God Gave Burdens, Also Shoulders: A Yiddish Proverb

In all of our lives, there are times when encouragement makes or breaks our stamina. Even when all is well, we know a deeper happiness if our efforts find appreciation.

 

Recently, I came across a publication of the Mayo Clinic and was surprised to find therein an article referring to a dear friend, Tim Ruettiger, with whom I had taught in an Illinois high school some years ago. I had heard the story but was elated that this prestigious clinic also thought it newsworthy. Why did they? It seems doctors are now validating the amazing healing properties of virtues like “encouragement” and “consolation.”

The story focused on Ron, a fourteen-year-old, four-feet-six-inch lad who had enrolled in Tim’s physical education class. Coach Rudy (brother of “Rudy” of the 1993 American sports film) treated this young man with the same respect and expectations as all the other students, though Ron had a rare genetic cancer. Throughout Ron’s teens, the effects of the disease would increase but Coach never allowed the young man to say “I can’t”; rather, his faith completed all such reasoning with “You will!” Coach joined Ron in shooting hoops (kneeling to allow for differences in physical abilities) even as he challenged him to play sports to the best of his ability. It was Coach’s example that encouraged the other students to pick Ron for teams, with pride.

Years passed, and one evening in August of 2013, Coach received a phone call from the Mayo Clinic informing him of the approaching death of a young man whose mantra had become “Coach Rudy would be proud of me.” Hearing about Ron’s nine episodes of bone cancer and his multiple amputations, Rudy immediately flew to Mayo. His coaching wasn’t over; encouragement was needed for his friend’s last challenge—to die well. Coach found himself once again kneeling beside his student, this time in deepest prayer.

On the Feast of Christ the King (November 24, 2013), our Holy Father, Pope Francis, issued his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).  In it he writes: “To be evangelizers of souls, we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives and to discover that this is itself a source of greater joy. Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people” (§268). It is this passion which moves us to “spill over and refresh others” (§272) through the gift of encouragement.

In all of our lives, there are times when encouragement makes or breaks our stamina. Even when all is well, we know a deeper happiness if our efforts find appreciation. All too often in our fast-paced society, we focus on ourselves, and those who need us suffer the absence of our attention.  The fact is, we are our brother’s keeper (Gn 4:9; I Cor 8:11-13), and the gift of encouragement quickly boosts failing spirits and raises hope. This may be the reason Holy Mother Church puts before us the virtues of another young man—St. Barnabas or “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36). Just who was he?

Barnabas, the Levite, was a Cypriot and cousin of John Mark, the evangelist. He must have been a man of courage and spiritual insight for he befriended Paul when the other disciples failed to trust Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:26-27). Barnabas’ encouragement forged the way for Paul’s acceptance into the nascent group. Later, Paul disagreed with Barnabas over John Mark’s worthiness to remain in their missionary troupe, due to an earlier struggle between Paul and Mark (Acts 15:36-41). Perhaps, Barnabas saw a greater frailty in John Mark’s spirit, and so, true to his nature, he stayed with him to provide encouragement. In time, John Mark would gift the Church with his Gospel, and even Paul would recognize his usefulness (2 Tm 4:11).

Beyond this, the early Church needed this “Son of Encouragement” to reach another milestone. “The disciples at Antioch were called Christians for the first time” (Acts 11:26). Barnabas, through his deferential respect for the Gentiles, was the man working behind the scenes for this accomplishment. In Acts 15:30-31, we read: “When (the brethren in Antioch) had read the letter brought by Barnabas, they rejoiced over its encouragement.” His words gave them the hope that, as Gentiles, they could overcome their sins and receive the gift of salvation without converting to Judaism first.

Church tradition relates that Barnabas gave the ultimate witness of faith through his martyrdom at the hands of jealous Jews in Syria and Salamis. As providence would have it, Barnabas was to die by the same means as the Protomartyr, St. Stephen, whose stoning had been supervised and encouraged by Paul before his conversion. From the blood of these martyrs, many converts would find their way to the baptismal waters.

In Acts 4:36, Luke gives the name “Barnabas” a second translation: “son of consolation.” The New Testament uses this concept 105 times, with the most common word employed being the Greek word, Parakaleo: para, meaning “beside, near, with, alongside,” and kaleo, meaning “to call or summon.” A “paraclete” is someone who counsels, encourages, helps and consoles. This word is used in reference to the role of the Holy Spirit when Christ said to his disciples, “I will not leave you comfortless (Jn 14:18).” He was, in effect, saying “I will not leave you without encouragement.” St. Paul referred to this virtue in Heb 3:14, when he instructed the disciples to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak.” One contemporary personification of this virtue is a man who will be canonized by Holy Mother Church on Divine Mercy Sunday, 2014—Pope John Paul II.

Against the background of countless corpses and oceans of blood claimed in World War II’s extermination camps, this pope’s faith and courageous love proved stronger. He breathed into the world of the downtrodden, forgotten, sinful, and despairing an encouraging message of respect based on the inherent dignity of even the weakest and the most unappreciated human beings. His “civilization of love” challenged society with the call for forgiveness, and the solidarity needed to bring forth the transformation of a world steeped in violence and structural sin.

Such courage came from a lifetime of suffering, accepted with the strength only Faith can give.  This was evident in John Paul’s prescient phrase spoken on the first anniversary of the assassination attempt on his life: “in the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.” 1  In the midst of a very frightened world, John Paul was convinced that the primary task of the Church is to proclaim the fearless story of a redemption “whose effects are working themselves out, hour by hour, in billions of lives.” 2

The experience of living through what John Paul termed the “apocalypse of our century” turned his pontificate into an embrace of the world. This Pilgrim Pope logged almost 700,000 miles (equal to 28 times the circumference of the earth) with the indomitable energy of a St. Paul or a St. Barnabas. From the mountaintops of 118 countries on every continent except Antarctica, he sought unity and solidarity with other cultures and religions, becoming the first pope in history to visit both a Jewish synagogue and a Muslim mosque. The day after his death, April 2, in an edition of CNN’s Larry King Live program, Dr. Billy Graham expressed his thoughts on the deceased pope:

Pope John Paul II was unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years. His extraordinary gifts, his strong Catholic faith, and his experience of human tyranny and suffering in his native Poland, all shaped him and, yet, he was respected by men and women from every conceivable background across the world. He was truly one of those rare individuals whose legacy will endure long after he has gone.

Pope John Paul knew that we were created for, with, and in, Truth. He never failed to remind us of this knowledge. His belief in the goodness of humanity gave the world new hope—a hope to which youth, in particular, responded.

The priest who eventually became the 264th successor of St. Peter had always enjoyed a charismatic popularity with young people. His love for them led to the 1985 inauguration of the first international World Youth Day through which he imparted his belief that young people are not only the future of the Church, but also its present. Millions of young people made untold sacrifices to follow the Holy Father through World Youth Days as they expressed their heartfelt appreciation, and he gifted them with courage in the face of their moral struggles. He saw in youth the bearers of hope, agents of community, and instruments of a moral globalization. With fatherly pride emanating from his presence, he emboldened them for virtue and authentic greatness.

In 1971, the eminent psychiatrist, Rudolf Dreikurs, wrote: “The most important skill for raising a child {in a democracy} is the ability to encourage that child.” Dreikurs considered encouragement to be the single most important quality for getting along with others—so important, that the lack of it could be considered the basic catalyst for misbehavior. What might such paraklesis actually look like in an educational environment?

Encouragement must always focus primarily on effort or improvement, rather than outcomes. It recognizes, accepts, and conveys faith in another person for the mere fact that he or she exists. No one needs be “the best” in order to be a fully-fledged human being. Achievement will never denote the true value of an individual. Sadly, however, this is often the prime motivational instrument in our educational and work places. Thus the underachiever is led to believe less in his/her self-worth and may begin to nurse internal resentment and indignation. Tactics such as yelling, threatening, nagging, criticizing, and isolating another person are too often used for correction. Resultant anger gives birth to irrational and desperate behaviors. When mental illness is added to this picture, it forms the perfect setup for tragedies such as have occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Columbine High School, and Virginia Tech.

While some discouragements in life may certainly be the fruit of one’s own acedia, listlessness, or torpor, others are more innocuous and might be overcome by the simple gift of another’s interest and support. We have all experienced the boon of encouragement that leads to a euphoric and healthy acceptance of personal struggles. Such psychological hardiness, in turn, grants the individual a more promising and realistic view of self, others, and an openness to new experiences. 3  Positive people enjoy themselves because they see themselves as adequate, and their contributions as meaningful. They do not fear mistakes, knowing they will “fall forward” into greater knowledge and self-awareness. They also accept others’ unique ways without trying to change or control them.

However, the psychological realm isn’t the only aspect of our humanity that suffers from a lack of acceptance and encouragement. Even in the physical realm, verbal encouragement produces positive results—as an experiment at the Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania proved.  Twelve men and 16 women performed a treadmill test designed to elicit maximal effort in less than 12 minutes of a silent workout. At the end of each 3-minute exercise stage, ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) were recorded, and blood samples taken. A second round of testing followed, but with the addition of coaching remarks such as “Way to go!”, “Push!”, “Keep it up!’’ The final report read: “Results suggest that frequent verbal encouragement leads to significantly greater maximum effort in a treadmill test than when no encouragement is given or is infrequent.” 4 Most people prefer treadmill exercising with cheering companions!

Yet, another profound aspect of paraklesis was shared by the chaplain of our Community, a wise Lebanese Maronite priest, Fr. John Paul Bassil, who pointed out that giving encouragement is both the easiest and the most difficult thing to do. According to Father:

If we leave God outside our lives, it is almost impossible to help another because only through Jesus can we find the hope we wish to give to others. Hope is born of love, a love that gives encouragement. And this love is a Person—the Person of God. It is our “encouragement” that changes the world for the good—but only those who have Christ’s heart inside them can put that Divine heart into others.

Speaking of Christ’s heart reminds us that devotion to the Mother of the Eucharist—the woman who gave him his fleshy heart—is of utmost importance to growth in our faith, as the saints and popes have assured us.  Her rosary, in the words of Pope John Paul II, was his “favorite prayer.” 5  It follows that we need to develop a tender devotion to this “Woman of Encouragement,” our Heavenly Mother Mary. Without her maternal warmth, we might never have the courage to believe in the goodness of ourselves or our neighbor.

Finally, if we wish to surround ourselves with positive, faith-filled people who are able to encourage us in difficult times, it may be worth a personal assessment to see if we measure up to these standards. We might consider:

  1. Do my words of encouragement easily outweigh words of correction or criticism?
  2. Do people become more cheerful around me?
  3. Am I careful to ask forgiveness of others when I have given a negative report or discouraging word?
  4. Am I able to encourage those who have hurt me? Can I “bless those who persecute” me as Jesus commands?  In the words of the British mystic and poet Caryll Houselander: “Let’s not be among those ‘commonsense Christians’ afraid to spend themselves on anyone from whom they do not get results.” 6
  5. Have I recognized how encouraging God is to his whole creation? To me?

Pope Francis was touching the pulse of humanity as he wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation:  “Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something about God” (§272).

This was evidenced on August 28, 2013, as Ron and Coach Rudy completed the role they would play in each other’s life here on earth. Beginning a rosary that would prove to be Ron’s last, Coach had a sudden inspiration to invite another friend via phone to join them. Sadly, I never received the intended phone call, and on August 29, 2013, Ron died peacefully. But with the rosaries I have since prayed for Ron’s soul, our Heavenly Mother gifted me to be a “daughter of encouragement” in the life of her precious son. Now, with him, I share more clearly the vision of the living Hope who is God.

  1. The Pope said this from Fatima, where he had gone on pilgrimage in thanksgiving for his life being spared on May 12-13, 1982 (p. 440). Later, John Paul would reiterate: “One hand fired, and another guided the bullet.” Weigel, G. Witness to Hope, 413.
  2. Weigel, Witness to Hope, 440.
  3. Timothy Evans (1997) “The Tools of Encouragement. Reaching Today’s Youth,” Vol. 1 Issue 2 Winter 1997. pp. 10-14.
  4. Andreacci JL, LeMura LM, Cohen SL, et al. “The effects of frequency of encouragement on performance during maximal exercise testing.” J Sports Sci 2002;20:345–52.
  5. John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Introduction, 2.
  6. Houselander, C. (1958). The Risen Christ.  New York, NY:  Sheed & Ward Publishers. 
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avatar About Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, O.P.

Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP, is one of the four founders of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As vocations director, she lectures on topics related to religious life and theology, speaking at youth conferences, parishes, to university students, religious women, priests, and seminarians. (www.sistersofmary.org)

Comments

  1. avatar Glenna says:

    This is all the more beautiful, Sr, since you practice so perfectly what you preach!

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