After my lectio yesterday, I turned to another chapter in a book by the Jesuit Peter van Breemen, The God Who Won’t Let Go. You readers know I’ve been drawn into the orbit of many authors of the Ignatian tradition these days. This book has sat on my shelf for a decade. But this week it gets opened. It strikes me as timely for the season, as well as for my spiritual life.
Father van Breemen quotes the philosopher Jorg Splett for an extended essay:
Every person needs more love than he or she deserves.
Isn’t it the truth?
The author suggests that the difference in this equation, this gap between what we deserve and what we need is defined simply as grace. A parish pastor I knew several years ago defied what has been set up as conventional wisdom by some conservative Catholics. People are not more selfish, more self-absorbed, or more unrepentant today than before. This priest, ordained about thirty years, and based on his experiences hearing confessions, suggested instead that believers are more burdened than ever by feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and paralyzing self-doubt. Too much fear; too little love. These fearful folk would seem to be very aware of that gap van Breemen explores. But they find it hard to see the grace.
The apostle John suggests a progression is in play, even for those who believe. We do not naturally embrace God’s love:
We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. (1 John 4:16a)
I think children need parents, or at the very least, stable adults, to come to what appears to be a natural realization of this. Somehow, we come to know God’s love. We have to experience it. Most often, this happens in human relationships with others. Saint John cites what has become a liturgical acclamation:
God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him. (1 John 4:16b)
… and then continues with what seems to be an obvious reflection. It depends on us who believe:
In this is love brought to perfection among us, that we have confidence on the day of judgment because as he is, so are we in this world.There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:17-19)
God’s unconditional love for us seems so alien, so completely other-worldly. I see many young people who struggle with their own sense of unworthiness: no boyfriend or girlfriend, broken homes, forgot to study, too much alcohol. If the world were just, why wouldn’t they be drummed out of college and sent home to work on the farm? Or they see other lives topple into addiction, or even get snuffed out by a rifle before they even get started. Why wasn’t that me, they ask.
I don’t have the answer, except to suggest that for the one who is aware, it is incumbent on us to start on that journey to “come to know.” And the only way I see to do that is to love. We start by giving a hand up to someone else. And we do it first, before they get any sense that they have merited our helping hand.
For a believer, it is not about loving based on some sort of merit. If we are serious about the imitation of God’s love, the adoption of this alien God, we strive to love first. I don’t love a woman because she loved me first. I don’t love infants because they smiled at me first. I don’t love my team because they won a championship for me first. God’s love for us is totally independent of what we might do. God’s love is based on nothing. On nothing at all. And if that sounds strange, consider that we’re all a lot better off because of it.
Father van Breemen writes an illustration. Cartoonish, perhaps; but it captures the comic essence of sin and God’s persistent love, which is not based on our response. First he cites wisdom literature from the Bible:
For even if we sin, we are yours, and know your might; but we will not sin, knowing that we belong to you. (Wisdom 15:2)
And then he suggests that in denying God’s love through sin, it is as if believers saw off the tree branch on which they sit. Because of God’s love, we do not fall.
He concludes the chapter with a portion of a Christmas homily by Karl Rahner:
God has entrusted his last, deepest, and most beautiful word to the world, in the Word made flesh. This Word says: I love you world, man and woman. I am there. I am with you. I am your life. I am your time. I weep your tears. I am your joy. Do not be afraid. When you do not know how to go any further, I am with you. I am in your anguish, because I suffered it myself. I am in your need and your death, because today I began to live and to die with you. I am your life. I promise you: for you, too, life is waiting. For you, too, the gates will open.