I met Nancy on my first night at Georgetown in August 1984. I had moved into my room on New South 1 (which looks very much the same today) and wandered anxiously over to a party on the Harbin patio.
I was overwhelmed and felt way out of my league. Finding refuge at the edge of the crowd, I met Nancy who greeted me with a warm smile and an understanding look. She felt equally awkward. We weren’t big partiers. In a ritual we would repeat countless times in the next four years, we found refuge in ice cream and talking long into the night.
We became fast friends, in part because it took us both some time before Georgetown felt like home. We missed our families very much. I came from a small town in Florida, but was now in a big city. Nancy, from Atlanta, was an African-American woman on a largely white campus. Above all, we bonded over faith, a commitment important to both of us. Nancy was a Seventh Day Adventist, and I was an Irish Catholic.
Nancy introduced me to the gospel choir service in St. William’s, and I introduced her to what the Mass was all about. We embarked on a spiritual journey together.
Besides conversations about faith, Nancy and I would usually talk over ice cream about our latest romantic interests and our recent heartbreaks.
The heartbreaks were crushing, but I also recall those invigorating moments of first love, when the other returned romantic interest. To be loved and accepted was a source of great confidence. Everything seemed right with the world. Such moments are gifts that could deepen into lasting bonds. But when they did not, there was Nancy, and other friends, to help me regain my footing and to remind me that I was loved.
We need people like Nancy in our lives. There are so many voices in our world that say that love is conditional. We have to act or look a certain way to be loved. Those voices dictate that we must earn love or prove ourselves loveable.
In contrast, the religious traditions teach the most fundamental truth of our existence: we are loved simply because we are. Family and friends who love us in this way echo the voice of God, who from the beginning of our lives to the end, whispers in our soul, “You are my beloved son.” “You are my beloved daughter.”
The radical nature of this affirmation of belovedness is revealed when we mess up and find acceptance anyway.
In those moments of weakness and failure, it is so easy to think that we are not worth much. We can start to beat ourselves up (a terrible image when you really think about it). Faced with our imperfection and limitation, we think we have lost love. In the calculus of conditional love, that may be the case, but not in the economy of grace.
The truly good news of our belovedness is that we are loved not despite of our limitations but because of them. We are beautiful but broken, and that is OK. Welcome to the human race.
This is not an excuse to avoid making amends or improving our lives. To the contrary, when our hurt or failure is returned by love, we want nothing more than to love or forgive in return because that is what love does.
By its nature, love always spills over to another, like the light of a candle stretching to fill every corner of a dark room.
In writing this way about love, I do not mean to make love trite or saccharine, because it is lived out in the gritty reality of every day. We stumble to find words to describe love, knowing that any sentence, poem or song will be inadequate before its mystery.
The attempt is worthy. When words fail, presence is enough.
On a fundraising trip to Atlanta a few years ago, Nancy and I met again, over chocolate milk shakes, of course. Twenty-five years had passed since graduation, but she still made me feel at home, accepted and loved.
We can earn paychecks and accolades, but not love. Love is a gift to be cherished, not a reward to be earned. And should I ever forget that most important lesson, I know I will be reminded when Nancy and I make our next trip for ice cream.
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., is vice president of mission and ministry. As This Jesuit Sees It … appears every other Tuesday.