Plato was the first to suggest that the good is diffusive. It’s in the very nature of the good to expand, to pour itself out. Why? Of course the ancient Greeks could go no farther than to identify the nature of a thing with what it must be, what it is continually is. The good simply is diffusive. It always shares itself, pours itself out.
That being said, enjoy these two paragraphs from Mary Gordon’s latest novel, The Love of My Youth. It’s about two young Americans, deeply in love, living abroad in Rome. Notice how Adam, the Italian American, can’t help but to share his love of Rome with Miranda, the love of his youth.
They are happy shopping, buying their peaches, their cheese, their tomatoes, their bread. Though she won’t cook, she loves buying picnic food and planning the location of their outings.
Calm and pleased, she walks the aisles of the ancient covered market in Nomentana: rows on rows of fruits and cheeses and salamis, fish she doesn’t know the name of and wouldn’t know what to do with but enjoys looking at. She allows herself to be distracted. She follows Adam’s lead: this is his other home, these are his people. Certainly, it must be in his blood, this way he has of picking up a peach and turning it over, smelling it, putting it to her nose, telling her to bite it, taste the juice, no wait, he’ll take the first bite so she won’t have the trouble of the fuzzy skin, and he brushes the hair from her cheek with the edge of his palm. And surely he must have been born to it, to talk this way about food, to speak without embarrassment about the richness of the tomatoes, the sharpness of the basil, the smooth texture of the cheese. He praises the olive oil; he says its taste is the taste of comfort and hope.
He is passionate about Roman water. He shows her how to cover the hole in the spigot with her middle finger so she can drink more easily, so the delicious water can go directly into her mouth. He fills bottles with water from the different fountains and insists that she discriminate and choose her favorite. He talks about the way the color of the stone changes as the day progresses and the shadows lengthen. She allows herself to believe that it’s all right to enjoy the world, to pay attention to the kinds of things he is paying attention to. It’s a kind of slowness, a kind of attentiveness that would mortify and perhaps even frighten the people she was raised among. She can just imagine what her father would say if he heard Adam going on and on about a peach. He would call it , she knows, unmanly. But it is the opposite to her; never has she desired Adam more; never has he seemed more the man with whom she delights in sharing her bed. Their bed (196-97).
Why is Adam compelled to share his love of Rome? Because it’s in the nature of the good to be diffusive, to share itself: love oozes, beauty glistens, the good compels. For the very same reason, the prophet Ezekiel can’t imagine the prosperous not being mindful of those who are not well off, and Jesus tells his listeners that, after the love of God, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22: 39). Neither can imagine what it would mean to have a good and not want to share it. Isn’t the good diffusive by nature?
If our faith, our experience of God in Jesus Christ is a good, isn’t it “natural” that we should want to share that faith with others, that it should be diffusive? Adam couldn’t help but to share his love of Rome with Miranda. How can a lover not share what is loved with the beloved?
On Mission Sunday (Oct. 23), if we feel no impulse to share our faith, perhaps we should ask ourselves just how deep that faith really is. Is it indeed the treasure found in the field, the pearl of great price, or has our faith itself become a routine expression of a life grown tired?
In this age of inter-religious dialogue, one might ask if a “missionary spirit” isn’t something from another time, a force that is spent. One might even think that perhaps this is for the good: who are we to tell others how to live?
True enough, but more true is this fundamental fact: the good is diffusive. It seeks to share itself, without worrying whether or not it finds acceptance. Our task is to share our faith, the joy and the peace that we find therein, and to do so in a way that respects others, hears and honors the good contained in their stories, and eschews any form of manipulation. We share what we have to share; we receive what we can receive; and we let our good God do the rest, simply knowing that, because God is the good, God will be diffusive.
In the same novel, Mary Gordon offers just such an example, the shared-though-strained faith of Adam’s parents, Rose and Sal.
Since the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Catholic church’s stance against birth control, Rose herself has not entered a Catholic church. Sal is an usher at Mass on Sundays and often a communicant at Mass during the week. Each year he makes a retreat for five days with the Redemptorist Fathers, someplace upstate; no one ever questions him, and he says nothing to anyone about his religious life. Which Adam knows is serious, extensive, because of the books that line his shelves. John of the Cross. Meister Eckehart. Julian of Norwich. It seems not to come between his parents, Rose’s rage at the church, Sal’s devotion to it. Adam doesn’t understand why it doesn’t come between them, but the fact that it does not raises in him an enormous pride, as if his parents were great players in a long demanding, but intensely private game (198).
Missionary activity is not the same thing as inter-religious dialogue, and neither is what might be called intra-religious dialogue, which, ironically, may be the most challenging. They are three distinctly different duties, but they share a similar job description, one worth repeating: our task is to share our faith, the joy and the peace that we find therein, and to do so in a way that respects others, hears and honors the good contained in their stories, and eschews any form of manipulation. We share what we have to share; we receive what we can receive; and we let our good God do the rest, simply knowing that, because God is good, God will be diffusive.
Terrance W. Klein