Saturday, July 23, 2005

On Bearing Burdens

St Paul encourages us to “bear one another’s burdens” because this will “fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). How are we to understand this? In the most basic sense, and one of which all of us are capable, it simply means to help others in their needs, for Jesus’ sake. We can all “be there” for others when they need us, and offer whatever material aid or spiritual consolation it is within our power or charism to give.

But there are deeper levels. In one of Charles Williams’ novels, he calls this bearing of burdens “the doctrine of substituted love.” He means that one can, on a spiritual level, out of love for another—and in conscio
us reliance on God’s grace—will to experience another’s fear or grief or other burden of suffering, and thus help free them from it, provided they believe it can really happen. (This isn’t the same thing as psychic “sympathetic suffering,” for that generally does nothing to help relieve the original sufferer of his pain.)

Williams calls it “picking up another’s parcel,” of which they first have to let go. In the case recounted in the novel it was worry and fear. After Pauline agreed to let Peter Stanhope “carry her parcel,” we read the following: “Her mind leapt back to Stanhope’s promise, and she knew that, whatever the explanation might be, she had been less bothered for the past ten minutes than ever before in any solitude of twenty years… She had promised to leave it with him… she only had to keep her promise… She wouldn’t worry; no, because she couldn’t worry… She was, then and there, incapable of distress. The world was beautiful about her, and she walked in it, enjoying. He had been quite right; he had simply picked up her parcel. God knew how he had done it, but he had.” Not everyone can do this, because not everyone has the capacity for it. But that does not mean that the capacity cannot be developed.

In his book on anxiety, Hans Urs von Balthasar notes the difference between “sin-anxiety” and the anxiety (or angst) of the Cross. The former is the one that plagues most of us, the one that Jesus forbids his followers in the Sermon on the Mount—the one that has its source either in a lack of trust in God, in a culpable psychic or emotional malaise, or in unresolved guilt. One would vainly attempt to glorify sin-anxiety and call it the angst of the Cross (as people often confuse psychological depression with the “dark night of the soul”). There is a vast space between the two: the space of Christian faith, hope, and love. If one cannot rid oneself of sin-anxiety through divine grace and the practice of Christian virtue, one can never reach the spiritual maturity and radical openness of spirit needed to embrace the angst of the Cross and bear fruit thereby.

One can enter into Christ’s redemptive sufferings only if one is already immersed in a profound joy, trust, peace, and genuine Christian love. Then he is prepared to bear, with Jesus, others’ burdens, and that only insofar as it is the explicit will of God. We can “pick up the parcels” of others through the power of the Cross, once we are free from anxiety and rooted firmly in grace. At this point we are no longer mere servants or disciples of Christ, but friends and lovers. At this point it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in and through us.

There’s really only one way to advance beyond sin-anxiety, to enter into the joy of grace and love, and to be strong enough to share the Cross of Jesus for the sake of others: “Come to Me… Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).