How’s your love life? Spiritually speaking, that is! The Act of Love prayer gets right to the heart of the matter as to what really counts as love in
O my God, I love you above all things, with my whole heart and soul, because you are all-good and worthy of all love. I love my neighbor as myself for the love of you. I forgive all who have injured me, and I ask pardon of all whom I have injured.
(Note that in many books this prayer is called simply “An Act of Love”.)
These three sentences challenge us to think about real love in a way the world around us doesn’t! The Act of Love prayer brings to mind our Lord’s two great commandments to us, expressed in the Gospels: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind [and] thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt 22:37, 39).
(Note that these by no means superseded the original Ten Commandments but were meant to summarize their essence! We show our love of God in our obedience to His commandments.)
Jesus made it very clear many times in the Gospels, and in the Lord’s Prayer, that we show our love for Him in how we treat other people, and that He will forgive us as much as we forgive them. Also, we must not poison our relationships with others by being too proud to apologize when we have wronged them.
God’s idea of love is not the same as that expressed in too many songs and TV programs these days, all about sex and self-gratification. The love He seeks from us, and asks us to give others, is an agapelove (from the Greek term), one intimately mingled with charity.
This love is one of God’s gifts to us. It is one of three theological virtues, along with faith and hope, each with their own prayer! Often referred to as “charity” in traditional translations of the Bible, it consists of loving God, as the Act of Love prayer states “above all things,” and loving our neighbor out of love for Him.
It doesn’t come from our feelings, that is to say, from our natural likes and dislikes, but rather from our will in our desire to please God.
This is indeed love of others for God’s sake without thinking about what we might get in return. In addition, we are called to love those who might not seem particularly loveable, as well as our enemies.
In case the notion of loving your enemies seems like too tall an order in a world saturated with conflict, consider that, as St. Paul said, Christ died for us to reconcile us to God while we were His enemies (Rom 5:10). Christ’s love for us on this earth was modeled on humility and selflessness. He was born in a manger and died on a cross in the ultimate act of love!
As our Lord instructed His Apostles the night before His Passion, we are to “love one another, as I have loved you …by this shall all men know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35). He meant for us to love each other, warts and all!
St. Therese was so taken by this command in John’s Gospel that she dedicated her life to loving others as Jesus would love them. She wanted everything she did to be an act of love! That included looking for the good in everyone, putting up with their faults, and showing those she might otherwise find disagreeable kindness and respect.
Following this example, if we can’t always settle our differences with others we can at least pray for them and pray that we might not have bitterness or resentment in our hearts towards them.
While this might be especially difficult in cases of severe emotional or physical abuse, think of those more mundane situations in your life when pettiness gets the better of you. Do you know someone who justhas to be right about everything? Are you like that?
Also, how much does it (or even should it) matter who has the bigger car, house, or wallet? Don’t forget the emotional, physical, as well as spiritual toll envy and resentment can have on us. Even the small grudges we carry around with us can feel like 50 pound weights after a while!
Although the Act of Love prayer invites us to think of “we” in a world of “me,” it is important for us to love ourselves as children of God seeking to do His work by sharing His love and goodness! We must avoid the kind of sensual, prideful self-love in which we’re always looking out for #1, thinking only of ourselves.
The renowned English poet W.H. Auden summed up the tragedy of the human condition in this regard when he wrote when World War II began:
The error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
Many times when we think of “universal love” in the abstract, we get tripped up as well. Linus once said in a old Peanuts comic strip “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!” Likewise, the satirist Tom Lehrer once said only somewhat tongue-in-cheek that “I know that there are people who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that!”
Don’t we all fall prey to those kinds of thoughts sometimes? Do you find it’s easier to champion some abstract cause than to be polite under stress, or not to bear grudges in turf wars with colleagues at work? You're not alone!
Speaking of being alone, paraphrasing Auden above, we are not to love God alone, in the sense of trying to keep Him all to ourselves in our spiritual lives, while having a condescending or unforgiving attitude towards those around us.
St. Paul said in this regard that if he “should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity [the traditional term for agape love, as mentioned earlier], I am nothing” (1 Cor 13: 2).
We must also beware of gossip, which affects, and indeed infects us all, one way or another. It can be an act of love not to spread or repeat rumors or otherwise ruin someone’s reputation. St. James called the tongue “an unquiet evil, full of deadly poison” when used in this manner (James 3:8).
Mahatma Gandhi once said that “I like your Christ but I dislike your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” While we might find that assessment harsh, it nonetheless points up one of our great challenges in living our faith: Are we showing others Jesus in our lives by our actions? Are we letting Him work through us?
Most of the times what drives us most crazy is each other! God invites us to live in a world much more at peace than this one, here as well as in heaven.
The Act of Love prayer points the way to that world. St. Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13:7), as you might have heard read in weddings, that love is patient, kind, gentle, unpretentious, not ambitious or self-seeking, and that it doesn’t bear grudges or rejoice in someone else’s misfortunes.
The more we can adopt that approach, with God’s help, the more we can live our lives as an act of love for Him and for each other. Then, we might be able to rejoice along with the author of Psalm 133 when he said (in verse 1) “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity!”