Love in Action is a Harsh and Dreadful Thing

Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, often quoted from Dostoevski’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”

Dostoevski was analyzing a “love for humanity” that has the high ideal of loving everyone, of serving the poor and “making a difference” in their lives. It is that love for humanity that Dostoevski skewered with his brutal description of “love in dreams.”

He wrote, “In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay put it succinctly, “I love humanity, but I hate people.” It certainly is easier to love in the abstract than to love in the flesh.

At Manna House, there are guests who are easy to love, and there are guests who make the practice of love harsh and dreadful. I confess that there are guests at Manna House who I find difficult to love. These guests not only try my patience, they try my soul.

Monday morning a guest insisted that he get on the shower list. I tried to explain that the shower list was already full. This only intensified his demand to get on the list. If looks could kill, I was already dead. And his mutterings about this not being a Christian place, and how he never gets nothing he wants here, only made me wish he would just go away.

Tuesday morning I met the immediate need of another guest as I replaced his horribly worn out shoes. About fifteen minutes later, a volunteer approached me and asked, “Isn’t there any way we can get shoes for this man?” The volunteer pointed to the guest for whom I had just gotten shoes, who now stood barefoot in the backyard. I told the guest he already had shoes. His response was a hateful stare.

Then there are the continually sour guests. They never smile. They never even give the slightest acknowledgement that I have said, “Good morning” as they enter the yard or house. I am not sure what it would take for their unchanging scowl to turn to a smile.

I also find it difficult to love some guests as I watch them slowly kill themselves with drugs or alcohol. I see the addiction eating away their lives. I learn from them how they have burned bridges with every family member and friend. I know the death that awaits them. Twelve years into this work, I know that my love will likely not end their addiction, just as the love of their family and friends did not.

I try to get some strength to love the unlovable guests by acknowledging the harsh and dreadful experiences they endure. Guests from the streets arrive at Manna House with their dignity repeatedly assaulted. They are told in words and actions that they are homeless because of their failure, their lack of faith, their lack of willpower. They are thrown out of restaurants, restrooms, or other spaces. They wait in lines for ill prepared food. They have to endure the ministry of well-meaning but misguided people who want to “save” them. They feel the lash of laws aimed against them: no panhandling (despite no jobs), no sleeping on a park bench (despite no free shelter), no public urination (despite no access to public toilets). And sometimes the disparagement comes in physical blows, as people on the streets are easy targets for bullies cruising around looking for victims.

But this understanding of the conditions of life on the streets is not enough for me to consistently love the difficult guests. The guests who are easy to love come with smiles and pleasantness despite the horrors of life on the streets. So why love the difficult guests who under the same conditions cannot manage the same sociability?

I need something beyond myself and beyond my understanding in order to love those difficult guests. So I turn to God in prayer. In prayer, I encounter God who knows me as difficult and yet who promises to love me despite my faults, failings, and foibles. As Paul wrote, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). In prayer, God’s love informs and reforms me so that I can hope to love others as God loves me.

God’s gracious love takes an enormous burden from my shoulders. I no longer have to find the resources within myself to love those who I find unlovable. I can love them because God loves me, someone who is also unlovable. God does not love humanity in the abstract; God loves each one of us, including me. In Christian faith, this love is made very concrete, is made incarnate in the life of Jesus. In Jesus’s life, I see God’s love in all of God’s willingness to enter into and redeem the harsh and dreadful realities of human sin, my sin, and the sin of those I find so hard to love.

In prayer, Manna House becomes a place in which I am schooled in God’s love. There I am confronted by my own failures in loving. But there too, God does not give up on me, and in that Divine love I will not give up on the individual guests who teach me that “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing.”

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