You cannot give love unless you have love in your heart. Love radiates from love. But how does love first enter the heart? We learn it! In itself, it is not infused. We might speak of an infused disposition to love – a special gift of personality that lends itself to a loving persona; but I’m not so sure that even that’s not learned.
If love, then, is indeed learned, it does not come to us naturally like eating, sleeping, reproducing, or surviving. Love must, it seems, be taught. That is what You did. You taught us about love and showed usits practice. But even before we learned about You and Your life we learned about love from our parents and grandparents. Love first enters our hearts from people around us. These people have taken the love in their hearts (received from those who loved them) and expanded it with Your life and teachings, and then passed that on. And so it goes. This cycle of growing in love plays out over and over again with the keystone being that we give what we have been given.
But what of those who do not have this seed planted early in their hearts? There is something here of an analogy regarding man’s history with God. The Jewish people, early on, entered into a paternalistic covenant relationship with a Father who sewed the seed of solicitude toward His people in a simple, fundamental way. As this people grew, the refinement of His relationship with them culminated in the arrival of His Son. Those stuck at the old traditional level, fearing change, could not accept it, while others took what they already had and expanded it. We, in our own way, do the same thing. Love is a constant building process. We take what we have been given, accept it, and build further upon it. At the same time we pass on what we know.
Love shines brightest when it’s freely given in times when it’s hardest to give; and those times when it’s hardest to give are those times when the “self” and its agenda get in the way. For me this is very often the case.
I, in my usual critical and judgmental mode, value highly the instances of instinctive spontaneous acts of love that I see in others – acts very much devoid of “self.” The reason I admire the purity of such acts in others is because I so desire to be like that myself, but I see this as a deficiency in me. I have a difficult time finding in myself acts that are devoid of my “self” and its agenda. I am a “planner” and one who looks ahead and, as such, my self is given a foundation on which to be grounded; and this, in turn, denies spontaneity. My love does not shine so bright because it is planned for and/or designed.
If love imbued every fiber of my being the way “self” does two things would happen: first, my self would withdraw, and second, I would love with the love of God. I recognize this. I know this to be true. I even want this. So, what’s my problem? Why, in the times that it’s hardest to give, does my love not shine? I’d have to say that it’s because, at such times, I think first of my own comfort, my own advantage, my own profit, and my own agenda rather than others. The scary thing is that it comes so naturally. It gives me no pause. Giving time, which I am so inclined to hoard for myself, by just saying “yes” is a practice unnatural to my “planner” self but one that is the paramount key to letting love shine through.
It is the belief of the non-Christian that God would not or could not become man. Major non-Christian religions like Judaism and Islam proclaim the greatness and power of God and the humble lowliness, by comparison, of man. But the Christian faith is built upon the contradiction of many opposites. The Christian believes in the greatness and power of God, and he believes in the humble lowliness of man, but he also believes that the great God became a lowly man.
In all the religions the crux of their existence is the relationship of man to God and vice versa. That’s what religion is about: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity each try to define, nurture, and guide man in his relationship with the one great God. That’s what we do from our side.
On God’s side there is no religion!We believe He is concerned with and involved in a relationship with mankind – at the very least to the extent that through messengers, prophets and evangelists guidelines in writing have been left for us to refer to. These scriptural accounts, be they Bible, Torah, or Koran give history and steer the future of this relationship. If God is as concerned with us as all these accountsindicate why would He not do even the outlandish thing of becoming one of us? The greatness of God to accomplish this would not be denied by any of the great religions. But perhaps the non-Christian perception of man is so lowly that they cannot begin to conceive that God would ever so lower Himself.
If we are the image and likeness of the God who is the essence and ground of our being, why is it such a stretch to imagine Him taking on the humanity for which He is the fount? In none of the major religions is love more of a fundamental element than in Christianity – and this is the key. If, on both sides, the relationship is all about love (God for us and us for God) then, because of His greatness He will never be outdone in love for us. You, Jesus, are proof of that!
Your first commandment is to love the Lord your God with your whole being. In the interplay of human love what we do to show love for the other is held in high regard. We look for signs from the other that indicate they love us. Quite often these signs are contained in what they do for us. Certainly in each of us there are internal components to our love such as endearment, cherishing, passion, compassion, longing, and idealization. But we also look for and express perceptible external signs of love. Thus, I come now not to reflect on my interior feelings for You, but upon the outward signs of love that I offer You.
What do I do to please You? What do I do to show You my Love? If the familiar scenario was reversed and You asked me for a sign, what would I offer? And then, up pops the possibility that what I would consider a sign of my love for You might not be taken as such. I pray a fair amount, but I wonder if that would be taken as a sign of my love for You – or, is it actually more a sign of Your love for me? I go to Mass and hug You – but Your hug for me comes first. I go to serve in a soup kitchen, but am, myself, graced to be able to serve. If I consider my years in the seminary, my years in the Peace Corps, my decades as a teacher, a husband, a father – in each instance I have received more than I have given. It becomes apparent that You will not be outdone in signs of love. Thus, it becomes the work of a person’s life to offer the one and only sign of love for You that is possible – acceptance of Yourlove!
The channels of that love which we practice accepting are the items in our lives that we might consider signs of our love but which, indeed, are vehicles for receiving Yours. Thus I fool myself if I consider the things I think I do for love of You in any other way than disposing me to open myself to Your love – which is the only real sign I can offer of my love for You.
If there is any one prevalent message that permeates the writings of Julian of Norwich it is that You are infinitely more head-over-heels in love with us than we are with You. It is a message brimming with hope and consolation and, I think, one that is eminently evident if we reflect on it.
Each of us is capable of love in varying degrees. Each of us entertains a variety of ways to express our love. Generally our expressions of love involve aspects of giving time, self, money, gifts, prayer, compassion, etc. If we reflect only upon the day-to-day record of the three years of Your public life (let alone the history of God’s involvement with mankind) we see a dedicated spirit of giving, in all aspects, to a humanly unmatchable degree. And this is Julian’s point.
We most certainly do not know all there is to know about God, but we might often succumb to the temptation of believing that God’s existence is for love of us. Whatever else we do not know of the truth of God, this truth we know: You are the personification of this aspect of the truth of God. We read about, see, and experience the work of love through the instrumentality of Your movement as it extends forward through our history. The relationship is such that we cannot love You as You love us – but we try, and that is what Julian perceived: the consolation of knowing that we should not be overly concerned withour failures to love because Your love for us covers them. The failures, mistakes, and weaknesses that fill the episodic trivia of human existence are absorbed and erased by Your love. Why is it so difficult to accept that?
There are certain things about learning to love that are helpful. One of them is a kind of a self-check that is pretty close to foolproof. It goes like this: if we truly love, then we cannot help but share it. If we think we love, but do not share it, we do not possess it.
The matter goes far beyond just considering ourselves a good person. If we hide, or bury the love we think we have, we probably don’t have it in the first place. I reflect on this because I know I gravitate toward what I consider an interior, private love for You. It’s not that this love must be “showy” to be genuine, but, the more I think about it, it must be shown. It is the light You cautioned about hiding under a basket. It cannot be real unless it shines.
So, when I say I love You and do not share with others my love for You, my love is lacking. When I love any person and do not share that love with still other people, my love is lacking. I constantly tell You I love You but I fear my love of God is not so readily apparent in my life. That I love should be apparent in the way I live.
So, it seems the issue is this: How do I go about letting more of Your love shine through me? One way for me might be greater sociability.
How many times have we heard or read about persons seeking “the meaning of life?” How often have we contemplated it ourselves? Whatever givesmeaning seems important. Whatever is meaningless is unimportant. It would therefore seem of some consequence that we look upon, meditate upon, and pursue the things that give meaning to our lives while trying to delete, or at least minimize, those things that lack meaning.
A panoramic way of perceiving this is in the broad and general brush strokes of a person’s entire lifetime –looking back and singling out those elements that contained the most powerful meaning;but that may be putting the cart way out in front of the horse. It strikes me that what should come first is taking a thoughtful look at what seems most meaningful to us on a day-to-day basis. What, in a normal day, is most meaningful for me? I would say morning prayers, Mass, and my time alone with You gives the most meaning to my life each day. I would say eating meals, watching TV, doing crossword puzzles, or having a cigar is pretty meaningless. Willingly doing something I would not choose, for the sake of another (and forgetting my “self) gives meaning to my life. Giving up personal time or personal plans for the time or plans of another also gives it meaning. Exercising, listening to music, or surfing the internet is pretty much meaningless. I could go on, but there seems to be a definite pattern here.
The things that seem to give the most meaning to my life are the day-to-day things I might do that involve forgetting my self and remembering You or others. The things that are most meaningless are those that are centered on myself. Giving of oneself without condition is LOVE. What gives meaning to life is the opportunity to love – to love You and to love others. The time I devote to myself or to the things I want to do seems meaningless because it lacks love. Thus, what I should be pursuing on a day-to-day basis is opportunities to love. This is what gives meaning to life!
All the conglomerate accidents, attachments, and accumulations of life seem to consolidate, as we look backward, into a vapor trail that we are tempted to call our life. As days and years go by this trail becomes longer and longer. As we ponder it in retrospect we might ask: What is there in it all that really matters? What, indeed, in any life really matters? How a person would answer this question says a lot about that person. Therefore it is an answer that seems to deserve very careful consideration.
The things that seem to matter most to me may not really matter much at all. The fact that I am alive in order to be a reflection of God is the only thing that really matters at all. On a descending scale ofwhat matters are those things that matter because they are somehow involved in this reflection – but the degree to which they matter is negligible. Upon consideration it would appear that the things that matter to me really don’t matter much at all. They only matter because they bolster my self – my ego. But in the reality of my existence they don’t matter.
I always thought that my years in the seminary, and my years in the Peace Corps, my wonderful wife and family, my successful careers in teaching and in music, and the spiritual regimen of my later life – all these I thought mattered. But as cold as it might sound, they don’t really – except to me. Now we might say the things we do for others, totally forgetting self, matter. But they only matter insofar as they are an extension of that reflection of God, which is what really matters. If then our reflection of God is the only thing that really matters, how do we give it a characterization, a description, a name in our lives? There is only one answer to that – love! The reflection of God in our lives is love.
What really matters in life is love – true, honest, selfless love. And life is the daily gift of the opportunity to love, and that’s what matters; not what I’ve accomplished, where I’ve been, or how much I pray, but how much I love because that is the reflection of God, and perfecting a life that reflects God matters more than anything else.
The stage in our growth that prefaces the initial levels of spiritual maturity is the realization that the violation of observance does not rank in gravity with violations of love or compassion. The most orthodox of Jews had over 600 rules and regulations of observance which You took pains to point out were not as important as single acts of love or compassion.
Moving toward this stage involves taking an independent step which designates more authority for our own actions and choices than we are willing to take on. It puts us on a collision course with our felt obligation to observances. We are “set up” for this in many ways byour failure to take further steps beyond our fundamental education in our faith. A faith of strict observance of rules is a stumbling block to the love and compassion taught and demonstrated by You. At the point at which we embrace this, our spiritual life starts to grow.
The paradoxical dichotomy between religious observance and spiritual growth was frequently addressed by You as found in the gospels. Obedience to religious laws and observances, done in a spirit of submission, are a means of offering our love for God. But slavish devotion to observance itself must submit to the primacy of love and compassion which no law binds. Thus, count it progress in the maturing of the spirit when observance is trespassed in the interest of love. By this I do not mean the anarchy of love or compassion over observance but rather a measured symbiosis governed by love. Law without love is tyranny. Love without law is license.
In our theology one thing sticks out like a sore thumb. It is the concept of “expectation.” In every phase of our relationship with God we are always hopefully awaiting something. We expect answers to our prayers. We expect the graces of the sacraments to not only change us but to change the way God looks at us. We expect that our closeness to God will rub off on others. We expect everything You promised us – especially eternal happiness if we follow You. Sometimes it seems our expectations get in the way of our love. Are our expectations the reason we love? What would our relationship with God be if we took away all these expectations?
It might be helpful to try this shoe on Your foot to learn about expectations and love. There is nothing bad about having expectations. The Father would not have given us You, and You would not have died for us if there were no expectations. Your life should be our paradigm here. You had certain expectations concerning Your mother, Your step-father, the Jewish people, Your apostles and disciples, the Pharisees, etc. But You loved all these people regardless of Your expectations. You did not love them because they met Your expectations but You had expectations because You loved them. Love comes first! And this is what we need to reflect upon in our own lives – in our relationship with others and with You.
Too often in my own life I know that expectations motivate my love rather than vice versa. Expectations will flow from love, but love must not be contingent upon expectations. This would make love conditional. Thus, when we love someone but they fail to meet our expectations we should not let that affect our love. It is the lesson of the cross. Mankind generally fails to live up to Your expectations, but it does not stop Your love. Expectations are fickle. God patiently awaits our love. Our expectations matter little. There is peace in patience.