The Advent call to recognise God in every person and place
As we prepare to welcome Christ this Advent, we should also develop an 'eye of compassion', says Fr Gerry McFlynn
WHO said we should love everyone? In a celebrated passage in his book of reflections, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966), the American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, records an experience he had on one of his rare town outings from his monastery in Kentucky.
"In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realisation that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers," he wrote.
The corner where Merton experienced this epiphany has since been renamed after him.
But what does it mean to love everyone, not just our family members, relatives and friends, but those we meet in the workplace, the street, the shopping mall?
Who are all these people and what sort of lives do they lead?
In my wilder moments of fantasy, I sometimes try to imagine what their lives are like.
I think of the old woman on her own having a cup of tea in the supermarket cafe. Is she alone in the world? Does she have a family? Is there a dog waiting at home to welcome her?
Or the young man who seems to be out of work and who looks dishevelled and unkempt. Has he got a family to go home to, a girlfriend, anyone who loves him?
And what about the poor drunk, half asleep in the doorway, to whom I give a coin or two every time I see him? Is there anyone else in his world?
Or the prisoner I visited recently in his cell, worried about his partner and children and how long it will be before they are all together again.
The truth is that I don't often feel as connected to these people as Merton did and my prayer is all too often one of gratitude for the comfortable, middle-class lifestyle I enjoy.
It can, of course, be difficult to see Christ in people whose lives are so different from our own.
But therein lies the challenge of being a Christian: to see Christ himself in the lonely, the unwanted, the marginalised, the bereaved and suffering, those hurt in a million different ways.
Christ comes to us at every moment, in every person and in every place.
The challenge is to develop a way of seeing people which allows us to enter into their lives a little and see there the Christ who lives within them.
Merton in Louisville again: "Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts... 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 our prayer life must come the ability to recognise the God who comes to us in every other human being.
We should never forget that the people we meet each day, at work or just casually in the street, also belong to God; he loves them just as much as he loves us.
We should never forget this and treat them accordingly.
So maybe this Advent, as we prepare to welcome Christ, we might try to develop that eye of compassion which sees him coming in everyone around us and try to see something of his love for us in each of them whatever their life's circumstances.
Fr Gerry McFlynn is a priest of the Down and Connor diocese, project manager at the Irish Chaplaincy in London and involved in Pax Christi, the international Catholic Peace Movement.