I am a mission

Fr Chris Gleeson SJ 25 March 2019

On that word ‘character’, much has been written over the years. Well before Jesus, Aristotle was teaching that moral virtues, as with crafts, are acquired by practice and habit. We become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre. We become virtuous, strong of character, by doing virtuous acts. In the 13th century that great Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas, said that ‘most of what we do primarily affects us; if done poorly, it worsens us’. For example, a good run makes the runner run better. A poised dance makes the dancer dance better . . . in effect, ‘we become what we do’.

WHEN ONLY GOD IS WATCHING

Some say sport develops character; others say it reveals character. I like Os Guinness’ definition in his book, When No One Sees – the Importance of Character in an Age of Image, where he describes character as ‘what we are when no one sees but God’.

I am reminded of the story of some children lining up for lunch in the cafeteria of a Catholic primary school. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. The supervising Nun made a note and posted it on the apple tray: ‘Take only ONE. God is watching’. Moving further along the lunch line, at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip biscuits. A child had written a note: ‘Take all you want. God is watching the apples’.

Character lies deeper than our values and far deeper than our philosophies, allegiances, memberships, or accomplishments. Our character is the deepest expression of what constitutes us as unique individuals. Character is our personal seal, our indelible imprint. The Song of Songs says it beautifully: ‘Set me like a seal upon your heart, like a seal upon your arm. For love is as strong as death . . . ’ (8:8) To use the Pope’s words, our mission to serve is ‘branded’ on us.

STRONG COMMUNITIES CARE

The Irish are some of the finest writers in our English language and have bequeathed to us many words of inspiration. ‘We live in the shelter of each other’, one old Irish proverb says. Our modern expression that he or she ‘has my back’ is similar in meaning but far less potent. Caring for one another is what strong communities do. Indeed, the quality of any community can be measured by the care it provides for its weakest members. ‘None of us is as strong as all of us’ was at one time the clever catchcry of fast food giant McDonald’s. What a difference it would make to our world if we could all adopt the African philosophy of happiness expressed in the adage: ‘I am because we are’!

Community is the place where we learn to value and respect each other, even if we don’t always get our own way or have our needs met. Here we learn that life is about us, and not just about me. Community is that place where we learn to value and honour people with whom we might not always get along. Community, above all, is the place where we respect and celebrate our differences.

We first learn about community, of course, in the shelter of our family. What we learn or fail to learn in the home we bring with us to the wider community. Social researchers have opened our eyes to the fact that at least 50 per cent of Australian households now contain only one or two people. Despite the great importance Australians attach to the traditional ideals of family life, it is clear the acceptance of de facto marriages, marriage equality, blended families, step-families, and single-parent families will continue to bring further change in family structures in this country.

FAMILY PROVIDES COMMON HERITAGE

Not all of this change has been for the better. If it is accurate to talk generally about the erosion of the family and family values in Australia, then it is going to be extremely difficult for a young person to learn any values at all. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is absolutely right when he says that ‘it is precisely as the member of a community that I learn a moral language, a vision, and its way of life. I become articulate by acquiring a set of meanings not of my own invention, but part of a common heritage’. The family is the crucial unit in providing this common heritage within the wider community we know as society.

So, we have our challenges to help ourselves and others learn that our primary mission in life is to serve, that we become our true selves and identify our true character by learning to serve. Again, Pope Francis captures this so well in his TED talk in April 2017: ‘Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face.’ Solidarity, he continues, ‘should be “the default attitude” in political, economic, and scientific choices, as well as in relationships among individuals, peoples, and countries.’ The future is in ‘the hands of those people who recognise the other as a “you” and themselves as part of an “us”.’

I sought my God
My God I could not see
I sought my soul
My soul eluded me
I sought my brother
And I found all three” (An Old Celtic Verse)