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An Invitation to Love
All the passages below are taken from John Powell’s book “Why am I afraid to Love,” published in 1967.
The word religion is derived from the Latin word religare, which means "to bind back." By their practice of religion, people bind themselves back to God who is the alpha (origin) and omega (destiny). To anyone who is familiar with the New Testament there can be no doubt that the essential act of religion and the essential bond between humans and their God is love. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?" he answered:
"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:36-39)
What does it mean to love God with one's whole heart, soul, and mind? I think that Saint John would answer this question by telling us that before we can really give our heart, soul, and mind to God, we must first know how much God has loved us, how God has thought about us from all eternity, and desired to share his life, joy, and love with us. Christian love is a response to God's infinite love, and there can be no response until we have somehow perceived that God has first loved us, so much so that he sent his only-begotten Son to be our salvation.
More than this, God does not simply have love; God is love. If giving and sharing with another is the character and essence of love, then God is love. He can acquire nothing because he is God. He needs nothing because he is God. He has all goodness and all riches within himself. But goodness is self-diffusive; it seeks to share itself. So the infinite goodness which is God seeks to communicate, to diffuse, to share itself ... with you ... with me ... with all of us.
We know something of this love in our own instincts to share that which is good and is our possession: good insights, good news, good rumors. Perhaps the best analogy in our human experience is that of the young married couple, very much in love and very much alive because of that love, wishing to share their love and life with new life which it is in their power to beget. But it is even more than this with God, who tells us: If the mother should forget the child of her womb, I will never forget you!
It is precisely this that is the point of most failures to love God truly. Most of us are not deeply aware of God's fatherly, even tender love. It is especially the person who has never experienced a human love, with all of its life-giving effects, who has never been introduced to the God who is love through the sacrament of human love, that stands at a serious disadvantage. The God of love who wishes to share his life and joy will probably seem like the product of an overheated imagination-unreal.
There is no human being who will not eventually respond to love if only that person can realize that he or she is loved. On the other hand, if the life and world of an individual is marked by the absence of love, the reality of God's love will hardly evoke the response of his or her whole heart, soul, and mind.
False Gods before Us
The God who enters such a life will be a fearsome and frowning idol, demanding only fear of his devotees. The Book of Genesis tells us that God has made us in his image and likeness, but it is our most perduring temptation to invert this, to make God in our human image and likeness.
Each of us has a unique and very limited concept of God, and it is very often marked and distorted by human experience. Negative emotions, like fear, tend to wear out. The distorted image of a vengeful God will eventually nauseate and be rejected. Fear is a fragile bond of union, a brittle basis of religion.
It may well be that this is why God's second commandment is that we love one another. Unselfish human love is the sacramental introduction to the God of love. We must go through the door of human giving to find the God who gives himself.
Those who do not reject a distorted image of God will limp along in the shadow of a frown. They certainly will not love with their whole heart, soul, and mind. A fearsome, vengeful God is not lovable. There will never be any trust and repose in the loving arms of a kindly Father; there will never be any mystique of belonging to God. People who serve out of fear, without the realization of love, will try to bargain with God. They will do little things for God, make little offerings, say little prayers, and so on, to embezzle a place in heaven. Life and religion will be a chess game, hardly an affair of love.
Response to God's Love
People who are open to the realization of God's love will want to make some response of their own love. How can they make a meaningful response if this God cannot acquire anything and needs nothing? Saint John points out the place of human response:
The way we came to know love was that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.... Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.... No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us. (1 John 3:16; 4:7-8, 12)
Meeting God in other humans is the most costly part of the dialogue between God and his people. Human nature requires that we somehow contact God in a bodily or sensibly perceptible way. In the Old Testament God came to the Israelites in thunder and lightning over Sinai; the voice of God emerged from a burning bush. In the New Testament God's goodness is even more astonishing: God becomes a man and is raised in agony on a cross for you and me. "This is what I mean when I say I love you." In the Incarnation God brought his gifts in the earthen vessel of humanity that he might speak our language and we might know what he is really like.
Just as God expected people to find him under the veil of humanity, even when that humanity was a red mask of blood and agony, so now he expects people to find him under other human veils. It will, indeed, cost us a great deal if we take God seriously on this point:
"`For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'
"Then the righteous will answer and say, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'
"And the king will say to them in reply, `Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brethren of mine, you did for me.'" (Matthew 25:35-40)
The early Christians did not distinguish our love of God from human love. In fact, they had one word, agape, to describe the one love that simultaneously embraces the God of love and the least of their brothers and sisters.
But all this is old stuff, isn't it? Sometimes when we grow stale, there is a temptation to think that it is really God's Word that is stale. When the dimensions of generous response seem shrunken in us, we are tempted to turn away from the real issue. We tend to look for more practical, relevant issues to discuss.
This is a dangerous thing to do: to avoid confrontation with the real challenge of God's Word. Someday we shall all inevitably meet God. The danger of embarrassment is great. The Lord just might ask as he extends his hands to greet us just beyond the door of death:
"Where are your wounds?"
It just might be that, with Saint Augustine, who wrestled a long time before succumbing to grace, we shall have to say:
"Too late, 0 Lord, too late have I loved you."
The Meaning of Love
Whatever else can and should be said of love, it is quite evident that true love demands self-forgetfulness. Many people use the word and claim the reality without fully understanding the meaning of the word or being able to love to any great extent. This is the test of true love: Can we really forget ourselves? There are many counterfeit products on the market which are called love. They are in fact falsely named. We can sometimes label the gratification of our needs "love." We can even do things for others without really loving. The acid test is always the probing question of self-forgetfulness.
Can we really focus our minds on the happiness and fulfillment of others? Can we really ask not what others will do for us, but only what we can do for them? If we really want to love, then we must ask ourselves these questions.
We must become aware that we are capable of using people for our own advantage, for the satisfaction of our deep and throbbing human needs. We can be deluded into thinking that this is really love. The young man who professes to love a young woman may often be deceived into thinking that the gratification of his own egotistical urges really constitutes love. The young woman who finds the voids of her own loneliness filled by the companionship and attention of a young man may well mistake this emotional satisfaction for love. Likewise, the mother and father who anxiously try to promote the success of their children can easily rationalize their desire for the vicarious experiences of success. They might even convince themselves that they are unconditionally loving parents. The critical question always remains that of self-forgetfulness. Does the young man or woman, the mother or father really practice self-forgetfulness, forgoing personal convenience and emotional satisfaction? Do they seek only the happiness and fulfillment of the beloved? These are not merely theoretical questions. The fact of the matter is that, for most of us, our own needs are so very palpable and real to us. Consequently, it is very difficult for the seed to fall into the ground and die to itself before it can live a life of love. [1-14]
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