Letter from Marist School President Fr. Rowland on Ardent Love of Neighbor

Marist School President Father Bill Rowland, S.M.  shares a meditation on the Marist Way theme for the 2020-2021 academic year, "Ardent Love of Neighbor," in the time of the COVID-19 global pandemic and racial injustice. 
2020-2021 Marist Theme: Ardent Love of Neighbor
A Meditation on Ardent Love of Neighbor and the Pandemic

Dear Marist School Community,
We begin the 2020-2021 academic year with Marist School opening amid a pandemic and needing to respond to racial insensitivity that certain events at Marist last year revealed as needing urgent and immediate attention. I am going to look at both of these through this year’s Marist theme that we will be reflecting upon and practicing, ardent love of neighbor. To do this well, I am going to do this in two parts, with the first one looking at the pandemic through this year’s Marist theme. In September, I will use this Marist theme as a lens through which to look at the issues around diversity, inclusion, and racism.

In both these articles, I am “thinking out loud” and am inviting you to “think along with me.” My starting point begins with Fr. Colin, founder of the Society of Mary. He wanted the Marists to look to Mary as the model of what a disciple of Jesus should look like. Mary, while on earth and now in heaven, continues to do what a good disciple should do: look to her Son for direction and guidance.

We Marists believe that the Risen Jesus directed her to found a Society named after her. She is only doing from heaven what she did on earth. She is being faithful to her last recorded words in the New Testament when she instructed the Church to, “Do whatever he tells you.” Like Mary, who pondered on (reflected, meditated) all that her Son was saying and doing, we will ponder what her Son said and did in the Scriptures that will direct how we should respond to this pandemic. We pray to her to guide us as we proceed.

I invite you to join me in considering specific Scripture passages that I think are relevant to what we are experiencing as we make our way through this pandemic. I am very much aware that for all of us, our lives have been roughly tossed about as if they were a boat on the high seas in the midst of a mighty storm. You will recall when the disciples were in a boat in the middle of a storm. They, too, were being tossed about by the strong wind and waves. Many of our emotional responses to COVID-19 may be similar to the panic, fear, anger, frustration, and desperation of those same disciples. There is no shame in doing what the disciples did. They shouted (prayed) and woke up Jesus, who was asleep. St. Augustine surmised that we put Jesus to sleep because we rarely turn to him when we need him the most.

Everything that follows from here on is intended to have the same effect on our inner turmoil, as did the following words of Jesus addressed to the elements, “He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased, and there was great calm.” (Mark 4:39)

That is where I want you to land so, if you are up to it, let us see if I can get you there.

Four lessons (graces) God provides to aid us as we make our way through this pandemic.
Let’s look at the pandemic. We know that God does not cause evil, but God does permit it and “bends it” to serve His purposes. In our case, given the severity of the pandemic, it has the feel of a “wake-up call.” If so, what are we to wake-up to and see that directly impinges on our eternal salvation? What lessons (graces) are we meant to learn from it? We will revisit that question in the context of issues regarding diversity, inclusion, and racism, but, for now, let me present four lessons (graces) God provides to aid us as we make our way through this pandemic.

The first lesson (grace): Treasure our relationship with God above anyone and anything else.
You will recall that Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Mt. 6:26-34)

Not worrying about tomorrow is quite a challenge, given the impact that COVID-19 has had on our society. I am aware of how many parents have had sleepless nights worrying about many things. Chief among them is finding another job, keeping the job they have, paying bills (house payments, grocery bills, tuition, clothing, utilities, medical bills, prescriptions, taxes) but on a reduced salary, depleting savings to make ends meet, wondering if we will ever get beyond the pandemic, all the while trying to avoid succumbing to COVID-19. Perhaps we find it easier to agree with the statement, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Talking about tomorrow and its troubles feels like piling on.

Now, let us look at what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying, “Seek only the kingdom of God,” as if Jesus is saying, “Seek God and don’t worry about paying bills, having a job, passing a test, or getting COVID-19. What Jesus is saying is, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” In other words, make sure loving God and serving God’s purposes are your number one priority. If you do that, you will not be consumed by worry and fear about the things of this world that do require our attention and concern. The one legitimate fear that should consume us is the fear of losing God, of not being in the right relationship with our Creator, of not being connected, or in sync, or in harmony with God, who is love. That, too, is what faith looks like: believing or trusting that God is love and channeling that love to our neighbor, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.

If you want to know what that looks like, read A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt. It is about the life of St. Thomas More, who had it all, lost it all, and died for his faith because it put him in opposition with his king. When the time of his execution approached, he said, “I die the king’s good friend, but God’s first.”

If God is not our top priority, then something else will be, and that leads to being consumed by fear and worry about the cares of this world. We will find ourselves spending less time and energy praying, worshipping, doing spiritual reading, looking for ways to serve, and examining our lives. Our time will be usurped, and our energy will be redirected away from God and used primarily and maybe only in seeking or attending to the cares of this kingdom (world). Yes, there will always be something to be afraid of or to worry about. However, we are meant to be consumed with the love of God, not by fear.

So, what is one lesson or grace to be found in the pandemic? You may point out that the pandemic has given us more to worry about than ever before! Yes, and at some point, that should lead us to throw up our hands in surrender and open them to embrace God and His love, and reaffirm that relationship to be first in our lives around which everything else revolves and is subservient. If we can say that and mean it, we will be amazed as to what a difference that will make. If we can’t say that; then, it is time to identify the ways we are in conflict with God and make peace so that God’s love flows through us, pushing aside all of our legitimate concerns and worries and putting them in their proper place. That is the first lesson or grace: make sure that we treasure our relationship with God above our relationships with anyone and anything else.

Yes, some days we are better at it than other days. It is the desire – however weak – that gives birth to effort and persistence – however tenuous – that God, in His mercy, appreciates and will bless. When the desire becomes deathly cold, the effort and perseverance will quickly suffer the same fate. From the Divine perspective, there may be vast numbers of people throughout the world in this spiritual state. Hence, the need for a wake-up call.

The second lesson (grace): Move toward Christ and not away from him.
What does this have to do with ardent love of neighbor? Well, remember what Jesus said in response to the question about what are the two greatest commandments. He said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt. 22: 36-40)

We cannot ardently love our neighbor unless we are not ardently (passionately, fervently, devotedly, eagerly) in love with God, who has first ardently loved us. The best way to do that is to deepen our relationship with Christ. We do that by reflecting on His Word (Scripture) and staying close to him physically by remaining engaged with His Church, especially through the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. Take God out of the equation, and our ardent love for others will quickly dissipate. Why? It is because loving others, especially if it involves their conversion, is tough love that will inevitably weaken and ultimately die due to the resistance that can be expected.

Even during a pandemic, Marist School will make time to do our spiritual practices: to pray, to study our faith, to serve, to worship, to work for justice, to celebrate the sacraments the best we can. We will push aside all of the legitimate worries and concerns that we associate with the pandemic, school, family, work, class preparations, and make room to do those things that signal and even awaken our desire to seek first the kingdom of God. That is what it looks like to put God first and to make that relationship our top priority while not neglecting the other relationships that need our attention.

Then we can love our neighbor as ourselves, and we can love ourselves because God first loved us. Remaining in God’s love, or in Christ, is crucial to loving our neighbor. That is the second lesson or grace that God offers us: use the pandemic to move closer to Christ without whom we are sure to drown in our anxieties and fears. If our relationship with Christ has been lukewarm, now would be the time to pray for the grace of ardent love of Him and our neighbor.
The third lesson (grace): The way through the pandemic is the way of the cross.
Loving our neighbor amid a pandemic means wearing a mask, practicing social distance, and regularly washing our hands, not only when on campus but, especially, when off-campus. The primary motivation for taking these actions is not fear though it is reasonable for people to be fearful of being infected with COVID-19. When we ask the Marist community to take these precautions, the primary motivation is the love of our neighbor.

Who is our neighbor? Our neighbor, as the parable of the Good Samaritan points out, are those who are in need beginning with those who are closest to us. In the case of Marist School, our neighbor, those who are closest to us, are our family members, friends, classmates, teachers, coaches, administrators, and staff. All of us need each other to protect each other from being infected with COVID-19. Consequently, we wear a mask, practice social distancing, regularly wash our hands and, yes, engage in virtual learning not because we enjoy doing any of these things, which we do not. We do them out of consideration of the legitimate health concerns of our neighbor.

That is what ardent love of neighbor looks like during a pandemic. If the inconvenience or loss of freedom is too much of a price to pay, consider spending time before a crucifix. God’s love for us and our loving response will, of necessity, spill over into the love of our neighbor that will take the form of the cross. It will hurt us. It will cost us. We will not like it. We will walk away from the cross unless we remain in Christ. Otherwise, the love of our neighbor will inevitably weaken and ultimately die due to the resistance that can be expected. Sometimes that resistance is internal.

This is why our love of neighbor must be rooted in God, who is love and who loved us so much that He sent His only Son to die on a cross so that we might have eternal life. (John 3:16) The discomfort and dislike caused by wearing masks, social distancing, getting our temperature taken, virtual learning, and remote teaching, doing without so many things that makes life pleasant feel like crosses to bear. They are. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9: 23) That is the third lesson (grace) God offers us: the way through this pandemic will be the way of the cross.

Mary accompanied Jesus on His way of the cross. We can expect her to accompany us on our way of the cross. In difficult times, Fr. Colin turned to her for comfort, consolation, and help. We should do the same.

The fourth lesson (grace) is the urgency that accompanies the call to conversion.
The one thing the pandemic has brought to our attention is our mortality. We know not the day nor the hour we will be called to God. It can happen if we are ill or if we are healthy! Granted, most of us would prefer to avoid such a thought. Hence, the need for a wake-up call.

Our time on this earth is limited and known to God but not to us. COVID-19 could strike any of us at any time. One day, in an instant, we will appear in God’s presence to give an accounting for the life we have lived. That thought should not depress us but, rather, spur us on with the words of St. Matthew in mind, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Mt. 6 19-21)

As I said at the beginning, we should treasure our relationship with God above all things and live accordingly. If that is not the case, now would be an excellent time to correct that, while there still is time. That is the fourth lesson or grace: the urgency that accompanies the call to conversion. God liberally showers his mercy on us through the many blessings God offers during the time we have left. We had better take advantage of them. Because we know not the day nor the hour, there is an urgency to responding now and not later that may prove to be too late.

Let us look at this from God’s side. We are all familiar with human beings' search for God. Yes, that is found in the bible. However, the central point of the biblical story is about God’s search for us who are wounded by and lost to sin. The great mystery is that God, who created the universe and gave us the gift of life, who has everything and needs nothing, wants us to return His love with our love for Him. We see the intensity and the persistence of the father’s love in the parable of the prodigal son. The father searched the horizon daily, looking for any sign that his son, who was lost, was finally returning. You can feel the sense of urgency as the days of his non-return increase.

There is also urgency on God’s part, too, about each one of us whom he called by name and loved into existence. He cannot wait for us to say yes to His offer of friendship. He is as eager for our response as is a young man proposing to his fiancée who is excited, nervous, and urgently wants to know how she will respond. God, who ardently loves each one of us, wants to know how we will respond to His offer of friendship during the remaining time we have on earth. Because our time on this earth is limited, we can imagine God is becoming “more anxious.” With each passing day, his scanning the horizon looking for us is becoming more urgent. As I said, there is urgency on God’s part, too, lest our failure to accept the invitation becomes irreversible, and time runs out. So, if you realize that your relationship with God is not what you know it should be and want; then, you have heard the wake-up call. Do not press the snooze button!

When Mary learned from the angel Gabriel that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant, Mary knew what she needed to do: go to Elizabeth. We are told that she proceeded in haste. (Luke 1: 39)

There are at least four lessons (graces) that God makes available to us to help us make our way through this pandemic. Now that we know what needs to be done let us proceed in haste, not in terror or panic, but with purpose and confidence, like Mary.

“He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased, and there was great calm.” (Mark 4: 39)
In the name of Mary,
Fr. Bill Rowland, S.M.

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