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From Helping to Loving

Sister, we must love these people very much, so that they can forgive us for helping them.
~ St. Vincent De Paul (1581-1660)
I stumbled upon this quote in an essay by Krister Stendahl and I was struck by how “contemporary” it sounded. Given that much of Christian charity during the modern period has been marked by a certain triumphalism and condescension, we tend to consider those who speak of true service of the poor and the outcasts — service that discovers God already present within the poor, and service that discovers that one is often more blessed than blessing — as entering into a new and exciting phase of journeying with those who are in exile. The quote from St. Vincent would suggest otherwise. We are not discovering something new, we are discovering something that some of us lost somewhere along the way. St. Vincent realized just how much pride and how much justification of self-indulgence we tend to invest in so-called “acts of charity.” He knew that often the ways in which we “help” others are far more about us than they are about the people that we are “helping.” And he knew how much “charity” is often simply a veneer that helps perpetuate the broader social structures that maintain the gap between the rich and the poor.
Yet the solution St. Vincent offers is not to stop all our efforts to be helpful. Rather, we must learn to love “very much.” The contrast between the language of “helping” and the language of “love” is significant. The language of “helping” establishes a hierarchy and an unequal, and often unhealthy, power divide. Thus the “helper” is able to gain nearly total control over those who are, by definition, “helpless.” However, with love such hierarchies and such unequal divisions of power are abolished. Love leads us to the place where any exchange that takes place is mutual and, most importantly, natural. Thus, Stendahl goes on to say, “true love demands that neither the giver nor the receiver be conscious of giving or receiving.” The exchanges that take place because of love are not exchanges that keep tallies or records of debts. Rather, all such categories are abolished and we are no longer “givers” and “receivers” but “lovers” and “beloved.”
Indeed, as I have moved ever more deeply into journeying with those who are in exile, I have had the delight of experiencing both sides of that love relationship. As I have begun to travel down the road of loving very much, I have, to my delight, also discovered myself to be loved very much. This is a great source of joy to me. How I wish that all those who are in Christ knew the joy of being loved by those who are in exile.

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