Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma
St. Paul, ever the romantic(!), writing in his first letter to the Corinthians, insists that “love is patient, love is kind. Love is not jealous, is not pompous; it is not inflated; it is not rude; it does not seek its own interest [. . .] but rather rejoices with the truth”(1 Cor 13). He goes on to write that love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things; and finally, he declares, as if he has never grieved a betrayal or lost his heart to passion: “Love never fails.” The romantic whispers, “Yes!” The cynic scoffs, “Bull.” The pragmatist asks, “Really? Never?” The Catholic exclaims, “Deo gratis! Thanks be to God!” Who needs for love to never fail more than he for whom Love is God? This is why Jesus teaches the Pharisees that the spiritual heart of the Law is: “You shall love the Lord, your God, will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind [. . .] You shall your neighbor as yourself.” Listen to Paul again, “Our Lord is patient, He is kind. He is not jealous, is not pompous; He is not inflated; He is not rude; He does not seek His own interest [. . .] but rather Our Lord rejoices with the truth.” Though Paul is writing to the Corinthians to show them how we must love one another—patiently, kindly, selflessly—we cannot, cannot love at all except that Love Himself loves us first. Therefore, with the Lord and because of the Lord, we love Him, one another; and we rejoice with His truth.
Now, that we must be commanded to love says everything that needs to be said about the weaknesses of the human heart, soul, and mind. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we do not eagerly enthrone love in the center of our being, making all we do the children of charity. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we do not love as a way of giving thanks for our very existence, for the gift of being alive. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we do not reason with the grace of God’s wisdom, with the deliberative power granted to us as creatures created in His divine image. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we are not God but rather creatures imperfect without God, longing for God, grieving our loss yet yearning for the peace and truth of His Being-with-us.
Think for a moment of the ways we have struggled in our past to find some small portion of peace and truth. Moses returns from Mt. Sinai to find his people giving themselves over to the idols of their former masters in slavery. Paul admonishes the Corinthians for turning to “worldly philosophies” for their much-needed wisdom. He lashes them for rutting indiscriminately in the flesh, surrendering body and soul to disordered passion and vice. Jesus teaches against the legalistic blindness of the Pharisees; he calls them “white washed tombs,” beautifully, lawfully clean on the outside but stuffed with rotted meat on the inside. In our long past we have turned to idols, pagan philosophies, debauchery and license, and taken an easy refuge in the dots and tittles of the law. Each of these reach for the peace and truth we long for, but none grasp the love we need.
Think for a moment of the ways you yourself have struggled in your past and struggle even now to find some small portion of peace and truth. Do you look to the idols of power, wealth, possessions, or Self to find your purpose? Do you scratch your itchy ears with the wisdom of the world? With the profound systems of material science, the occult mysteries of New Age gurus, the glittering gospels of prosperity and celebrity? Perhaps you search for and hope to find some peace in your body, your flesh and bones. Do you worship at Gold’s Gym, Kroger and Target, Blockbuster, or CVS, searching for peace in a perfectly sculpted body, a full belly, a house full of things, a visual distraction, or over-the-counter cures for the nausea and headache of a life that will not love God? Or, perhaps in this election season, you look to parties and politicians to give you hope and security. Do you look to the Democrats to give you the ease of a well-funded government entitlement? Or perhaps you look to the Republicans to secure your place near the top of the economic food-chain? Do you think Obama will give you hope? Or that McCain will give you security? When we reach down for higher things, we grasp the lowest of the low and in our disappointment we name the Lowest the Highest, and then, in our pride, we pretend to be at peace. To do otherwise is to confess that we are fools fooled by foolish hearts, that we are stubborn mules needing the bridle and bit.
And perhaps we are fools. Perhaps this is why Jesus finds it necessary to command us to love God and one another. Why command what we would and could do willingly? In Exodus our Lord must command that we not molest the foreigners among us. That we must care for the women who have lost their husbands and children who have no family. He must command us not to extort money from the poor or strip them of their modest possessions for our profit. We must be commanded not to kill one another, not to steal, not to violate our solemn oaths, not to worship alien gods. Why doesn’t it occur to us naturally to care for the weakest, the least among us? To help those who have little or nothing? Why must we be commanded not to destroy the gift of life, not to lie or extort, not to surrender our souls to the demonic and the dead? We must be commanded to love God, to hope in His promises, to trust in His providential care because in our foolish hearts we believe that we are God and that we have no other gods but ourselves.
Are we fools? Probably not entirely. But we are often foolish, often believing and behaving in ways that give lie to Paul’s declaration, “Love never fails.” God never fails, but we often do. When we make the creature the Creator, giving thanks and praise to the bounty of our own wisdom, we reach down for the higher things and convince ourselves that we have grasped truth. We do this when we believe that it is not only sometimes necessary but also good to murder the innocent; when we believe that it is right to murder the inconveniently expensive, those whom the Nazis called “useless eaters,” the sick, the elderly, the disabled. We reach down for higher truths when we create markets for housing in order to exploit for profit the homelessness of the poor. We are foolish when we raise impregnable borders around the gifts we have been given , gifts given to us so that we might witness freely to God’s abundance. We do foolish things because we believe we are God, and so, we must be commanded by Love Himself to love. But surely this is no hardship. Difficult, yes. But not impossible. With Love all things are possible.
What must we do? To love well we must first come to know and give thanks to Love Himself. He loved us first, so He must be our First Love. Second, we must hold as inviolable the truth that we cannot love Love Himself if we fail to love one another. Third, love must be the first filter through which we see, hear, think, feel, speak, and act. No other philosophy or ideology comes before Love Himself. This mean obeying (listening to and complying with) His commandments and doing now all the things that Christ did then. Fourth, after placing God as our first filter, we must surrender to Love’s providential care, meaning we must sacrifice (make holy by giving over) our prideful need to control, direct, order our lives according to the world’s priorities. Wealth and power do not mark success. Celebrity does not mark prestige. “Having everything my way” does not mark freedom. Last, we must grow in holiness by becoming Christ—frequent attention to the sacraments, private prayer and fasting, lectio divina, strengthening our hearts with charitable works, sharpening our minds with beauty and truth in art, music, poetry, and while being painfully, painfully aware of how far we can fall from the perfection of Christ, knowing that we are absolutely free to try again and again and again.
Though we often fail love, Love never fails us. Remember: who needs for love to never fail more than he for whom Love is God?