love is action (sometimes, not always, accompanied by warm feelings).
If we want to see love in its most perfect state, we need look no further than the cross. Christ, suffering and dying on the cross, is the epitome of love. This realization is freeing, because many of us don’t always “feel” love for those in our lives. I love my husband even more than I did when I first met him, but I don’t “feel” those initial fluttery, distracted feelings I felt then. I love my children, but I don’t feel warm, fuzzy feelings when I am correcting a child who is having a tantrum, or cleaning up a dirty diaper, or suffering from extreme sickness for months during pregnancy.
A very simple example of this is the regular conversation that I have with my five-year-old. This spirited daughter of mine often finds herself in time-out, and she will frequently yell from her room, “You don’t love me anymore!” while she waits for her punishment to end. When she yells this, I will gently correct her, “Mommy and Daddy do love you. We want you to have self-control, so you can be a happy person. If we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t bother giving you a timeout.”
Sometimes, love — willing “the good” of another — doesn’t look like love. Sometimes, love requires speaking the truth about a self-harming behavior. I have children who would love nothing more than to eat ice cream at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’m sure it would make them very happy. But, is it good for them? Not in the long run.
When faced with some of the beliefs currently held by our society, we encounter a similar problem. There are things our society believes are healthy and good, and that they believe everyone should support. “Happiness” is considered paramount. Opposing those beliefs is held out as hate.
But what if this opposition is coming from a place of love? What if our strength of belief in our Catholic faith means that we truly want “the good” for everyone? What if “the good” is more than temporal happiness? What if the most loving thing is desiring the eternal happiness of another?
Penance as An Act of Love (Not Endurance)
As we begin Lent, we are faced with the choice of what we are going to “give up.” Penance is meant to be a means of detaching us from lesser goods, in pursuit of a higher good. My oldest child is giving up dessert this Lent. Dessert isn’t bad for her, but by giving up this good thing, it opens her up to learn how to love God even more than dessert.
But sometimes, penance is done for the sake of endurance. Sometimes, we “give something up” just to see if we can. Can I go 40 days without coffee? Alcohol? Sweets? This way of practicing penance can help us grow in self-control, but it doesn’t necessarily help us to grow in love.
Christ didn’t die on the cross just to prove how much he was capable of suffering. He was only willing to undergo such a horrific death because he loved us.
Likewise, our own penance will be easier if we “offer it up” for the love of another. Any sacrifice or suffering can be “offered up” as a prayer to God for another person. But what about offering up your Lenten penance for someone?
Since our Lenten penance is meant to be a practice that leads us to imitation of Christ’s love on the cross, it seems especially appropriate to choose someone (or several someones) to offer up our Lenten penances for. In my experience, penance is easier to do, when done with a specific person in mind.
Choosing to Respond in Love
So, coming back to the story of the family that I encountered on YouTube, how did I respond to encountering people on social media with beliefs different than my own? Did I comment to correct them on the error of their ways? Did I share their channel on social media feeds, so others could correct and judge them?
No. I decided to pray for them and offer penance for them. What is my intention? I have simply been praying for them to become saints. I have no idea what that will look like. I don’t presume to know God’s plan for their lives, or how that plan will come to fruition.
But do you know what? Praying for them and doing penance for them has changed me. I don’t feel anger toward them, or disgust. I feel love. I see their humanity. I genuinely want the good for them, in a way that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been praying for them.
I wish that I could claim the credit for this idea, but my real inspiration is St. Therese of Lisieux. As a teenager, she heard about an unrepentant man who was on death row. She took him into her heart, lovingly praying for him. In the final moment of his life, he reached for the crucifix to kiss it. It wasn’t a huge or dramatic conversion, but just a simple little moment that confirmed something powerful for Therese — our prayers for each other, when genuinely offered in love, really do make a difference.