These weeks are very busy at the seminary where I work, so I cannot be certain of my ability to write daily. We’ll see. But as writing here is a singular joy in my life, I will try to preserve at least some time each day to write whatever presents itself. Today I am tight, so I will just allow my mind to stream some thoughts. Hang on.
The other day, I was going through my notes from my 1991 moral theology class. I am so happy I saved those notes! Anyway, the professor was evidently speaking about the virtue of justice and connecting it to St. Paul’s phrase in Romans 13:8, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” He shared an excerpt from a homily he heard in which the preacher said,
We love Jesus. Yes, he’s easy to love. He’s perfect. We love to receive him into our bodies and souls in his Eucharistic Presence. We love Christ the Head of the Body. And so it should be! But we’re in reality double-minded as we don’t love the whole Christ. We don’t so much love to receive his Mystical Body, the Church, which is that ragtag, unpleasant, smelly collection of humanity he has joined to himself. We prefer the pristine, decapitated Christ; we desire to receive the Head only to spit out his members, the members of his Body.
As I re-read this quote in my notes I vividly recalled the feelings I had on hearing that story when my prof first told it. I remember being at once horrified by the grotesque image and enthralled by the power of a message I had never considered in that way before. I felt indicted. I was indicted. I am indicted.
I took that memory to Mass that morning and as I played it over in my mind I recalled a quote from St. Catherine of Siena, which is timely because today is her glorious feast. It’s a selection from her Dialogue with God the Father, who, commenting on the commandment to love God above all things, says,
I require that you should love Me with the same love with which I love you. This indeed you cannot do, because I loved you without being loved. All the love which you have for Me you owe to Me, so that it is not of grace that you love Me, but because you ought to do so. While I love you of grace, and not because I owe you My love.
Therefore to Me, in person, you cannot repay the love which I require of you, and I have placed you in the midst of your fellows, that you may do to them that which you cannot do to Me, that is to say, that you may love your neighbor of free grace, without expecting any return from him, and what you do to him, I count as done to Me. This love must be sincere, because it is with the same love with which you love Me, that you must love your neighbor.
I often speak in my posts of the twofold commandment — love of God and neighbor — that Jesus places in the center of the Gospel. To love God is to love one’s fellow human beings, and to love one’s fellow human beings is to love God. In fact, the whole of the Law and Prophets was given to reveal the fuller meaning of those two commandments. Indeed, the entirety of the economy of salvation conspires toward forming God-neighbor lovers, that is, it conspires toward birthing lovers of Jesus Christ. The Catechism ends its Prologue with this point:
The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love. #25
That same moral theology professor once made a point in this regard that I found (and still find) quite striking:
If love is ordered as God intended it to be — which is the meaning of morality! — there is absolutely no competition between love of God and love of neighbor. Sometimes we develop a piety that sees people as a distraction from God, or as a mere means to the real end in God. But if you have your priorities right, every human being around you presents a fresh opportunity not just to love that person for God, or to love God in that person, but to love that person with God. That’s what St Vincent intended in his marvelous expression, “When you leave your prayer to attend to the knock of the needy at your door, do not think you have shirked your sacred duty, for you go from God to God.” Or you can even read St Patrick’s Breastplate as a spirituality of the ubiquitous neighbor:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Thick Covenant Blood
As I think about this, it re-convinces me that this vision must especially be at the heart of any authentic spirituality of marriage and family life. Spouses and families are the neighbors “in your face” who are stuck to us by blood and covenant. My own very personal encounter with God, my journey toward union with Christ in his Church, can never be dissociated from my parents, my spouse, my children, my in-laws. God will not permit me to bypass them. Even if my relationships are broken and painful, and require me to limit my contact with some of these people, I remain bonded to them and I love God well only by continuing to love them in some manner. Love by pardon, by prayer, love by refusing to speak ill of them, by desiring their temporal and eternal welfare.
By loving the nearest of our nearby neighbors, those who present us with the greatest challenges precisely because they are so persistently near, we find a most profound and wonderful opportunity to grow into holiness, which is perfectio caritatis, “the perfection of charity.” As I’ve said before, God desires best of all to be loved in and through the neighbor, and he demonstrated that desire above all by becoming human and so unifying those loves for all eternity. To love Jesus is to be inescapably in love with God and humanity all at once.
An additional thought comes to mind. My wife and my children are the epicenter of my quest to love God, and to be loved by God. They have shaped my relationship with God. The contours of my wife’s face or the squeeze of my child’s hand are, for me, the essential form grace takes in my life. I realize that who I am cannot be separated from who they are; that my love for them is constitutive of who I am. And I rejoice in that! The constraints and demands they place on my life don’t shackle my freedom but rather give it an impassioned purpose and direction worthy of freedom’s raison d’être: love.
I become myself truly only when I find another to freely give myself to and for; and allow that other to give themselves to and for me. In that exchange, which in our marriage is unabashedly sacramental, I am caught up into divine love. Think here especially of those relationships that, because they are long, deep, arduous, messy, forcing us to face the depths of human suffering and sin, call forth from us the latent greatness that God placed within us; a greatness that awaits the other to draw it forth from our depths.
I’ve always thought that one of the myriad reason’s for marriage’s till-death permanence is the opportunity such enduring stability affords us to become great and godlike lovers. To become like the long-suffering God of mercy.
I will end with a Fr. Tom Hopko quote on loving neighbor. As you may know, I have a genuine affection for his brilliant, homey and challenging style.
…the second great commandment that goes with the Shema, from the Levitical code, is that we are to love our neighbor as being our very own self. In other words, we find ourselves in our neighbor. Sometimes people want to speak about loving ourselves, that we should have a healthy self-love. That’s true. We should not be down on ourselves or berate ourselves or beat ourselves up or fall in any kind of despair over ourselves. We are made by God, and we are loved by God.
However, self-love, philofteia in Greek, which St. Maximus, one of our great saints, said, IS the original sin. When you’re not loving God and neighbor, but you’re just loving yourself, that loving of ourselves is so destructive according to the Church Fathers because we don’t have any self in ourselves. We’re made in the image and likeness of God who is love, so the only way we can really love ourselves properly is by loving our neighbor. Even in Hebrew, that’s probably how it should be translated: “You shall love your neighbor because your neighbor is your very own self. You have no self in yourself.” You only find and fulfill yourself by denying your so-called self in love for the neighbor, and then your self is affirmed. It appears. It’s realized. Here, I think it’s important to note that the paraphrases of the New Testament that say, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself,” are not really an accurate rendering of the text.
In any case, it is a clear teaching of the Holy Scripture that the only way we can prove our love for God is by loving the person next to us, our neighbor. Of course, Jesus teaches that our neighbor is the worst enemy we can think of. In fact, if we wanted to evaluate how we’re doing as a human being, as a Christian, we would just ask ourselves, “How would I treat the person that I hate the most and that hates me the most? How do I treat the one that for me is the most ugly enemy I can think of?” When we see how we do it, then we’ll see if we love God or not, because it’s exactly that person that we have to love.