I am not a hugger. But I have a dear friend who is. She will “love-on” the most unsuspecting stranger with abandon. Often when I’ve introduced her to others I lead with, “Be prepared… she’s a hugger.” Then I stand back as she envelops them in a firestorm of affection. If the recipient of the hug is not particularly into it, they often glare at me over her shoulder, followed by a resigned eye-roll from within the folds of her exuberantly tight embrace. I just watch, both cringing and marveling at her expressive boldness.
How to explain the hugger vs. the non-hugger? Well, my emotionally demonstrative friend has a much smaller personal space bubble than I. You’ve heard how different cultures have varying ideas of acceptable physical contact upon introductions. If you have a Mediterranean bubble, you’re more hands-on and more likely to touch, hug or even kiss someone you’ve just met. Picture the Italians’ cheek-to-cheek smooch, which is a standard greeting among new acquaintances. A person of German or British descent, however, might be more likely to give you a good bit of space and disdain any seemingly gratuitous touching with a person who is not a relative or friend. And a joyful, extroverted lady who hails from the heart of Iowa?—well, expect a big old midwestern uninhibited hug. (For the record, I do hug, but the aforementioned requirements of relative or friend must be met before I feel—to borrow from the cool kids’ vernacular— “getting all up into someone’s grille.”)
Obviously, we all come to the debate about our respective personal space bubbles with differing temperaments and hang-ups. That’s perfectly acceptable. It’s okay that my friend is a hugger and I’m not. We non-huggers can make allowances for the more tactile among us and vice-versa. There’s no rule that we hug a stranger. Phew!
But, what if we were to widen the debate beyond our physical bubbles to our spiritual spheres? (Those of you weirded out by the term ‘spiritual sphere,’ hang with me. I promise I’m not going to start peddling crystals and patchouli.) Is it just as acceptable for a so-called religious person to walk around surrounded by a giant spiritual bubble? What is a spiritual bubble? Let me pose a few (hopefully) thought-provoking questions. How many of you devout Christians out there maintain friendships with those who don’t share or affirm your same beliefs about God? How many of your core friends are from your Bible study or local parish? If you’re Catholic, do you have any Protestant friends? Do you enjoy the company of any (gasp!) atheists or agnostics? Do you seek relationships only with those in the bosom of your church community? Do you have a check-list for what a friend looks like? Tattoos, no. Haloes, yes! A litmus test for political beliefs, worship standards, and acceptable bumper stickers before you are willing to extend kindness and friendship? You may be walking around with a giant religious bubble that is inhibiting your growth as a serious Christian.
Something my pastor mentioned recently got me to thinking about my own Catholic bubble. He articulated that our faith is not meant to be a refuge from the rest of the world. It is not meant to be a retreat or escape. At times, it can offer that. But that is not the goal of Christianity. Understood correctly, our faith is a wellspring of inspiration to engage with others, especially those not of our faith. Our Christianity is our strength and the impetus for getting out and mingling with the whole wide world. Gulp. Tough words for this resigned introvert. Does this mean I have to be more like my extroverted friend and start hugging strangers in the same way I might a Newfoundland puppy? No. A Catholic bubble is very different from a personal space bubble. I’m not speaking of physical comfort zones, but the potentially more confining religious comfort zones. It’s time to pop the Catholic bubble!
Having a tribe of friends who support you and affirm your strongly held religious beliefs is very important. A must! I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me to find a group of wonderful Christian women who encourage me and share the same goals and ideals as me. It’s so comforting. But our faith should not stop there. As Christians, we are not called to be comfortable! If we don’t venture beyond the Church doors, we are not living as Catholics. Where would we be if St. Paul had stayed safely within his insular Christian community?
“Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win over those under the law. To those outside the law I became like one outside the law—though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ—to win over those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.” —1 Corinthians 19-24
Don’t mistake me. I don’t think we need to be evangelizing everyone we encounter. Hi, my name is Mary Jo. Have you found JAY-sus? That’s how I remember some of the campus crusaders I met in college. It didn’t move me one bit. In fact, it moved me to avoid them. What truly moves people is being around those who stand out as good, HUMBLE, honest, kind, loving people who take a genuine interest in them and their well-being. We need to be those qualities to EVERYONE, not just the nice old Irish lady at Mass who always waves and smiles. I do LOVE her, by the way! But if we only engage with her, we are not living the real Christian life that Jesus called us to.
He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Matthew 26, 37-41
As we head into the holidays, consider “loving-on” a neighbor, preferably someone who doesn’t share your belief system. They may even be a close relative who despises everything you stand for. I’m guessing if we’re honest, you don’t exactly love where they stand either. Get past the restrictions of your spiritual bubble. Take a real interest in who they are. Witness the true love of Christ that unites us all, not with words or good solid arguments, (those may come later in the relationship) but with warmth and goodness. Never surrender your strongly held Christian beliefs! But consider shelving the need to be right, and reach across the table with compassion and sincere concern. Be fortified by your faith. Go to adoration, and daily Mass. Get to confession! Receive the Eucharist as often as possible, but use those graces to go out into the world to spread His love, whether it’s at Thanksgiving dinner or standing in line at the grocery store. Make friends with all of His children. Get to know God’s world outside the confines of your Catholic bubble. Pop!