This piece was originally published at Spiritual Friendship on May 10, 2014.
I’ve toyed with the idea of writing an intellectual autobiography. It would be an imprudently premature work, but, as I’ve turned the idea over in my mind, I’ve come to see the work as an immature inevitability, awaiting only time and much (though inescapably insufficient) work. When I first started to think about this, I considered titling it, “The Men Who Have Loved Me.” I’ve been remarkably lucky to be radically loved by various men in my life: my father, spiritual directors, priests, professors, mentors, roommates, and friends. I’ve been lovingly taught, mentored, cared for, listened to, corrected, and nurtured. I have fond memories of falling in and out of love with friends, with the tenderness of friendship lasting beyond the spark of romance.
But my loves have not only been other men. They’ve also been women, they’ve been other relationships, and they’ve been communities. More than anything, they’ve been the people who have noticed me.
St. Jeanne Jugan is one of my favorite saints, largely because she lived as a lover of the unnoticed. She was born in France at the end of the eighteenth century, where she lived and worked for her whole life. She was living in a small intentional community with three other Catholic women when, one winter evening, she discovered a blind, sick, and homeless elderly woman. Jugan, filled with love for this stranger, carried the woman into her home, gave the woman her room (while Jugan slept in the attic), and took care of her.
Soon Jugan began to bring more elderly women into her home. She later rented a room to house even more of the elderly poor. This became her lifetime work, and soon women came to help Jugan in the task of caring for the abandoned elderly poor. Eventually, Jugan founded the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious order currently with more than 2700 sisters caring for more than 13,000 elderly poor in homes throughout the world.
St. Jeanne Jugan’s work has intimately touched the lives of thousands of the elderly poor, but it all began with noticing one neglected woman. We are all called to give of ourselves in this way, in noticing others around us and bringing them into our lives. It’s sometimes hard to know how to do this, and this work will vary for each person. Each person’s unique gifts call each person to a unique work. But for those of you who may be looking for ideas, here are some ways that I’ve seen this done today:
Martha is a mother with daughters who have gone off to college. She’s always seen herself as a mother, and she especially desires to care for and love young women. She was praying for God to bring young women into her life when my friend, Ashley, decided to go to the church that Martha attends. Ashley was looking for a Christian community after just moving to the area. There, Martha and her husband met Ashley and invited her over for dinner. Since that one invitation, there have been countless others, and Ashley and her friends (including myself) have found their lives enriched by Martha’s love and generosity, in home cooked meals, game nights, cupcake deliveries, and goodie baskets.
I recently met a young man (we’ll call him Joel) who had been dating a young woman for a couple of years. Early on, Joel and his girlfriend decided that they wanted to love and support their friends through their relationship. For Valentine’s Day, they decided to invite their friends over for a game night instead of going out on a date for two. For them, it was important that their love for each other also be a love that overflows into the lives of those around them. So they try to bring others into this love as much as possible.
I also have friends who have done this for me. A couple I know went on a walk recently, and, as they often do, they invited me to come along again. I was also heading out of my house, but I was walking to a coffee shop to go study. So they just decided to walk me there. For them, one measure of the “success” of their relationship is whether others feel comfortable spending time with them as a couple, whether the “third wheel” feels like a third wheel or a friend. They have always made me a friend.
I have many people in my life who have worked very hard to make sure that others are not alone. My law school class was surprised when, one day, my professor invited anyone who didn’t already have plans to come over to her home to celebrate Easter with her family. Some of my classmates did just that, and they had a wonderful time. I’ve had many professors who have worked to make sure their students never spend holidays alone.
In my experience, I have found that the most generous people tend to be the people who have the least time to be generous. They also tend to be the people who you would think would be in most need of generosity. But they’re the ones constantly seeking out opportunities to be generous; not because of some self-righteousness or a need to make known their magnanimity, but because of an enduring desire to enrich the lives of others. If we are not these people (I certainly am not), then much of our vocation will be working to become these people.
Whatever your vocation is, a part of it will always be offering yourself to those around you. The habit of making the unnoticed noticed is an art that requires practice and deliberate work. But it’s a good work. It’s a happy work. And it will have lasting consequences.