John 14:15-21, Sixth Sunday of Easter
Our Gospel today reminds us to keep Christ’s commandment to love each other (John 14:14). To love one another is not only a command to be obeyed. It is rather a way of life that characterizes the existence of those who profess their faith in God’s self-giving love through his Son in the Spirit. This way of life is animated by the mutuality of God loving us and our response to his love (cf. John 14:21).
For Jesus, his apostles are known to be his own through their love for each other (John 13:35). The early Christian communities, according to the Church apologist Tertullian (ca. 160–220), was recognized by their communal love and sacrifice. In his treatise, To the Gentiles and Apology, he contemplated that Pagans would remark at the Christians saying: “Look . . . how they love one another… and how they are ready to die for each other…” Like the preaching of Philip in Samaria coupled with his ministry of healing, our profession of faith in God necessitates our charity towards others (cf. Acts 8:5-8). Thus, loving one another is our fundamental vocation as the followers of Christ. As baptized Christians, loving one another becomes a sacrament of Jesus’s greater loving in and through his saving death on the cross. The love we share is our concrete testimony to the world beset by hatred, violence, and death.
“See how they love each other!” This is also my remark when I witness the life of the residents at Panti Tuna Grahita St. Anna (PTG Sta. Anna), Tomohon, North Sulawesi. Recently, as part of our tertianship program, I have been assigned for a month in this hospice for children and young adults with special needs and cognitive deficiency. Initially, I did not know how to deal with the residents which was compounded by my inability to speak Bahasa Indonesia. But the residents welcomed me with their smiles, hugs, and warmth. These gestures facilitated our creative exchanges through the singing of nursery rhymes in English, dancing to upbeat songs, making paper cranes, exchanging the words for animals and fruits in English and Bahasa Indonesia, and becoming their appointed photographer.
My Bahasa Indonesia may be limited but this limitation has not only made me more observant, it even made me more receptive to the non-verbal language of self-communication. In my almost two-week stay with the residents of PTG Sta. Anna, I have a sense of the language of love in simple and ordinary gestures of kindness.
My fellow tertian Romo Andre Poerdianto, SJ and I were reflecting on the residents’ capacity for surprising acts of kindness. Having a sense of their mental and psycho-emotional states, we expected them to be self-absorbed. We became more patient with them when they throw tantrums whenever they do not get what they want. We try to understand them when they fight for the staff’s attention and demand for our affection. We need to strike the balance between gentleness and firmness because of their vulnerable yet uncontrollable behavior, fragility and overly sensitive personality.
But Romo Andre and I were amazed by their capacity to care for each other. Many of them were sent by their parents to this hospice either due to the insufficient means to support their expensive care or the lack of ability to give proper care at home. Few of them are visited regularly their parents. Some parents have left them entirely in this hospice for lifetime care. In a sense, the residents become their default community for the rest of their lives.
But despite the limited option of choosing their community, they have decided in their own way to invest themselves through their respective expressions of nurturing relationships. This act of nurturing is their act of kindness.
Some young residents take the initiative to get the coats of the younger mates when the evening chill sets in during their daily rosary. They aid the young ones in donning their coats for some to wear them inside out or with the sleeves on but the hood upside down. When they have petty quarrels over name-calling or snatching each other’s belongings, it is easy for them to patch up things. Just a shake of hands and at times an embrace, then, they are friends again. Two or three usually have a bad day. Yet it seems to me that they have an unspoken code of keeping quiet, giving the other child space, and allowing the staff to deal directly with that person. A 43-year old female resident, though she seems to have the mind of a child, has maternal instincts of rubbing ointment on the younger ones who have flu and cheering up the newest and youngest member of the hospice with her antics. Two boys with Down’s Syndrome are like brothers. They fight but many times they support each other through hand gestures, limited verbal language and a lot of facial expressions. One even awkwardly comforted the youngest boy whose hand was bitten by an older kid. Seeing the older ones helping in the household chores, an autistic girl manages compulsively to wipe the tables that at times annoyed others. During meal times, older residents feed the children first before having their own meals.
There are many more accounts of the residents’ kindness towards each other. For me, these acts of kindness are their language of loving each other. Their way of showing them is not necessarily verbal but more often simple, practical, day-to-day actions of kindness.
If one were to give an account for the reason of hope for the PTG Sta. Ana residents (as Peter suggested in his first epistle, 3:15-18), it would be that God loves these children and they have a special place in God’s heart. God’s love for them is the wellspring of their innate goodness and kindness despite their mental and psycho-emotional deficiencies as well as the difficulties they suffered because of the prejudice and impatience of the people towards them. God did not literally leave them orphans (cf. John 14:18). God give them his compassionate Spirit to continually protect and care for them through the people entrusted to their care especially the Society of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (JMJ).
During our orientation, our tertian master Romo Priyo Poedjiono, SJ invited us to consider our hospice/hospital experiment as a ministry of consolation; that is, to be drawn deeply to God in mission and in a relationship with him. In the language of the Spiritual Exercises, it is to grow more in faith, hope, and charity (SE 316).
During one pilgrimage with the JMJ community, one of the nuns asked me if I were happy being in PTG Sta. Ana. I told her that I am. This happiness springs from the joy of being edified by its residents whose kindness to each other naturally overflows. Their world may be limited but they have expanded it through their charity for each other.