We hear the word “tolerance” a lot these days, but what exactly does it mean? It seems the word itself has been largely redefined to mean the opposite of what it used to mean. Today, the word “tolerance” means that one is no longer allowed to hold opinions with which other people do not agree.
Let’s take a step back and look at the traditional and historical meaning of the word. According to Webster’s dictionary, tolerance is the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behaviors that one does not necessarily agree with. If we look at the origin of the verb, we find that “tolerate” comes from the Latin tolero (bear, endure), which was derived from the Greek verb talao (bear, endure). It is in this original context we will address “tolerance.”
Saint Thérèse offers us a splendid example by which she lived the virtue of tolerance. In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, she said, “I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbors’ defects—not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.” She talks about a very real struggle she had with a particular sister below:
“There is in the Community a Sister who has the faculty of displeasing me in everything, in her ways, her words, her character, everything seems very disagreeable to me. And still, she is a holy religious who must be very pleasing to God. Not wishing to give in to the natural antipathy I was experiencing, I told myself that charity must not consist in feelings but in works; then I set myself to doing for this Sister what I would do for the person I loved the most. Each time I met her, I prayed to God for her, offering Him all her virtues and merits…I wasn’t content simply with praying very much for this Sister who gave me so many struggles, but I took care to render her all the services possible, and when I was tempted to answer her back in a disagreeable manner, I was content with giving her my most friendly smile…As she was absolutely unaware of my feelings for her, never did she suspect the motives for my conduct and she remained convinced that her character was very pleasing to me. One day at recreation she asked in almost these words: ‘Would you tell me, Sister Therese of the Child Jesus, what attracts you so much toward me; every time you look at me, I see you smile?’ Ah! What attracted me was Jesus hidden in the depths of her soul; Jesus who makes sweet what is most bitter.”
In this story, St. Thérèse overcame her natural feelings of repulsion towards this sister, so much so that she was able to bear her faults and weaknesses with patience and lift her up in love. She didn’t just “grin and bear” her presence, but sought to carry this sister’s cross with her and lightened her load.
We do not live in isolation, nor should we. As John Donne once wrote and Hemingway adopted (paraphrased here just a tad) “No person is an island.” We are social by nature and interacting with others is an essential need of the human psyche. We know that. I believe St. Paul was referring to this concept when he wrote to the Galatians and asked them to “Bear One Another’s Burdens” (Galatians 6:2).
To implement this scriptural directive, something very basic needs to happen first. We need to pay attention to others and to decrease the “self-centeredness” that is part and parcel of our human nature. Not an easy task to do this!
May I suggest that today we choose to reduce our “self-centeredness” and learn to become more “other- centered”? Why? Because scripture says we should “Bear one another’s burdens.” To follow this directive, we need to look beyond ourselves to the other people in our lives. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan: the priest walks by the man who had been robbed and beaten; the Levite walks by the man. Both of these were good people. The Samaritan, however, not only saw the man, but what he needed. He not only shared in this poor man’s burden, he bore the burden. He took that man and carried him to the inn and then promised to pay the full bill for his care.
Our Lord told all of us that when we do a kind service to others, we are doing it to Him. This is something we can all think about and apply to our own lives. I’m going to. Will you?
By Sister Timothy Marie, OCD, Sister Meredith, OCD, and Marta Timar
Additional Resource: USCCB’s Seven Ways of Bearing One Another’s Burden (The Spiritual Works of Mercy)
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