Love of God and Love of Neighbor

As many of you will know, the Community of Sant’Egidio has organized a annual meeting in the spirit of the World Day of Prayer for Peace memorably convoked by John Paul II in Assisi twenty years ago. This year’s meeting, also in Assisi, is titled “Religions and Cultures in Dialogue for a World of Peace.” I would try to excerpt several of the contributions that have moved me, but time will probably prevent me from doing so (I am also not sure how many of you can read Italian). I hope that you have at least a little time to meditate on some of them. Here, then, is the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Anglican Bishop of London, on the two loves that Jesus taught us “in one breath”:

Jesus Christ talked of the love of God and the love of neighbour in one breath and taught that they were together the summary of the divine law. He was questioned by a lawyer about his definition of the term “neighbour”. “Definitions” propose limits. Jesus in his reply which was the story of the “Good Samaritan” [or if you prefer the “Good Muslim from Bologna”] taught that anyone who followed the way in which God loved would accept no limitations on the extent of the concept of neighbour. His followers should always be at work pushing back the limits on love.

We are in the city of St Francis whose love nourished by the treasury of images in Scripture caused him to be sensitive to references to Christ in the natural order. Lambs of course have a special place in Francis’s affections but he also noticed worms and forbore to tread upon them because he remembered the verse in Psalm XXI. He sang with cicadas and enrolled robins as friars. This was a love like the love of God who saw that what he had made was good and beautiful. God’s love extends to the whole creation in which we have been set as viceroys. The suffering of animals and the ugliness of our cities and the wastefulness of our way of being in the world suggests that we have some way to go before we love as St Francis loved.

This is of course a theme which unites both hemispheres of the Christian world. For obvious reasons I have been thinking about the witness of St Isaac of Nineveh, born in Qatar who served as a bishop in what is now Northern Iraq. St Isaac wrote, “An elder was once asked, What is a compassionate heart? He replied, It is a heart on fire for the whole creation, for humanity for the birds, for the animals, for demons and all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person’s eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or look on any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation.”

Modern ecological science, the information and analysis available in our wired up world is a challenge the domesticated version of the love of God sometimes to be found in our churches.

But there is one limit. The love of the Holy Trinity respects the independence of the other person. We worship God in Trinity “neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance” as we proclaim in the creed ascribed to Athanasius. The love of God is not coercive.

Sometimes it is said of a person that he lives for others and you can tell the others by their haunted expressions. That is not the authentic love of God at work. Neither is he present when a parent berates a child – “Think of the sacrifices I have made for you”. Any parent knows that very often “love lies in the letting go”. The reticence of Jesus Christ before his accusers is the reticence of non constraining love which respects our freedom even to reject him and refrains from summoning legions of angels.

That brings me to my final point. The love of God is at work pushing back the limits on the scope of our compassion. The love of God however does not constrain and involves a gift of power to the beloved.

I vividly remember a girl presented to me for confirmation who said rather sadly that she meant so little to her natural father that she could not even make him angry. True love involves a gift of power and thus commonly it involves suffering. Indeed there is a terrible equation in the spiritual life that the more profoundly you love, the more agonising is the suffering involved. It is a mystery we contemplate in the Passion of Our Lord.

But when the suffering is offered to God in Jesus Christ, it proves to be not destruction but just like the fraction in the eucharist what follows is the possibility of the distribution of life at a new depth of healing and creativity.

The gift of vulnerable love can provoke cruelty and violence as it did in the frenzy of the attack on Brother Roger of Taize. But for some like the penitent thief it can penetrate our defences and awaken us to the love of God. Without being sentimental I have seen this reality in l’Arche communities. When I was directly responsible for vocations in our Diocese I got into the habit of recommending men with overdeveloped intellects and underdeveloped emotional lives to do a spell with l’Arche. It is a cause for joy and sadness that sometimes they found so much more spiritual reality, more authentic love of God and neighbour in their l’Arche experience than they had in their ecclesiastical experience that they did not return to study for the priesthood but then – love really does lie in the letting go and perhaps also in the ending there.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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