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Starting Point

All mixed up: the good, the bad and radical love


One of the more difficult things in life is learning the art of discerning the bad from the good. How to separate one from the other? No one need be persuaded that both exist. Many things seem a blend of both -- and I know that when I look into myself, the separation of the two into easily recognizable categories is even more difficult than looking about me in the world and defining what is good and what is not so good.

For many years I lived near New York City. It is a living blend of so much. Radically different ways of being in the world exist side by side. Indeed, there is a blend going on of the good and the bad all the time in that city of nearly 10 million people. I used to go to a bar near Times Square and just sit.

When I was last in that area, it was the way it had been for many years. Run down, some might say seedy. In recent years, Mayor Giuliani decided that the entire Times Square area should be overhauled and indeed that has happened. It is now owned and run in large part by the people who run Disneyland. I have read that it is as clean as a whistle, a place safe for people of all ages, a place where good, clean and wholesome fun is guaranteed.

I have never been one to trust my immediate instincts. When I read the newspaper accounts of the near magical transformation of Times Square, all glowing with reports of the grand sweep of undesirables from that area, I just wondered about it. Something did not seem right to me and yet I could not disagree that perhaps an improvement was needed.

Then, while reading a literary journal not too long ago, I came across an article that convinced me that my immediate instincts were not that far off the mark after all. The writer of the essay bemoaned the loss of Times Square as he knew and loved it. He suggested it was a place where many a writer and artist spent time, looking about at the parade of humanity and taking to heart -- or pen or canvas -- the plight of those who were and are poor in spirit, hungry for so many things, seeking love in the wrong places, people who inhabit every city in the world and whose hungers live in each one of us. He made mention of the fact that many poor were simply displaced, forced to move from the many dingy one-room apartments that were condemned to make way for the shiny and the new.

Millions were spent removing the blight of the poor and admittedly wretched to make way for a Disney-like effect. Gone now are what so inspired the more tolerant writers -- Jerzy Kozinski among them -- who found in the waywardness of lives there something good, something beautiful, indeed, something of God. It is tempting to read the gospel about trees and which ones bear the good fruit and which bear the bad, and to look about at life and cut down those trees that we deem of no use to us. Many of the horrors that constitute history can be read as an attempt to discern the good from the bad and absolutize it.

I like to think that the genius of the church can be found in her patience, her willingness to risk awaiting the Harvest Master to make the final decisions as to what is or is not worthy of being kept in His Garden, this Orchard that is life and in which we grow together side by side, the strong, the weak, the cowardly and the brave, the rich, the poor, the wise and foolish.

We know much to be good, both within and outside of ourselves. The love asked for by the gospels is radical. Its radical nature is not one of divisiveness but of inclusiveness. It is a love that asks is it not better to learn to love that which we would at first glance remove, cut down or shun. It is a love that asks that we wait and learn to love that which may teach us much about our own blindness and hardness of heart.

It is a love that asks that we risk loving that which we could so easily find repugnant to our tastes and resistant to our designs for betterment. It is a love that asks that we trust in the presence of God everywhere, in the light and the dark, in Times Square and, perhaps with a bit more difficulty, in the Disneylands of our self-made worlds.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His new book, Memories of Grace: Portraits from the Monastery, has just been published by ACTA.

National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001