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What is love? How many songs have you heard about it? In today’s world for many the word means something quite different from what God has in mind! Most often, particularly in our current pop culture, we think of love only in a passionate, carnal, somewhat narcissistic sense. How you make me feel.
Yet, God’s idea of love is not at all the same as that expressed in too many songs and TV programs, namely all about sex, self-gratification and joyful emotions, fleeting or not.
Certainly, physical as well as emotional attraction between two people has its proper place in the Sacrament of Matrimony allowing for the creation of new life and loving supportive families. Yet lust is often confused with love and the two can become as intertwined as the weeds and the wheat Jesus describes in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 13, Verses 24-30.
The love our Lord seeks from us, and asks us to show others, is an agape love (from the Greek term), a selfless love which seeks only what is good for others, in keeping with God’s love for us.
Love is one of three theological virtues, along with faith and hope. Often referred to as “charity”, with which it is intimately intermingled, it consists of loving God and loving our neighbor out of love for Him. Many times this requires great maturity and patience along with God’s graces! Consider the following prayer in this regard:
Dear Lord, help me to love others the way you love me, for love of you and for my fellow human beings itself. With your help and your grace, may I come to understand the difference between self-centered and self-giving love. Help me also not to confuse selfish carnal passion with this real love you wish me to show others. In this regard, give me the patience I need when dealing with those who seem to be unlovable. Help me to pray for them as well. Amen.
When we think of love only in terms of satisfying our own wants and not in what we can do for others, we find not happiness, but emptiness. The group the Shirelles summed up the tension between selfish and selfless love succinctly in a hit song almost 60 years ago.
Its sentiments still ring true today.”Tonight you're mine completely/You give your love so sweetly/Tonight the light of love is in your eyes/ But will you love me tomorrow?”
And don’t forget Tina Turner’s song from the 1980’s about the tensions between sex and love “What’s love got to do with it?” When we think only of what we can get out of love for ourselves we contribute to a society in which we’re all using, rather than actually loving, each other.
In Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord cites the following two passages from the Old Testament books of Leviticus (19:18) and Deuteronomy (6:5) “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
He quotes these directly in answering the question from a scribe [a Jewish scholar of the Law] about which of the commandments is the greatest. Jesus adds here that “the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:40). Clearly, love of God and of neighbor are intertwined in scripture.
For some further examples: we read further on in Matthew that our Lord says, referring to what is to come in the Final Judgment on how we will fare in eternity, based on how we treat each other, “whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine you did for me” (Matt 25:40). Clearly, our fate is based on how we treat each other!
On a similar note is our Lord’s cry to St. Paul when the famous apostle first encountered Him on the road to Damascus. You might have read or otherwise heard how Paul, then called Saul, was on his way there to arrest and bring back to Jerusalem in chains some of those first followers of Jesus after our Lord’s death and resurrection. Saul, then a righteous Pharisee, considered them part of a heretical Jewish sect known then as the Way.
He was indeed zealously attacking them, dragging them out of their houses for imprisonment, and was even present at the stoning of St. Stephen, our church’s first martyr! Thus, Jesus said to Paul in a vision in their first encounter “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).
Jesus made it very clear many times in scripture, and in the Lord’s Prayer, that we show our love for Him in how we treat others, and that He will forgive us as much as we forgive them. Our Lord did indeed tell the apostles at the Last Supper “this I command you: love one another” (John 15:17).
Fulfilling our Lord’s command here seems like quite a tall order, doesn’t it? How can we possibly do it? By asking for His guidance and grace through prayer and in how we live our lives. We are meant to turn to God for help on this! He wishes to give us His grace, His supernatural gift to us that helps us to better to do His will with His peace. But we must ask for His assistance.
You might think “I just don’t have it in me to do that!” Take heart! You’re not alone. Most of us feel that way at one time or another. Nonetheless, you can follow God’s example as fully as possible with His help. Our own day-to-day works for charity, mercy and forgiveness can go a long way in loving God and neighbor.
We can follow St. Therese in her “Little Way” in this regard. This celebrated 19th century Carmelite nun realized that she was not destined to perform mighty heroic deeds. Still, she discovered she could show her love for God and thus advance in holiness, in how she performed her daily tasks.
She dedicated everything in her life to loving God and others as Jesus would love them, even while doing the most menial chores! 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 just has to be right about everything? Are you like that? Also, how much does it (or even should it) matter who has the better car, the bigger house, or wallet, or, for that matter, the cooler “friends”, who more often than not, are really just acquaintances anyway?
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!
Also keep in mind that real love between spouses, families, and others is an act of the will rather than just the whim. How many times have you been at your wits end with your spouse, kids, brothers, sisters or other family members, for example?
Maybe you spouses at times you feel you married the dumbest person who ever lived… no wait YOU’RE the dumbest person for having married them in the first place! That’s when you need patience and help from God to love them, put up with them, and not let them drive you crazy in contentious situations.
Ask our Lord to give you the patience and strength to do His will then and hopefully your love for whomever will grow even stronger for having weathered the storms with them.
Real love isn’t always neat and tidy, and it’s certainly not found from something advertised in a glitzy commercial. But it does last! You’ve got your loved one’s backs in bad times and they’ve got yours. And with Jesus helping you out, that means everything!
In terms of loving ourselves, it is important for us to do so as children of God, keeping His desire for us to love Him by serving others front and center in our lives!
As mentioned earlier, we must avoid the kind of sensual, prideful self-love in which we’re always looking out for #1, thinking only of ourselves. Loving ourselves in God’s eyes doesn’t mean demanding deference from everyone and always keeping score on how we compare to them.
“Self-love” has been traditionally condemned in our faith by many writers and theologians. Still, loving yourself is not bad if it’s in the context mentioned earlier, following God’s command to love ourselves as He wishes us to love others, in loving service to Him!
Think of this acronym for real joy: Who comes first? Jesus, Others, and then You. This doesn’t mean becoming some mind-numbed Pollyanna however. The human condition is filled with pain and heartache, after all. Most of the times what drives us most crazy is each other! Yet God wishes us to have peace in our souls, here as well as in heaven.
If you are at peace with yourself, with Christ’s help and grace, you can feel secure in the knowledge that although you are a sinner, God is with you and trying to help you be the kind of loving Christian He wishes you to be, the loving human being he wishes you to be!
His grace can be a great emotional shock-absorber in dealing with pettiness, anger and jealousy, both our own and others' as well!
As we read in Psalm 131: “Lord, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me. Rather, I have stilled my soul, hushed it like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother's lap, so is my soul within me.”
The renowned English-American poet W.H. Auden summed up the tragedy of the human condition, regarding the more popular attitude towards love, when he wrote at the beginning of World War II:
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.
Keep in mind also, paraphrasing Auden here, we are not to love God alone, in the sense of trying to keep Him all to ourselves, while having a condescending or unforgiving attitude towards others.
Many times when we think of “universal love” in the abstract, we get tripped up as well. Linus once said in an old Peanuts comic strip “I love mankind, its 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 human beings, 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 against colleagues at work, or, more sadly, at home with our families? Welcome to the club! We’re not robots, after all.
We are called to love those who might not seem particularly lovable, 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! When the world makes you feel worthless, look at a crucifix to see how much you are loved and how much you mean to the Creator of the Universe! He would have died on the cross just for you!
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!
This doesn’t mean you have to embrace those who would do you or your loved ones harm, or have them over for dinner, but you can at least pray for them and try to keep your anger towards them at a prudent level so that it doesn’t consume you.
St. Paul once wrote famously, as read at weddings worldwide, that “if I have prophecy and know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, and do not have charity [the traditional term for agape love, as mentioned earlier], I am nothing” (1 Cor 13: 2).
We must also be wary of gossiping which may be malicious. This affects, and indeed infects us all, one way or another. It can be an act of love not to spread or repeat unfounded 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). Indeed, to deliberately slander someone is a mortal sin!
Keep in mind what can be another deadly snare: what’s inside our hearts! Jesus pointed out that cleanliness of heart was much more important than that of hands (as before a meal). “For from the heart come evil thoughts…these are what defile a person.” (Matt 15: 19-20).
In the Sermon on the Mount Christ commands us not only not to commit adultery but also not to even look at someone else with lustful intent. Likewise, we are called not to bear unforgivness in our hearts for others as well.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that “I like your Christ but I dislike your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” Similarly, the great author and Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1910 that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
While we might find these assessments of our fellow Christians 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?
Also, and this is crucial: faced with hypocrisy from our fellow Catholics and other Christians, are we tempted to turn away from the faith? You might very well find yourself disillusioned by both the congregation and the clergy, especially given all the unfolding scandals these days!
But don’t despair! We are all sinners, after all, and Christ needs every one of us he can get to do His work as part of His mystical body, His church!
The more we can think that way, 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 as King David did in Psalm 133, attributed to him, when he said “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity.”