The 20th Century spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, was reflecting once on an experience that he had shortly after entering the monastery. Father Louis (as Thomas Merton was called in religious life) describes a particularly powerful experience he had one day while shopping for the abbey:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people — that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. …
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Father Louis adds: “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.” (from Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”)
As we enter Respect Life Month, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that every single human being is created in God’s image and likeness, and, as such, is fundamentally good. A program like Hope’s Kitchen in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, celebrates this fact of our faith.
In their service, the volunteers of Hope’s Kitchen at St. Dominic Church give not only food to the homeless, but, perhaps more importantly, they treat all of their guests with respect and human dignity. These volunteers serve their fellow human beings because they see the image and likeness of God in the homeless. They truly are living out the command of the Lord from the Beatitudes.
So, how can each of us begin to do this? It’s really pretty simple. First, the one who serves needs to recognize that he or she is created in the Imago Dei — the image of God. Despite the presence of sin and sorrow, the human being never loses that fundamental goodness. A Christian needs to keep in mind that he or she has been redeemed by the Precious Blood of the Lord.
Second, having recognized the Imago Dei in ourselves, we need to see it — truly perceive it — in everyone we encounter. And, having recognized it, we then need to love and serve our neighbors just as one would serve Christ. The other has become a brother or sister to us.
Isn’t that the task of a Christian — recognizing the Imago Dei in himself or herself and others, and then, shining like the sun, letting all people know, by one’s love, that they are shining like the sun, too?