One of my favorite lines in the Hobbit is the slightly ticked-off response Gandalf gives to the dwarves when they discover, with grumbling, that bumbling Bilbo Baggins will be a part of their team. Gandalf says, “I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you… There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea about himself.”
Gandalf lifts the lid from the truth about Bilbo Baggins and each one of us. There’s a lot more in a person than any of us know, and a lot more in ourselves than we can guess. I never tire of thinking about the mystery of the human person—beginning with myself. There is so much I don’t expect: from disedifying reactions to surprising virtue to desires I didn’t know I had. I am a mystery even to myself! If this is true, how much more of a mystery is the person in front of me? There’s a lot more in any of us than we would guess, and it’s a beautiful lot.
St. John Paul II taught us that the only proper response to a human person is love. The possibility of authentic love, though, begins with reverence. Reverence is different than respect, and it’s very different than tolerance. Reverence allows one to see another human person, as God sees him or her, to pause with awe in the presence of such a unique gift. This pause is what allows love in.
The Founder of the Sisters of Life, John Cardinal O’Connor, had a life-changing experience while visiting the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany in the 1970’s. Cardinal O’Connor—whom we discovered last year was, unbeknownst to him, Jewish, the grandson of a German rabbi—put his hands inside the crematoria ovens of the camp and had a mystical experience. He said he felt the intermingled ashes of those who had died there, Jew and Christian, rabbi, priest and minister. He was struck to the heart and interiorly understood the personal love God had poured into each one from the moment of his or her conception. Something within Cardinal O’Connor changed forever. His words: “My favorite story in the Old Testament is the one of Moses and the burning bush. God said to him, ‘Moses remove your sandals because the place on which you stand is holy ground.’ Since my trip to Dachau… I cannot approach any person without feeling that I should remove my shoes because where I stand is holy ground.” The seed of what would become the Sisters of Life was planted.
Human life is always a good, always sacred. It’s a truth and a call, resounding more loudly than ever as we approach the 42nd anniversary of Roe vs. Wade this January 22nd. The loss of so many of our children, siblings, and peers is a source of a deep, pervasive sadness in our culture, a sadness from which we desperately try to distract ourselves. It’s into this sadness that the Lord comes with his mercy and invitation to new life—and it’s into this sadness that He calls you and me as ambassadors of his hope, his mercy, and his promise of a better way.
We’ve all made choices we regret. But no matter where we’re coming from—our history, our struggles—Jesus never lets evil or sin have the last word. That’s what he teaches us through his Cross and Resurrection; that’s why he chose a priest who didn’t know he was Jewish to receive the charism of Life from the point of darkness that was Dachau. His light comes into our darkness and turns it around—and he invites us, the very ones who need His mercy, to become messengers of mercy to others. We begin to do that by living with reverence for every human life: the weak, bothersome, confused… all. The love that is communicated through an attitude of reverence is revolutionary: it changes hearts and lives, and cultures.
Sometimes, though, we can believe with all our might that human life is sacred, unrepeatable, precious, and worth fighting for…but we struggle to believe that I am sacred, unrepeatable, precious, or worth fighting for. Reverence for others begins with reverence for self. Do I believe I’m on holy ground when I’m looking in the mirror?
God has chosen you, and there’s a lot more in you than you guess. He chose you to live now, during this time in history, for a reason. During every era, evil in some form has stood in the way of good and asked an unspoken question: what’s it worth to you? Throughout history, there have always been similar responses. The mainstream ignores the seriousness of the question. The voices of comfort, popularity, and normalcy deter the response good hearts wish to make.
And always there are some who stand up, like David against Goliath, aware that God, who brought them into being and lives within them, offers strength enough to withstand the trial which standing up inevitably brings. They are the ones whose courage, generosity, and witness make all the difference in their own time and for generations into the future. They are the ones we call heroes: Saints.
It’s our turn now. The world awaits your yes to life: the life the Lord wants to give you abundantly and the life he asks you to share with others.
“So have no fear of them… Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Mt. 10: 26, 28-31)