Radical Love; The Way of Christ

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 38, Spring 2006
Common Good Editors

Like Dorothy Day before them, Catholic Workers often quote the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, where Father Zossima says ‘Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams…Active love is labour and fortitude, and, for some people too, perhaps a complete science’. They are words that have encouraged many of us through difficult situations in dark times. But what does it mean where he describes love as ‘perhaps a complete science’?

For many years the Christchurch Catholic Worker has had a special ministry to ex-prison inmates whereby we seek to help some to re-adjust to life outside barred concrete walls. Since 1988, we have had dozens and dozens through our houses. Most of our efforts are well received and positive and many really good things happen. People have stabilised and put their lives in order through the support we can offer on a daily basis. Often it has been many years since they received such support and love. But what happens when all our best efforts backfire and turn to custard? How should we react?

Personalism in action

A few years ago, we paroled an elderly man from prison where he had spent most of his life. He had no friends outside prison. After some months with us, he arranged for a woman to call to see him when we were absent from the house. He attempted to molest her. She belted him with a phone that was handy and the police came. He was recalled to prison. Here, in order to lay the blame elsewhere for his behaviour, he completely turned on those who had helped him. He blamed them for not being there when the offence occurred! He also wanted the woman charged with assault for belting him with the phone. He completely cut off all contact with us, blamed us around the prison for his plight and even changed his religion! This episode brought considerable sadness to us. But thankfully we understood his warped reasoning and the sickness that was in his mind, compounded by years of imprisonment. We really did love him at a deep personal level. Probably, no one knew him better than us. Nor cared for him more. Eventually, when he was sick and felt abandoned again, we were reconciled. He died some months later. And we had the privilege of burying him.

More recently we had a situation where a man, a sex offender with a record of violence towards women, who had no friends and no sponsor, was paroled after many years in prison to one of our Catholic Worker houses. We have always held a quiet pride that there was no one we would not take, be it reluctantly at times. The homeless stranger in our midst was Christ come among us and we were to welcome the stranger. Sex offenders are the modern-day lepers in our society so we sought to welcome him with the face of Christ. There are not many of us – so we don’t have a large pool of talent to draw upon. But we are an experienced lot. And being homeless is being homeless – and blessed are those who offer homes to the homeless.

The homeless stranger in our midst was Christ come among us and we were to welcome the stranger. Sex offenders are the modern-day lepers in our society so we sought to welcome him with the face of Christ.

He came and was warmly welcomed. We cared for him, helped him re-adjust and generally provided all the care that a CW house usually tries to offer. As he regained his confidence, he bought himself a cell phone and started meeting with people outside the usual circle of ex-inmates. What we didn’t know was that he began having sexual relations with a few of the local women who live in our area, whom he later started to harass. He latched on to one in particular and when she objected to his advances, he turned nasty. He stalked her, harassed her by phone and then by text to the point where she was absolutely beside herself with fear. The texts were of a violent nature.

What were we to do? We have been always reluctant to involve the police or probation departments because that can result in a prison recall. But we quickly saw that our faith in him had been largely misplaced and he was a danger to other women. So we called in the authorities. They took action and he was recalled to prison to serve out his time. Eventually it all found its way into the local media and we were vilified for extending hospitality to him.

The dilemma for us was that we knew prison to be the last place where such people get any help. He had already done an internal prison programme. But we were seeking to love him as Christ loved him – and we sought to love the women as Christ loves them. As Dostoevisky says, ‘love in action truly can be a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.’ Unwittingly, we had failed to protect the wider community from him. Not that there was much we could have done. Even though still on parole, he was a free man and had been due to be released without our help within a few months. We agonised about this situation and prayed about it before notifying the authorities. We believe the action we took was another form of radical love, where he would be protected against himself and the women from him. A harsh and dreadful love? Indeed.

But maybe too ‘a complete science’? We needed to try and understand the complexities of the situation from several perspectives. Perhaps this is what ‘a complete science’ means. This love is deep and it is complex and it needs to be thought through to its end. And it took us way beyond our normal loving responses into something much more calculating.

An earlier episode of trying to live this radical love of the Gospel with the CW occurred when we worked for 15 years with a disturbed drug addicted woman and her children. She had been in prison and had become homeless. She cold-turkeyed off drugs in one of our houses. She is an expert at fraud and a convincing plausible con artist. Over a period she systematically thieved money from our cheque accounts, some of which she used to import drugs into the country. Because she had dependent children, we helped her face that with a restorative justice conference in which she handed over the drugs which were destroyed and agreed to a whole raft of conditions. Later she offended again, was charged with fraud and returned to prison.

Maybe at times radical love can be a mystery stripped of all affection but ultimately reflecting an unexpected presence of God.

From prison she wrote a letter to the local bishop complaining about the treatment she had received from us. Her claim was investigated and found to be false. Upon her release, she again became homeless. She returned to us, sick, begging to be allowed to stay until she got back on her feet. ‘I was homeless’. We knew she was a huge risk – but in the spirit of radical love, we took her in. She again defrauded us – and complained we had defrauded her! This time she added a sexual abuse allegation to her charges. Because her disease is one where she lives in a fantasy world, we have been unable to effectively seek her treatment or answer her charges. Her sickness is ongoing.

Love – a complete science?

But the fall-out for us is that we sometimes question our desire to become involved with these desperately needy people. Were we too trusting with them? Our homes for the homeless are usually pretty open sorts of places. When we say we will love radically, then we try and do that – and that means giving a certain level of trust. It also means often picking up and working with people who have fallen through the cracks of other welfare organisations and agencies. And it means we can’t guarantee results.

What is the nature of this radical love to which we are called? Do we need on occasions to make of it ‘a complete science’ as Dostoevsky suggests? Was the death of Jesus for the sins of the world, love as ‘a complete science’? It didn’t make sense to anyone except Jesus himself at the time. It was a huge act of love for the wormiest of sinners. That includes each of us. If we are seeking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who died in an act of radical love for the human family, do we need to understand better how to reach out appropriately to the most difficult of our neighbours, making of love ‘a complete science’? What does it mean in practical terms? There are many questions and few clear answers. How much risk is justified? What role does prudence play? Who else will love enough to give such people another chance?

Dostoevsky reminds us at the end of his famous quotation ‘that the miraculous power of the Lord has been there all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you’. Perhaps a clue is found here. Maybe at times radical love can be a mystery stripped of all affection but ultimately reflecting an unexpected presence of God. Perhaps that is a modern day presence of Jesus on the Cross: God – the essence of love – being executed ignominiously on Calvary? In the instances above, did our radical love really turn to custard? Or is it more likely that, despite the difficulties presented, we have failed to see the mysterious presence of God in these situations?

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