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         Love and Faith by John Powell, SJ


All the passages below are taken from John Powell’s book “The Challenge of Faith,” published in 1998.


God is love, and whoever lives in love lives in union with God and God lives in union with that person ... There is no fear in love; perfect love drives out all fear. (1 John 4: 16-18)


The thing that I have found most common in religious experience is that God seems to enter a life when the person in question is actively loving . I used to ask my classes if there were any religious experiences among the students. On one occasion a tall (are there any other kind?) basketball player stood up and announced to the class that he had experienced in an annual Kairos retreat. (Kairos in Greek means "the hour." Kairos Theou means "the hour of God.") He explained to the class that at the final exercise the parents write a letter to the young person making the retreat. Maybe for the first time they wear their hearts on their sleeves. They say how proud they are, how much they love the young person in question. It is at this point that the tears usually come. One Oriental boy, whose eves were slanted of course, caused laughter in the class when he told us about his Kairos retreat. Apparently, he cried. "I tried to push the tears back but they kept coming out."

Once I was to give a sermon on the two disciples of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. YOU will recall that they did not recognize Jesus until "the breaking of the bread." I checked with a commentary on the gospels, and found that an interpretation I had always believed to be true was not even mentioned. I had always thought that the breaking of the bread was Holy Communion. Instead the commentary said that it wasn't until the two disciples were loving enough to ask the stranger to have dinner with them that they recognized the Lord.

But perhaps the most convincing example for me would be that of "Tommy." Tommy came into my class on the Theology of Faith, combing his long flaxen hair which was down to his wrists. I filed him under S for Strange. He turned out to be the resident atheist in my class. He questioned everything I said in a nasal, whiny voice. I secretly compared him to a case of "athlete's foot." Like the fungus, he didn't kill you but he drove you crazy.

When Tommy came up to turn in his final exam, he asked me in his whiny voice if I thought he would ever "find God." I have no idea why I turned to shock treatment at that moment, but I thundered: "NO!" Tommy was a bit taken back by this, so he countered: "I thought that was the product you were pushing." I felt all the emotions of impatience that I have projected into Jesus with the woman at the well. "No," I said, "I'm not pushing anything." I got a dull, unresponsive, "Oh..." I was convinced that my shock therapy did not work.

Then I heard that Tommy was sick. I thought of looking him up, but had almost decided against it, when he came in to see me. He now carried only one-hundred pounds on his six foot frame, and his hair was all gone, due to the chemotherapy. I greeted him in my office with: "Tommy, I heard you were sick."

"Oh yes, indeed I am sick. Sometimes I think I am just fooling people by breathing." Always fascinated by the study of death and dying, I urged him to tell me about it. He slouched down in my visitor's chair, and declined to talk about death. But he added, "I want to talk about the last day Of class. Do you remember?” Of course I did remember. I had rehearsed it so many times in my own mind, always wondering where I had gone wrong.

After my nod that I did remember, Tommy opened up to me. "You had no way of knowing this, but wasn't looking for God. I told God to wait in the wings of the stage until I called Him. God would just clutter up my life with a lot of silly rules. And there was money to he made, woman to he romanced, drinks to be drunk, songs to be sung. I laughed as I turned the corner and you could no longer see me.

"I started a business which was doing fairly well. Then surgeons took a lump out of me and told me it was cancerous, and that they would soon investigate as to whether it has spread. When I realized my life was at stake, I started to pray again. Soon the surgeon delivered the bad news: the cancer had spread. He promised me that he would soon begin chemotherapy, to try to kill the cancer cells that had spread throughout my body. I continued to try to call God out of the wings of the stage of my life. But God did not come.

"What I was doing was playing a `trainer.' You know, `C'mon, God, jump through my hoop. If the doctors are right, I have only months to live. But apparently, God is not a trained animal.

"Have you ever tried something for a long time, and then you got fed up because it did not work? That's how I felt about prayer. God, if God exists, was not interested in me, and I was not interested in God. So I reflected on something else you had once said in class. You told us about your father, how he kept a well-used sign over his feelings: 'Do not trespass!' You said that the saddest thing would be to go through life without loving, and the second saddest thing would he to go through life having loved, but never having shared this love.

"When you think of saving `I love you' to another person, you worry about whether the feeling is mutual. But when you have a very limited amount of time to live, you just let it all hang out. What the hell? Why not?

"So I went to my father, the hardest nut of all to crack. He was hiding behind his newspaper as he does every night. 'Dad,' I said, 'I would like to talk to you.' He lowered the newspaper just low enough to see over the top of it, `Well, talk!' `Dad, I love you.' The newspaper fluttered slowly to the floor. And we talked, maybe for the first time, we talked. We went over the times I had smart mouthed him, and the times he had grounded me. We apologized mutually and time flew by, through the whole night long. He shaved and went off to work, and I knew then and I know now that he truly cares.

"So, empowered by this success, I went to my little brother, and said to him: `I know I teased you, called you names, wouldn't take you with me when I went out . . .but, I want you to know, I love you. We hugged and meant it for the first time, too.

"Then God was suddenly there. Apparently it is true that God found me, rather than I would find God. It seems to be true also that when you open the doors of your heart to love, God walks in through those open doors. Anyway, I want you to know that I'll be dying happy, because God and I are close again. As St. John once wrote: God is love, and whoever abides in love, abides in God, and God abides in him."'

"Oh, Tommy," I gasped. "You were a big pain in the back pew when I had you in class, but you can make it all up to me now. Just come into my present theology of faith class and tell your story to them."

 "Oh, wow! I was ready for you, but I don't really know if I am capable of facing your class. But I will let you know." He didn't make it, but at the hospital before he died, I did visit him. The last thing he said to me was: "You tell them for me. Will you?" So I have now told you, as I have told many people.

It just seemed very appropriate, in the discussion of faith and love, to re-tell it. [95-101]


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