Revolutionary relationships

(Unsplash / Harli Marten)

I've been thinking a lot about relationships lately. As a vowed religious, I'm obviously not referring to relationships in the romantic sense, even if I do love a good romantic comedy, but simply in the most human sense. Me to you, you to me, we to them … until there is simply us, brothers and sisters created in the image and likeness of God.

"When there is an us," Pope Francis said in last year's surprise TED talk, "there begins a revolution."

Pope Francis inspires me to risk revolutionary relationships, or as he calls it, a revolution of tenderness. Looking at the division, polarization, hate speech, and angry tweeting peppering our (un)civil discourse these days, I can see why he is calling for a little tenderness. The negative energy around us can seep into the everyday. We can be tempted to close in on the comfortable, surround ourselves with like-minded folks, and miss out on the transformative power of surprising connections.

Dorothy Day inspires me. It seems that the need for revolutionary relationships is not necessarily new, given that she wrote these words in her 1963 book Loaves and Fishes:

The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us. When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the cross, then we can truly say, "Now I have begun."

My friend Virginia Herbers, a member of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus community, inspires and challenges me to create communion in my own existing sphere of relationships. In her opening chapter of our collaborative book project, In Our Own Words: Religious Life in a Changing World, Virginia writes:

In the communion paradigm, I am called to the table by Jesus who values me simply because he does, simply because I am. Looking to my left and to my right, I see that he values you simply because you are. The true call of communion is to be able to say to you with my own voice, "I love you; sit next to me," "I am trying to love you; sit next to me," or "You don't seem to love me; sit next to me."

This passage has challenged me ever since I first read it during our writing retreat, when we gathered to read and critique each other's chapters. This tender revolution of the heart is not pie in the sky, something we preach and aspire to live out some day. Rather, if I truly believe the truth of this call to be about building the beloved community, then it needs to start in my everyday life and relationships.

Who do I avoid, and why? Who do I judge before they even open their mouth, because I of course know exactly what they will say, and it is just going to be utter nonsense, so in the end, do I even truly listen to what they have to say? Maybe it is exactly what I thought they would say, but perhaps today I will hear it a little differently. Maybe today, we'll have a conversation. This might be the day we've been waiting for when we will each think a little differently after our connection. You never know until you try.

Relationships are revolutionary because they require us to be vulnerable and share at least a little bit of ourselves, even if we follow the principles of self-care and healthy boundaries. Relationships require us to show up with open minds and open hearts. Relationships require us to give people permission to step out of the boxes we have already drawn around them.

I return again to the keen insights of the heart of Dorothy Day. When pondering what to say to those who question what one person can do, she wrote:

They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the action of the present moment but we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.

And so I pray for the grace to risk revolutionary relationships in my daily life. I pray for the grace to listen with an open mind, to be present with an open heart, and to love my way into the "kindom," step by step, day by day, moment by moment, knowing that all things are possible through God who first loved us into being.

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]