Arts and Culture

We Grow Through Love

Third in a series

REFLECTING ON THE emphasis that Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., places on living in the present moment in his excellent book, “Following Christ in a Consumer Culture (New York Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991, pp. 194), I have become more aware of how often I fail at doing this.

Re-reading the book has motivated me to try to improve on the depth of my presence to self, to others and to God. I was privileged to have Father Kavanaugh, who died a few years ago, as a friend. Through his lectures and books this exceptionally gifted Jesuit priest was one of my mentors.

I found many of the quotations throughout his book very informative. One of the most powerful was a statement made by Lee Atwater, a political consultant and strategist, after he discovered that he had terminal brain cancer. The quotation presents a deep understanding of the meaning of human existence. This is Atwater’s statement:

“The ’80s were about acquiring – acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I pay for a little more time with my family! What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with friends! It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul” (p. 7)

Like so much that is in Father Kavanaugh’s book, the quotation was an eye-opener. The book is more powerful, challenging and inspiring than many books I have read that might come under the heading “spiritual reading.” It would be a big mistake to categorize this book as sociology or psychology though Father Kavanaugh borrows from both. In “Following Christ in a Consumer Society,” Father Kavanaugh, who taught philosophy at St. Louis University, uses both philosophical and theological insights to illuminate the atmosphere that surrounds people in a consumer society and to offer commitment to Christ as the best way of challenging and transcending that atmosphere.

As I was writing this column I received a phone call from a friend who began to talk about one of the most important insights in Father Kavanaugh’s book, though she never read it herself. She talked about how deeply people can influence each other, that interpersonal relationships make us who we are. Just before I received her call, I was re-reading the following:

“Unable to engage our interior lives, we are incapable of engaging the interior lives of other people. Not knowing ourselves, we are unable to reveal who we are before the face of another person. And we are unable to receive them in their personhood since we are out of touch with our own.” (p. 8)

On every level of being human we depend on one another. From food to clothing, from air travel to highways, from medical treatment to entertainment, we are tied together. Philosophers use the word “co-exist” to indicate how we are related to one another. Of course, receiving food and clothing and all the other ways that we depend on one another are important, but I think that the most important way that we co-exist is implicit in the quotation from Father Kavanaugh about our interior lives.

To the extent that I am in touch with my real self and not living merely on the surface of reality, and to the extent that I am in touch with the depth of my personhood, I can be open, honest and real with another person.

To the extent that I am open and real in relation to another, to the extent that I present the real me and not some concealing façade, I am helped to be in touch with the depth of myself as a person. An intimate love relationship has enormous power to help persons grow as persons. Such a relationship can help us to be and not merely seem.

I think that this vision of personal existence has important implications for how we relate to God. St. John wrote that anyone who says he loves God but does not love his neighbor is a liar. The commandment to love one another is not an arbitrary commandment. Rather, it is related to our deepest needs. It reveals to us what can help us grow as persons. We grow not only by being loved, but also by loving.

Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of the recently published “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).