Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” — John 13:8
I heard a homily the other day in which the preacher said,
“Let’s ask for the grace to serve Christ in others and allow others to serve Christ in us.”
I was taken by that last point, allowing others to serve Christ in us. It made me think of how difficult it can be for those who commit their lives untiringly to the service of others to allow others to serve them; or to serve with them. One somewhat related example came to mind. The details of the story has been sufficiently altered to make identification of those involved impossible.
When I was living on the East coast, I once served alongside a woman who was selfless to the extreme. It was a privilege to work with her and learn from her sacrificial approach to life. She’s one of those people who never seems to tire and who forgets to eat because she’s too busy feeding other people. During the time that I worked with her, she gained a very powerful insight into herself that she graciously agreed to allow me to share in my teaching work.
Once she came to “vent” to me about another person who was asked to help her lead a service committee project. She was frustrated with this other person’s need to “control” the project, to be involved in every decision and be present for everything. As we talked through her anger, it became clearer to her that what was really at stake was not just a conflict over control but a conflict over appearance and efficiency.
She realized that she was so used to being the front person in everything she set her mind to — giving excessively of her time and energy so, in effect, no one could compete — that the idea that someone else might steal some of that “most giving” spotlight from her was, deep down, very threatening. That’s a tough thing to admit, and I was deeply moved by her sincerity in being willing to face this struggle so candidly.
She also confessed that, truth be told, she was far more efficient than this other person and could get the job done much faster without them. We explored this point a bit, and she again admitted that the deeper issue seemed to be not just efficiency but working with someone that rubbed her the wrong way. We talked about the fact that for a Christian, work is never simply about efficiency, but is also about learning to love others by means of a common task that requires mutual dependence and challenging collaboration. I mentioned that I loved the fact that in the Gospels Christ seemed to intentionally choose for his disciples people who were not at all naturally comfortable with each other, and he challenged them to become a model community of reconciled humanity.
We also came to a common insight that real love, tough virtue, costly grace can only be had when we learn to love Christ in others and learn to be loved by Christ though others. Christ appears above all in the midst of relationships, especially the tattered, yucky, unpleasant, ragged-edged ones that make our spirits sweat.
I later thought and noted in my journal: Selflessness without a love that is genuinely about every neighbor, and not just the pleasant or agreeable ones, can easily become cleverly disguised selfishness. I also thought of my professor, Dr. Germain Grisez’s, pithy point:
“One should not be pressed by enthusiasm or impatience to act individualistically for basic human goods.”
Even if the “products” of our labors (e.g. a successful event, a clean house) are less refined or more laborious, the dirty collaborative process of creating that product, especially with an un-chosen neighbor, can, in many ways, be the far more important product.
After our conversation, she said something which I felt was worth its weight in gold:
“Pray that I will now be able to allow Christ to call me to deeper love through this person. Or, better yet, let Christ love me through this person. That’s the harder one for me, so it’s probably the better.”