Mother Teresa was once asked how she could go on, day after day, tirelessly caring for the sick, the dying and the poor. “It’s not hard,” she said, “because in each one I see the face of Christ in one of His more distressing disguises.”
On Christ loving
When I was volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity at their home for the homeless and the dying, called the Gift of Peace, the sister who supervised me would meet with me weekly to offer formation in their mission and charism. As I was working closely with one of the residents who could do little for himself, she said to me:
What he needs more than assistance in eating, brushing teeth or bathing is to know that you and he are equals, that you love him eye to eye, that the man seated in the wheelchair in front of you is your brother. If he feels you are looking down on him to help him up, he will shut down. The truth is all of us are weak and frail, in our own “wheelchairs,” and when Jesus came down from heaven, became a man, he came very low to look us in the eye so we’d have no shame in being lifted up. So be like Jesus for him, let Jesus love him in you, but also let Jesus love you in him. And when you can do that last part, when you can really feel it, you will have achieved a great thing.
That “last part,” I realized, was the real test of whether or not I could really and truly see this man as my equal. To see him as equally capable of Jesus-ing me even as I was capable of Jesus-ing him was to transform the power plays of service and reveal us both as needy beggars before the God whose love is meant for all. Her words also reminded me of one of St. Augustine’s homilies on 1 John, where he says,
…the sons of God are the Body of the Only Son of God, and when He is the Head, we the members, it is one Son of God. Therefore, he that loves the sons of God, loves the Son of God, and he that loves the Son of God, loves the Father; nor can any love the Father except he love the Son, and he that loves the sons, loves also the Son of God. What sons of God? The members of the Son of God. And by loving he becomes himself a member, and comes through love to be in the frame of the body of Christ, so there shall be one Christ, loving Himself. For when the members love one another, the body loves itself.
One Christ, loving himself. That’s an extraordinary phrase! The unity of the “total” Christ, Head and Body, is a communion of persons bound my mutual love. Just as St. Paul says that the husband who loves his wife loves himself, since they are one body in marriage (cf Ephesians 5), so Augustine affirms that to love the neighbor in Christ is to love Christ the Bridegroom and to aid and abet Christ’s love for his Bride, the Church. In the Spirit of the Father’s Word-made-flesh, love is a wonderfully complex matrix that binds divine and human persons together into an irreducibly diverse communion of giving and receiving. To love one’s neighbor is to love God, oneself and all humanity.
I often think of this mind blowing inter-relatedness in my marriage, i.e. to love my wife is all at once to love Christ and to allow Christ to love her in and through me. A priest drove this point home to me once when, at the end of my confession, he said to me:
Jesus loves your wife with an infinite love, far more than you ever will, and in his stead he has entrusted her to your care so that you might prove to her how much He loves her. Beg every day for the grace to be Christ for her. You’ll be judged on that.
To love another person is to see…
C.S. Lewis said, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” Why? Fundamentally, because they are made in God’s image and likeness, and so are worthy in and of themselves of love. To love your image-stamped neighbor is to love God, and vice versa. In Christ, who is the God-Neighbor, this truth, written into our God-like nature, is brought to perfection. Christ reveals to us fully that our neighbor — especially the suffering, poor and dirty neighbor — is God’s “favorite” and preferred means of being loved.
If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
God the Father shared this earth shaking insight with St. Catherine of Siena in her Dialogue. I will leave you with His words:
I ask you to love me with the same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I loved you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you. This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me — that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.