The Law of Love


I remember the day when I first heard love defined. I always imagined it was one of those fuzzy things that evaded definition.

It happened in my moral theology class. The professor, as I recalled in my journal, was responding to this question from a student: “In what sense can morality be said to be the science and art of love? The moral law seems too cold for love.” He replied by making a number of points about love:

Love means to consistently will and otherwise choose the true good of another, and morality specifies what the good is and how best to bring it about. Aquinas says it this way, “An act of love always tends toward two things: to the good that one wills, and to the person for whom one wills it; since to love a person is to wish that person good.” Law, which is the concrete expression of the demands of justice, grounds and guards love, and points the way “beyond” for love to go, since love always goes beyond justice, though never against it … To “love your neighbor as yourself” means you see their flourishing as your own. So St. Paul’s commands us in Romans 12, “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” and then tells us in 1 Corinthians 12, “If one member of Christ’s Body suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” And the Jews have a saying, “If you save one life you save the whole world” — because everyone’s salvation demands the salvation of all … But fulfilling the command to love God is somewhat different. It cannot mean willing and choosing His fulfillment, as He is purely actualized fulfillment. He always is everything He can be. Rather, to love God can only mean loving what God loves, willing what He wills. Which is, of course, the fulfillment of our neighbor, which brings us back full circle to the two commandments Jesus tells us are two halves of a whole.

I was absolutely ecstatic to have such conceptual clarity, and so much seemed to suddenly make sense. The connection between love and the moral law, love of neighbor and self, and love of God — all part of a symphonic unity. Christians must reclaim the word love so it does not remain simply an empty cipher susceptible to any meaning given it, and they must put it into action in their lives to show just how beautiful it is.

He went on to add an additional insight on love. He said, “The Second Vatican Council, under the influence of Karol Wojtyła, further enriched our understanding of love. He said that love is not simply the detached willing another’s good, external to ourselves, but the offering of the very gift of self to another.” Then he quoted Gaudium et Spes #24, adding that Wojtyła likely was a major inspiration behind its language:

For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor: “If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself…. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:9-10; cf. 1 John 4:20). To men growing daily more dependent on one another, and to a world becoming more unified every day, this truth proves to be of paramount importance.

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.

Then he quoted 1 Thess. 2:8: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves [tas heautōn psychas], because you had become very dear to us.” That’s the essential meaning of communion and covenant: an exchange of selves offered in love sealed by a promise of trusting fidelity. It’s why marriage — as I often say — is the foundation of all social and ecclesial life, and the primordial icon of neighbor love in extremis, “in its most extreme form.” Society and the Church flourish only when marriage, and the family life built on it, flourishes.

Back in January a friend came to visit us from out of town for a few days and she showed us this 9 minute movie that knocked our socks off. It captures in such a moving way the heart of what Aquinas and Wojtyła convey with such abstract precision. I posted it the other day, but just in case you did not watch it before, I encourage you to watch it now. Again, it’s about 9 minutes long:

Are you listening to me?

You withheld sleep from my eyes.
I was troubled, I could not speak.
I thought of the days of long ago
and remembered the years long past.
At night I mused within my heart.
I pondered and my spirit questioned. (Psalm 77:5-7)

I was sitting with my wife recently after work, sharing with her some things that I had been agonizing over recently. Specific regrets from the past.

Without any hesitation, she spoke with a prophet’s clarion voice:

Are you listening to me? God’s permissive will is always for His greater glory and the sanctification of our children. Stop wallowing in regret and trust that He can do more with your imperfections and failures than you could ever imagine. God doesn’t deal with the man you say you wish you’d been. Just the real one. If you’d just let go, give it up to Him and move on, then He can do His thing. But if you’re going to get stuck in regret, that’s your deal. And look, what are your other options? Okay? It’s time for dinner.

Yeah, that.

She said what I already know: The mystery of God’s permissive will, the cross and resurrection, the “o happy fault” of Adam, St. Paul’s “power is made perfect in weakness.” All of these were there firmly lodged in my cerebral lock-box, conceptually precise ideas. But in this particular matter, my inner struggles remained sealed off from truth, from God, from my heart. But she, Tear in my Heart, effectively tore head down into my heart. I knew that grace had been given in that moment when I felt a liberating release within. Hope.

I love to think, write and teach theology, but my wife again and again makes it real and alive for me. She does — is — theology with piercing blue eyes, passionate love and lipstick on.

After she finished speaking she got up from her chair to take the chicken out of the oven. I managed to get up off the ground when it was time to eat.

And I slept well that night.

A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. (Proverbs 31:11)



O Gift


Neal family Christmas photo 2015

In honor of today’s Gospel, I would like to share a poem I wrote for my wife and first posted here in 2012.

In that Gospel, Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” The Church’s teaching on the vocation of a married couple is unambiguous: Whether your spouse is a difficult unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:17) or you are both saint-aspirants (Eph 5:21ff), your primary path to intimate union with God in Christ is found in and through loving your spouse and — from that center — loving any children God may have gifted you with. St. John Paul says in Familiaris Consortio:

Christian marriage is in itself a liturgical action glorifying God in Jesus Christ and in the Church. By celebrating it, Christian spouses profess their gratitude to God for the sublime gift bestowed on them of being able to live in their married and family lives the very love of God for people and that of the Lord Jesus for the Church, His bride.

Every little or large act of love in sacramental marriage and family possesses the whole power of the world-transfiguring divine liturgy, as your covenant bond extends the Cross and Resurrection of Christ into the nooks and crannies of that portion of the history God has entrusted to your influence.

And Pope Francis most recently said in Amoris Laetitia:

Those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union.

I believe this is one of the most profound statements on marriage and family life ever made by the Magisterium. This is the “nuptial mysticism” appropriate to the vast majority of Christians. Let’s develop a new spiritual literature that unfolds these depths! May this be the century of canonized saint-couples who found their mystical perfection in the imperfect tangles of domestic life and amid the vibrant passion, mundane routines and varigated colors of till-death marital love.

To all of you married men and women, look today at your spouse’s face — on your children’s faces — and see your royal Way into the abyss of Trinitarian life and love.

To my wife, Gift

O Gift overflowing, poured lavish grace
God-art etched in your lovely face,
for you are His constant gaze on me:
May I the same for you always be!

O Gift held reverently in my trembling hand
you are a thousand callings, myriad sand
beckoning my love be faithful and true;
for to love God best, I must first love you.

O Gift of royal service, my only Crown
for you I daily live to lay my life down
as once for all did our greatest King
whose Passion – pray! — my life can sing.

O Gift stolen down from heaven’s immortal Fire
for you my heart burns with deathless desire,
as you drench my world in melodies sweet
singing into my winter’s cold a lover’s heat.

O Gift, the Father’s daughter entrusted to my care
with you may I never once risk or even dare
to seek God apart from your joy-giving face
or fail to make our love His dwelling place.

Word fails


Photo my wife took in New Orleans. She texted it to me with the tagline: “Gotta love the double, incorrect apostrophe usage!”


I took this one. No comment needed, but they go well with the veggie cream cheese…

“A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” ― W.H. Auden

A lighter post today.

I love language, words, writing. I love reading great writing. Language is the royal road to uncovering reality, and language is our only way to union with the Creator of the creation, as it is only through His eternal Word-made-speech that He reveals Himself. And that Word elevated human speech, already a beautiful icon of God, to an even more beautiful sacrament of God’s self-revealing love. That is the highest vocation of theology, to baptize our language in the eternal Speech of God.

My grandfather said to me once that those who can only express intensity with vulgarities reveal an impoverished vocabulary, and a soul that is unaware of its nobility and dignity.

A theology professor I had in college, who encouraged me to take more English, Ancient Languages and Literature courses before studying theology in graduate school, said to me: “Master your own language before you attempt to learn divine speech.” Still trying.

My wife is an English proficient, a grammatical genius and a spelling sage. She has, over the 28 years we have known each other, gradually purified me from my syntaxical, grammatical and lexical misdeeds. For example, I no longer say “irregardless” when “regardless” requires no prefix, “I could care less” when I couldn’t, “I’m just talking out loud” when I’m actually thinking out loud, pronounce realtor “real-a-tor”, nor do I say any longer “I’m getting unchanged” when just “getting changed” suffices. And there’s oh so many more.

Then there’s making my goal of writing daily blog posts I rarely have time to edit. There alone is more than enough fodder for humility.

So just for fun, I thought I’d post today two funny music videos about language. I’ve posted them once before. The first identifies common “word crimes,” while the second celebrates of palindromes. Enjoy if you care to:

Never to make a change

The fifth: In time of desolation never to make a change; but to be firm and constant in the resolutions and determination in which one was the day preceding such desolation, or in the determination in which he was in the preceding consolation. Because, as in consolation it is rather the good spirit who guides and counsels us, so in desolation it is the bad, with whose counsels we cannot take a course to decide rightly. — St. Ignatius of Loyola

I have found over the years that the majority of bad decisions I have made were made in the midst of “desolation” – confusion, fear, depression, anxiety. It’s so incredibly tempting to shift course when darkness comes, because when you find yourself in a state of desolation there arises deep within an almost compulsive need to break free from its grip and seek immediate relief. In that frame of mind you easily succumb to the fantasy that everything will be better if you just change direction.

Ignatius’ counsel is clear: do not to change course on well-discerned decisions you have made previously until the storms of confusion pass and you have a restored sense of peace and clarity within which you can think clearly. A healthy human spirit and/or the Holy Spirit produce a sense of inner freedom and peace, while an unhealthy human spirit and/or an Evil spirit conjure a sense of inner compulsion and turmoil.

So many bad decisions can be avoided by keeping firm to this Rule.

I thought of all this when I heard Phillip Phillips’ song Home the other day. The refrain captures the spirit of Rule Five wonderfully. The last lines of the refrain remind us that in the midst of our desolation, when we feel lost and homeless, we need to seek out those safe spaces in our lives that are our “homes,” where peace, trust, hope and all the fruits of the Spirit abide. There we can think aright and can become aware of the fact that God never leaves us alone. Indeed, He who descended into hell can make even the darkest places in our life, those places from which we would rather flee, our “home.”

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble—it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home

Here’s the song:

The Duty to Smile

Repost 2014

“Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta

Here’s some advice I got many years ago from my grandfather, purveyor of wisdom and writer of handwritten letters to his young grandson:

…One of the most important things you will do every day of your life is leave the world a better place than you found it. If you can say at the end of each day you lightened someone’s burden, you can say more than most. Our world has come to worship the Ego, the unholy trinity of me, my and mine. “I” is the new Tower of Babel. But you have to be better, Tommy. Take the road less traveled … You’ll always have reasons to complain or be bitter. Save those for God or a trusted friend. Don’t poison the air. Be known as “that man who lifts you up” and not as “that man who brings you down.” … Cynics take pleasure in dashing others’ hope to medicate their own misery and despair, for misery does love company. But the wise man takes pleasure in helping others exit the Cave of shadows to find hope … To make the world better you don’t have to feel like making it better. Just do better. You’ll get it back a hundredfold … Helping others find their way you possess a wealth far surpassing self-esteem. You possess self-respect …

When I recently read this article on the Jewish Talmud by Dennis Prager, I found the resonance remarkable…

As the Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.”

This is truly a Jewish idea. I first realized this many years ago when a non-Jewish middle-aged caller to my radio show sorrowfully related to me that he thought he was a terrible son. He explained that for the previous 10 years he had been the sole financial and emotional support of his ailing mother — and sometimes, he confided to me, the burden was so heavy that he wished she would finally succumb to her illnesses.

When I told him that I thought he was one of the most wonderful sons I had ever had the honor of speaking to, he thought I was mocking him. He couldn’t believe that I was serious. But I was. I explained to him that it is completely irrelevant what he sometimes feels or wishes. What matters is how beautifully he has acted toward his mother all these years.

This should be the guiding principle of our views on virtually every subject.

The self-esteem movement has largely been a moral and emotional disaster. It was produced by people who, among other mistaken ideas, believed that feelings were more important than actions. Thus, no matter how little children may accomplish, they are still to be rewarded with medals, trophies, lavish praise, etc. The result is that they deem how they feel about themselves as being of greater importance than how they act.

In a math competition with students from other industrialized democracies, American students came in last. But they came in first in self-esteem about their knowledge of math. And the prominent criminologist and professor of psychology, Roy Baumeister, has often noted that no group has higher self-esteem than violent criminals.

The Torah commands us to tithe our income. Neither the Torah nor later Judaism ever cared whether our heart is in it. We are commanded to give whether or not we feel like giving. Tzedakah — which is translated as “charity,” but it is in fact the feminine form of “justice” — helps the needy. And people who are in need prefer to receive $100 from one who feels religiously obligated to give, rather than than $5 from one whose heart prompts him to give $5.

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.

For whatever reason, this is the song that comes to mind now — below the video are the lyrics:

Here under heaven’s eyes
Down under paradise
Sometimes it seems like we’re so small
Here on the shores that reach into infinity

How could we matter much at all?
Would it be enough
If each of us would give our love?

Like sand on a mountain
Rain on a fountain
Shade on a shadow
A breeze in this tornado

Just do what you can
Clap with one hand
And shine all your light in the sun
We live to learn to love

Oh, mercy from above
Amazing grace, like rain comes falling down
We sing our hearts to you
Our song of gratitude

The voice of every soul
How sweet the sound
We can only trust
All our prayers will all add up

Like sand on a mountain
Rain on a fountain
Shade on a shadow
A breeze in this tornado

Just do what you can
Clap with one hand
And shine all your light in the sun
Would it be enough

If each of us would give our love?
Like sand on a mountain
Rain on a fountain
Shade on a shadow
A breeze in this tornado

Just do what you can
Clap with one hand
And shine all your light in the sun

Mysticism of being


Lake Pontchartrain, 4/16/16

I sat by the lake the other day and pulled up a chair to watch the waves breach the rocky barrier and flood the upslope of the levee. There was a strong east-northeast wind throughout the night that had made the water pile up along the west and southwest sides of the lake.

There’s something about waves that mesmerize. The rhythm, the sounds, the spray that dampens you.

No one was out. No bikers, no walkers.

Someone, a lifelong resident, recently said to me that he wondered how I found beauty in this muddy lake. I wondered back how he could not.

I grew up in love with the shores and shoals of Rhode Island. Narragansett Bay, Galilee, Point Judith, Wickford, Block Island, the Harbor of Refuge. And as a child I was in love with a murky pond and narrow stream near my home. I learned to love bodies of water, no matter their size or color. To me, they teemed with mirco and macro mysteries.

I got to thinking as I sat and watched the waves and felt the wind, thinking about my personal quest to find beauty everywhere. My success ebbs and flows, but there is an insight I shared here in 2014 that I’d like to revisit again.

Years ago as I was writing my dissertation I came across a text from 14th century Dominican theologian Meister Eckhart. I wish I still had it. He spoke about beginning every act of thanksgiving to God not with this or that benefit or pleasing feature of nature and grace, but with the very act of existence itself. Be grateful first that anything is at all. Here is a reflection I wrote on his words, including at the end words I love from the preface to the Sanctus in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

Eckhart said if we could allow our minds
to encompass the magnitude
and sheer gratuity of being,
of our existence,
and wrap our hearts around
the fact that God,
unconstrained by necessity,
chose to spring creation
out of non-existence into being,
our thanksgiving would remain inexhaustible,
without further need or reason of justification.
And gratitude for this or that, for specificities,
would always be a surfeit, an overflow
from that primal act of eucharistic adoration:
“Something rather than nothing!”
But even beyond this all-sufficing beginning,
moving to “this or that,” toward “specificity” in my thanks,
of these there could be no end:
“Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand” (Ps 139:18).
And yet, catch my breath,
God has added to our existence infinitely “More” —
Beyond raising our world into being, with its excessive splendor,
He has raised up in Christ a new creation into well-being,
with a super-excessive, immortal splendor.
How can I keep from singing?
Should it not be, then, out of justice,
love and unfettered joy
that thanks should in each moment
threaten to overtake all our speech?
At the end of Mass, when told to Go
we say, Thanks be to God,
establishing a right-syntax for life
until we return again
to give thanks:
For Thou art God ineffable,
inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible,
ever-existing and eternally the same,
Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit.
Thou it was who brought us from non-existence into being,
and when we had fallen away, didst raise us up again,
and didst not cease to do all things
until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven
and hadst endowed us with Thy Kingdom which is to come.
For all these things we give thanks to Thee,
and to Thine only-begotten Son and to Thy Holy Spirit;
for all things of which we know and of which we know not,
whether manifest or unseen…

I created a little prayer the day I read Eckhart’s text that borrowed its first words from the Jewish Passover litany, the Dayenu. “It would have been enough for us, O Lord, had you called us into being if only for but one day, one hour, one moment; to share in your I AM, to be for a time, born of your eternity; to receive along with all creation the gift of being-with-you, joining her hymn of ceaseless praise: Bless the Lord! By no claim of justice I am, so may I live in open handed thanksgiving from every moment henceforth I continue to be. Amen.”

Glory to Thee for calling me into being

Tout est grâce. Grace is everywhere. Look: