The Self-emptying Love of Christ
For the last 20 years I’ve been writing about the self-emptying love that Christ calls us to embody. I’ve written about it in two books on St. Francis of Assisi and in three other books. I’ve written about it in the scripts of most of the 24 films I’ve made. I’ve spoken about it in the 250 “poverty and prayer” presentations I’ve given at churches and schools across the United States and in Europe. When it comes to self-emptying love, I’ve promoted it, encouraged it, and explained it…but I’ve never really lived it. I merely poked around the edges of it when I endured some discomfort and hardships as I traveled to some very distressing parts of the world, and lived among the poorest of the poor in Africa and South America. But while I would spend up to three weeks in some dreadful location making a film…I then returned to my comfortable life and spent months editing the film in an environment where I had everything I needed. I didn’t make much money over the last 20 years. In fact, my salary was so low for years (well under $500 a week), I ran up a mountain of credit card debt. But I never lacked for anything I needed, never endured any of the hardships the people I filmed experienced on a daily basis. The self-emptying love that Christ advocated and lived to the fullest was for me a beautiful and noble spiritual ideal…but not something most of us could attain to any serious degree or even anything close to some of the people in my films did, such as Dr. Tony in Peru.
But all that has changed in the last 15 months as I struggled to established the Santa Chiara Children’s Center. I confess that during the first few months in the small apartment in the slum, I was always eager to get back to California. Those early trips were endurance contests. I often counted the hours until I could get on a plane headed for “the good life.” After a few weeks in the Peguyville slum, actually living there and not just filming by day and retreating to hotel at night, I would have been happy to live in the Miami airport. During the last 15 months, I slowly learned how to give more and more of myself away. In the process I began to see clearly how far I was from the ideals espoused by Christ…even to this day. People who read my books or watched my films held me in high esteem. But I knew better. I knew the real me…the sinner. I knew the guy who was fearful and resentful. I knew the guy who was awash in weaknesses. I hide from all the long periods of spiritual dryness that I endured, the countless dark nights where the existence of God seemed like an absolute impossibility. Many a Sunday I wondered what the heck I was doing in church. The ritual seemed so disconnected to the reality I had witnessed. Haiti had turned my life upside down…and little of what I once had accepted as a normal part of life no longer made any sense. The things that once interested me – like watching a Yankee game on TV – no longer attracted me. I was beginning to understand that there was no cheap grace, no easy discipleship. The journey that Jesus willingly took involved lots of hardships and intense suffering…and it ended at Calvary.
When I look back on the years of filming in some of the worst slums on earth, I see how those weeks of discomfort and the stress of seeing so much suffering and death actually were the most inspirational, most meaningful times of my life. I had left my comfort zone, traveled far beyond my understanding of life, and encountered the real heart of humanity. I had connected to something real and raw, where people didn’t wear masks to hide their own doubts and insecurities. But I would return home to a world of commerce, affluence, and abundance, a world of comfort and security, and I quickly slipped back into a life of relative ease, a life of spiritual lethargy…even though the suffering I had seen rocked me and caused me great distress. No one wanted to see the photographs I took or hear about the suffering I had witnessed. It was just too upsetting. Besides, there was nothing they could do about it. I spent endless, lonely hours looking at miles of video footage and thousands of still photographs. I entered a darkness I did not understand or could illuminate. It was hard for me to engage in conversations about the things my family, friends, and neighbors wanted to talk about…it was all so trivial in light of depravation and suffering I had witnessed. Yet, I still enjoyed and wanted to hold onto my comfortable life in a society I increasingly did not feel at home within. I preferred Starbucks to the slums.
Somehow, I would guess by God’s grace, Haiti changed all that. The time I spent in Haiti during the immediate aftermath of the earthquake changed everything. I witnessed and filmed unimaginable suffering. I saw doctors cleaning the wounds of an amputated leg. I saw decaying bodies buried in the rubble. I saw blood and death, and endured days of nonstop crying and screams of pain. I can vividly recall almost every minute of the eight days I spent in Port-au-Prince just after the earthquake when Haiti was a living hell. I never really recovered from that trip; the horror of it was never far from my consciousness. During the year following the earthquake, I made four or five trips to Haiti. One day I toured the destroyed city of Port-au-Prince on the back of motorcycle, filming as I went. Armed only with my cameras, I tried to capture the daily life of the poor. I was impressed by the spirit of the people, their ability to laugh in the face of such hardships, their ability to survive on so little. I also admired their faith, which was the source of their inner strength.
But I think Haiti would have in time faded from my daily consciousness except that Ecarlatte was drawn back to Haiti because her niece was sick. In helping her niece navigate the dysfunctional Haitian medical system, I saw how incredibly hard life was for poor children. Ecarlatte’s big heart was bursting with love and concern for kids living on the periphery of Haitian life, kids trapped in severe poverty, living with hunger, and, often, sadly, abusive parents. When I learned how kids were often sold into domestic servitude, it made me sick, made me angry. But what could we possible do in the face of so much suffering? We didn’t know what to do…but we knew doing nothing was not an option. I think that not knowing what to do becomes an excuse not to do anything. We had to do something…even if it was only helping just a few kids. We simply did what we could and hoped God’s grace would amplify our humble, often stumbling, efforts.
And so, trip by trip, month by month, day by day, the Santa Chiara Children’s Center slowly evolved and expanded. And in the process, I saw more clearly my own selfishness, my own self-centeredness, as the growing number of kids, challenges, and problems demanded more and more of me. There were times I just wanted to shut door to our tiny apartment in the new compound and lock myself inside. I often wished I could be sitting alone in Starbucks in Burbank and reading the paper. I often wished I could be sitting on the couch in our living room watching TV at night. Every day in Haiti seemed like an endless stream of problems to be solved and sick kids to be transported to the hospital. There was no time…for me. I often felt like an ATM machine dispensing cash for food and water. I lamented there was no comfortable chairs. The frequent black outs made me crazy. There was a time when I saw Santa Chiara as this herculean effort that yielded very little fruit.
But slowly, out of the chaos, something beautiful began to immerge as we began to see the lives of some of our kids being transformed before our eyes. Abused and abandoned kids began to smile, began to play and laugh. A sense of community, a sense of family was emerging among the staff and the kids. I remember one night in February. It was late and everyone was asleep. I sat outside under the stars sipping a little Italian wine. I vividly recall looking at the main building and being amazed that we had somehow pulled this off. Of course, by “we” I included all the generous donors who trusted that Ecarlatte and I would treat the kids with love and dignity. That silent night, I felt as if I was living in a miracle that was so much bigger and better than I was. Over time at Santa Chiara, I began to feel connected to a place outside of the United States…even though I could not imagine living on that tormented island of despair.
Today, I realize that by being in Haiti, I really am not giving up anything important. I am, in fact, merely letting go of more and more trivial things and mindless diversions. I am becoming free. I discovered that feeding a hungry kid is more rewarding than writing a book or making a film. Gospel parables are speaking to me in a new, more dynamic way. I’ve commented on a number of these parables in the pages of this journal. These earthly stories Jesus told revealed a heavenly reality. For instance, in Sunday’s Gospel (8/14/16), Jesus uttered some harsh words, saying that he had come to establish division not peace, even among families. Yikes. What Jesus was saying was that unless you lay down your life, you will not have peace. He is telling us to keep our eyes fixed on God, who calls us to a life of mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. When we do so, it will put us at odds with our society and even at odds within our families…and problems will arise, divisions will form.
The Gospel reading for tomorrow (8/17), tells the story of the landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. But there was so much work to be done, the landowner repeatedly went out during the day (at 9:00am, at noon, at 3:00pm, and at 5:00pm), to hire more workers. (Today, Jesus would have had someone going to a Home Depot parking lot to hire undocumented workers for the day.) At the end of the day, the landowner paid all the workers he had hired during the day. Much to the chagrin of the workers who were hired at 9:00am, the landlord paid everyone the same wage, which meant the guy who only worked an hour at the cooler part of the end of the day was paid the same amount as the guy who worked a full day. This clearly was not just or fair, and we too would have been unhappy if we had been one of the workers who put in a full day under the blazing sun. But the story is not about fairness from the perspective of the workers. It is about the astonishing, over-the-top generosity of God, which far exceeds our human expectations. God’s extraordinary generosity is rooted in God’s endless mercy.
The Letter to the Hebrews, which we heard on Sunday, tells us to keep “our eyes fixed on Jesus, who is the leader and perfecter of faith.” The letter, which reflects the influence of Paul, exhorts us to struggle against sin. If we do keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we will eventually be confronted with the Cross and be called to empty ourselves of all that is not God. For me, Haiti helped me see more clearly my need to more fully embrace the self-emptying love of Jesus, who divested himself of everything for us. I have a very long way to go on this journey. I think each of us is called to find the level of self-emptying love that God wants us to achieve in our daily lives. While there will be sacrifices to made along the way, there will also be moments of true, deep joy. I can’t wait to get back to Haiti, back to the kids, back to a place where God is very real…and mercy is in great demand.