“In harmony, small things grow.” – Theodore James Ryken
Most of us have probably heard homily at some point on three or four types of love: éros, or passion; philia, or friendship; agápe, or self-gift; and sometimes storge, or familial love. As cliché as it may sound, these don’t really translate into the English word “love” very well.
It seems that many people take love to be related to the idea of proximity: I love my family or my friends who I spend time with. Most often in our culture, love is painted as a huge affair. We meet that special person, and it’s love at first sight, or we go through a mildly-traumatic ordeal, causing us to fall in love.
If that’s what we think love is, then of course Pope Francis is going to look preposterous when we hear that he goes out onto the streets of Rome after dark to interact with the poor because he loves them.
And if we continue to think of love as the same material that drives romantic comedies, then the world can look pretty hopeless. Besides hunger, poverty, diminishing water supplies, an increasingly-crowded planet, and the ever-looming, though seldom-addressed problem of climate change, it looks like most of us will never find love either. For this kind of love, the stars would need to align.
Love, however, is not exclusively present in fairy tales. Love has humble beginnings.
The Nativity story from the Christian tradition is one example of this. God himself was born into the most humble of settings: not only far from home, but in a place fit for beasts of burden.
I’d like to make this a bit more concrete, so please bear with me.
I may not be Italian, but I do know one thing — Italians love their pasta sauce. Nothing can surpass the family recipe. The origin of tomato-based sauces, though, has humble beginnings.
Tomatoes are indigenous to the Americas, so until they were introduced into Italy by at least 1548, there was no tomato-based pasta sauce. They grew well in the Mediterranean diet, but were only regarded by the upper classes for their beauty. Tomatoes did not have high status and were used by the peasant population in the same way that potatoes were used in Ireland: they were plentiful and cheap and could fill stomachs.
The vegetable is now a favorite for Italian dishes and Italian families, no doubt.
Love for food is not the same as love for others, but I think this helps me to make my point — mainly, that love will grow in unexpected places, and in simple ways.
When we treat love as a special, though daily occurrence, we are not locked into looking for love in all the wrong places. Love is a way that we give ourselves to others in both big and little ways, and it starts with simple actions.
Ask how your friends are doing, and mean it. (Most people are not doing “great” in the week before finals.)
Talk to a homeless person, don’t shift your gaze as if he or she weren’t there. Saying hello is a commitment to a person’s humanity. It’s easy to make and a first step in the right direction.
Many of us have the urge to change the world. We would love to reduce suffering and pain, to wipe away the tears that inevitably fall around the world every day over lack of food, unclean water, crowded living situations, and how hard it is to make ends meet. We can’t change the world overnight, not right away.
We can however, start with little actions, and trust that these will culminate in something much greater, whether you call it the kingdom of God or a better world. Our days can be a little brighter if we love each person we meet, and in the simplest of ways.
In the words of Bishop Ken Untener,
“It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”