The Lord told us to love our neighbor. My problem is, I can’t stop losing my neighbor in the crowd long enough to love him.
I work in a catfish house: one of the centers of South Mississippi dining. The masses congregate there, every day we’re open- Tuesday through Saturday, 11:00 to 9:00 (9:30 on weekends)- streaming through the fairly-new vestibule (do catfish houses have vestibules?) and out into the concrete-block dining rooms. There, under the crooked pine panel roof and the continual rotation of ceiling-fan blades, they gather: black and white, rich and poor, young and old, healthy and infirm. And they eat- after waiting (a lot of waiting on most nights) while eating coleslaw and sipping our inordinately-sweet tea. Some come with their families, friend, co-workers. Some sit by the window, at the two-seat tables, by themselves. They eat, ask about the wait, drink more sweet tea, ask about the temperature, pay, leave.
I work as a busboy. It’s entirely unglamourous labour, no hope of promotion, except maybe to one day man the cash register (but I doubt it). I don’t really care; it’s only part-time, fits in well enough with my studies, and puts gas in the car and feeds my book habit. I intend to wrap my tenure up there in another year or so, once I finish at my current school- a junior college (or community college as they call them these days in most places). I clean up the tables, cart boxes, dry dishes, refill ketchup bottles, clean the bathrooms. And sometimes, when I remember it, the place becomes a school of theosis and the manifestation of God’s love.
The Desert Fathers advised manual labour as an excellent spiritual tool. I had this in mind when I started working there. That and the Apostle’s advice to ‘pray without ceasing,’ hopefully for all the people I would see. I had this idea that Charlie’s- that’s the name of the place, Charlie’s Catfish- would be the perfect place to start- again- learning how to love my neighbor- because I see so many of them there. But there’s my problem. The neighbor, the image of God whose table I clean and whose drinks I fill, keeps on fading out of my focus. I end up just seeing a crowd, a mass of men, without names, with faces maybe, but I don’t look at them much. And when nine o’clock rolls around, I’m wishing that all these neighbors would just go home and leave my co-workers and me alone.
I think my dilemma is a failure to hypostatize: that is, my failure to view this mass of men as persons: unique, unrepeatable persons with a face, made in the image of God, and redeemed by the God Who hung on a tree for them. They are neighbors, like that man that got beat up on the road to Jericho. They are persons, objects of love and concern. But I have a tendency to shuttle that aspect away and retreat to the safety of the crowd. The crowd is a sort of nameless substance, the drifting essence of humanity. I can, in fact, love the crowd well enough- we all can. We call it humanity and say we love humanity. We say this when we’re safely away from them. I pray for ‘all men in all places’- and I pray it when I’m at home and they’re all somewhere else. And I act as a self-existing individual, as someone who is quite content with hiding in himself. Maybe Sartre was right about the other- so I think sometimes. But even when I don’t, I hardly notice them. But mere neutrality just doesn’t cut it, existentially speaking.
God loves mankind. But His love of mankind isn’t like mine. He loves men as persons, in fact calling them into real being in Himself. His way of saving them is to bring them into communion in love with Himself, to let them share the love that He has in Himself- because God is One, and yet He is also Trinity. He is love, and His love is the sort of the Father to the Son- not a vague sense of benevolence, should someone else ever show up on the cosmic scene, or should the cosmic scene ever begin. His love is person-to-person, love that gives itself to the Other. God’s love is Trinitarian, and that makes all the difference in the world. It is not simple neutrality- He didn’t just decide to not destroy us- His love is the deepest, truest sort: Cruciform.
So where does this leave me as I’m cleaning a table off during another Friday night? How am I supposed to manifest this love, how am I to start viewing and treating this crowd as a group of persons, and not merely a mass of substance that leaves wreck and ruin when they leave? How am I to act as a person with love for neighbor? For the real problem is my failure to hypostatize: I draw back into myself and forget everyone outside, which is a negation of personhood understood in relation to God. The answer, of course, lies in God. Christ is the only man Who has ever truly and utterly loved as a person, truly loving the other. In Christ I have this hope of ‘breaking out’ and entering into hypostastizing love, in the freedom of the Spirit of love. This is the hypostasis that Zizioulas called the eclessial: one that transcends the self and is realizes in love, in Christ. The only hope of attaining it is through the One Who has attained it for me, the One Who has ‘broken out’ of the limits of individualism, of selfishness, of the ‘biological necessity’ of fallen humanity. He is love, and He sees the person in the crowd. He doesn’t lose the neighbor in the mass. His love doesn’t retreat from the Other; in fact He binds Himself to the other in love. He gives Himself up entirely for the Other. And now His hypostasis of love is extended to me, to make me a person in His own image and likeness: the remaking of man in love.
And now I’m called to work this out among the tables in the midst of the crowd. I am in Christ, a new creature, one freed from the bonds of selfishness, of death, of the incline down from being, from personhood. I have the grace to stop seeing only a crowd and start seeing neighbors, persons with faces, to be drawn into this Trinitarian love with me. How does one go about it here- where there are so many people, whose lives will probably never again intersect mine, whose names I don’t know- and it's the same way in most places. I’m not entirely certain how to live love out here: I wish I could just ‘radiate’ a sort of holy, healing aura like the Lord did in His incarnation, and like it is said some of His saints have done.
I will describe two elements of praxis that I have found helpful towards attaining to love- and don’t look for anything new here. One is prayer for myself: when the customers are upset over the thermostat, the waitresses snap at me, and I’m tired- ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!’ I’m slowly learning that when the passions assault, the only sure refuge is prayer. That should be obvious enough, but it’s remarkable at how slow of a learner I am. But such prayer- more or less variations of the ‘Jesus Prayer’ of Orthodox spirituality- is often the only recourse I have. I can’t control the passions on my own: the only recourse is a call for mercy. And how often I call out!
The other element is quite like the first: prayer, this time, of course, prayer for those around me- again with the same sort of prayer as above, one of ‘Lord have mercy.’ It should be easy: I have plenty of time to pray for all these people, as cleaning off tables does not involve rigorous thinking or anything. But, believe it or not, I pray far, far less than I could. It’s that same cold selfish apathy- I do not yet have that compassion that the Gospels say stirred in Christ when He saw the crowds- the compassion that stirred God when He beheld the crowd of humanity. But I have found that praying helps to stir up love. When I do pray, I begin to regard the person prayed for- even if I do not know so much as their name- as a person, as someone to be loved. I suppose this is one reason God has given us the ability and privilege of prayer: as a means to love. And I hope that, in God’s grace, my brief, intermittent prayers have some affect.
There is hope, real, incarnate hope, in Christ that I will begin to find my neighbor long enough to love him. It’s piously cliche to say it, I know, but I haven’t arrived at such a point. I pray that I would begin to love, begin to see the other as God sees Him, and not from barricade of self. Even in a catfish house while cleaning tables and dirty ketchup bottles- and everywhere else, for that matter.