“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” the 1968 film adaptation of Carson McCullers’s celebrated first novel, starred Alan Arkin as the deaf-mute main character, John Singer.
Singer was one who spent his life taking care of others despite his handicap. As the précis puts it, his “silent kindness draws to him others broken in body and spirit.”
But as he helps them and becomes instrumental in their healing, he experiences the loneliness of the “helping profession,” as those whom he helps move on. In the end, he feels alone and somewhat “cheated” as he discovers—or maybe the better word is, accepts—that “the heart is a lonely hunter.”
This Sunday’s Gospel, the Solemnity of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, presents to us the Parable of the Final Judgement. The parable beautifully portrays the singular virtue that earns us a ticket into God’s Kingdom, service to others born out of love or compassion. It is not simply service. It is service with great love. It is compassion.
In 1996, my second year of work as principal in the Ateneo de Manila High School, I had to write a letter to our Superior General, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, on the state of our apostolate in the high school. (I was still a member of the Society of Jesus then.) Among the things I wrote to him about was how we were building on the “man-for-others” thrust of the Jesuits.
In his three-page response to my letter, Fr. Kolvenbach ended by saying that we must bear in mind that it was not only forming “men-for-others” (we were and still are an all-boys’ high school), but “men-with-and-for-others.”
This was a very conscious choice the Jesuits made in “revising” an iconic term. In fact to this day, to show you how much the old term stuck, many still use men-and-women-for-others.
The revision, though, is not a matter of semantics, but does reflect a core difference in the view of service. It is the difference between service and compassionate service. It is the difference between the service that John Singer rendered and the service that the king in the Parable of the Final Judgement commends his faithful servants for and rewards with entry into his kingdom.
It is not just working and serving for others, but more deeply working and serving with others.
Fr. James F. Keenan, SJ, Jesuit priest, theologian, writer and a professor in Boston College, wrote in 2007 the book, “The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism.” In this book, he defines mercy—or compassion—as a person’s “willingness to enter the chaos of others to answer them in their need.”
This is being men-and-women-with-and-forothers, to be men and women of compassionate service; in the words of Fr. Keenan, “to enter the chaos of others to answer them in their needs.”
As we end this liturgical year with the Solemnity of Christ the King, we are reminded that this King stated it simply and clearly: “It is mercy—compassion—I demand, not sacrifice.”
Our ticket into his Kingdom is entering the door of many in our world, in our own Philippine society—to enter their chaos, the brokenness of their lives: kids who go to school without breakfast and after walking for kilometers cram into classrooms that are poorly lit and ventilated; teachers whose own stories of overcoming poverty and the many challenges in their life are heroic—and they continue their journey with the hope that like them their students will also overcome their own challenges; minimum-wage earners who, day in and day out, struggle to make ends meet and with dignity endure the hard work to give their families enough to survive; farmers, fishermen, drivers, waiters, carpenters, factory workers—thousands, millions whose “chaos” we need to enter.
But this is just half the “battle” won. Where do we take them? Where do we lead them? The easier part—perhaps—is doing the corporal works of mercy. The greater challenge is to make them move on, to love people into excellence and to give them back their life, dignity and soul.
In the midst of the brouhaha of the Arroyo saga, I asked the supermarket attendant who helped me load my groceries into my car what he thought about the case. “Kahit ano naman ho ang mangyari diyan, pareho pa rin ang buhay namin,” he said. (No matter what happens to that case our lives will remain the same.)
As I drove home and mulled over what the young man said, I recalled a story. Eleven years ago an even greater contentious sociopolitical issue hogged the headlines. One of our colleagues in the Ateneo told us that at the height of impeachment fever late 2000, he was in a coastal town south of Manila. While eating lunch in a rural carinderia, he asked the elderly lady serving him what she thought about the impeachment issue. The lady answered, “Kahit naman sino ang naka-upo ganoon pa rin naman ang buhay namin. Wala rin mangyayari sa amin.” (No matter who is in the seat of power, our life remains the same. Nothing will ever happen to us.)
Eleven years apart and with a different cast of characters in the corridors of power, our people—the thousands, the millions for whom our leaders are supposed to be men/women-with-and-for-others—still feel the same sense of neglect.
Nothing much has changed? I leave you to think and reflect, all of us. But let us remember that in the end judgement will be upon us and the final words will not be ours, but the King’s: “Come you who are blessed by my father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… Depart from me, you accursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”