Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God. God is love.
These are the famous words of St. John, “the apostle of Love.”
But do we understand what he is saying?
You may say, the message is obvious, it can’t be missed. Love is the first commandment; it is the guiding principle of the Christian life.
I daresay those who’ve left the Church, those who reject the Christian faith, do so in part based on their idea of what love is. They may, and likely do, share the basic Christian definition of love: to will good for another. And so, looking at what the Church teaches, how it has acted historically and its position today on any number of moral and ethical issues, by secular and modern understanding, they can say that the Church fails to love.
But does our society have any real sense as to what St. John meant by the word, “love”? or St. Augustine? Or for that matter, Jesus?
If we fail to understand what is meant by “love” both in terms of the love we are to offer, and the love of Christ within which we are to abide, we might well find ourselves quite outside that divine love, and acting in ways that might seem right to us in the moment, but are contrary to Christ’s commandments.
We run into here the limits of language, the capacity to translate ideas into words we can accurately understand. In acknowledging that problem we can better understand the the incarnation, the coming of the Son of God, not so much to tell us what to do, because as Jesus says at several points in the gospel, “you have the prophets” but to show how God’s Word is lived out; but more importantly to make plain why we are striving to live out this love of Christ.
Because if you don’t know why you’re putting in all this effort, learning, practicing, picking yourself up after you’ve failed to try, try again, you’ll give up like the student who puts aside calculus because he can’t see what use it is to him in his life.
Dare I say it again? That the answer is in the mystery of the Resurrection? The point of love is in its transformational power that brings us to holiness, sanctity, fitness to live forever in the company of God. And that love, which is to will and desire good for another, is ultimately the desire for another to achieve holiness and eternal life. As I tell couples planning to marry, your vocation as husband and wife is to get each other, and any children you may have, to eternal life with God.
There is a book that delves into this problem of words and their meaning for modern people. Written by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in 1984, the book After Virtue is something of a classic. The central argument is grasped well enough: Western Civilization, as a result of Modernity—modern thinking, no longer shares the basic presuppositions of ancient and medieval society. And that’s a problem when we read the Bible, or the Dialogues of Plato, Aristotle’s lectures or the works of St. Basil the Great, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and so on. We think we know what they mean by the words “love” and “virtue” but our notions are quite different from theirs.
And the chief difference is that we do not share in the foundational belief that human beings, as with all things actually, that we have a defined end, a destination, a fulfilment of what we are. And that fulfilment that marks success isn’t individual, customized for each of us and found in self-defined self-fulfilment, but that it is universal, applying to all of us. It’s what you might call a shared destiny, that is nonetheless not predestined, not automatic. We need to work at it with God’s grace.
So, for example, the defined end of an acorn is to be an oak tree and then to make more acorns. The acorn will fulfil this end according to the forces of nature and destiny, but unlike us, it has no will to resist these: where it falls, if it grows in a time of drought, if it is collected by a squirrel and devoured. These things will stop it becoming a tree. None of that alters the fact that an acorn is “programmed” to become an oak tree.
We human beings are made for life with God; and that is fulfilled in holiness. Our aim in life is sanctification. And saintliness is not a subjective thing. My life is not holy because I think it is; yours is not the life of a saint because you say so; and we all know that. And we have a whole two-thousand-year tradition built upon the even more ancient foundation of Judaism that describes that sanctified nature. We read the lives of the saints not as entertainment, but to see their personal qualities, and to see that holiness in action so that we might reflect on our own lives and discern where the disparities lay.
Even in the pre-Christian era the philosophical consensus was that for all the variety that exists among us as human beings, there was a correct way to live. Now, what that way is in specifics was a matter of great discussion, with many schools of philosophy searching for the answer. There was always a sense that there was work involved in living well. We are familiar even today with the idea of the spiritual quest that starts with instruction from a person of wisdom, and then training and preparation before that journey to destiny.
The fool who sets off with no sense of where he is going, unfit and incapable of dealing with the physical challenges and the monsters along the way, will either wander into a trap and be destroyed; or as with most, sensibly amble around familiar places and really get nowhere near his destination, going home thinking he’s achieved something because he’s a little tired from walking outside in the fresh air and sunshine. It would be as if J.R.R. Tolkien’s great hero Frodo Baggins never left the pleasant green valleys of the Shire. Not only would that be a rather dull read for the most part, but the essential work to which Frodo was tasked never gets done, and the story ends with the destruction of Hobbiton, all those furry-footed hobbits being marched off into slavery.
In my discussions with those who are ostensibly Catholic I regularly encounter an inability to say why we should live this Catholic life. Why love your neighbour? Why help out with the food drive? Why build houses in the Dominican Republic during your vacation time? These are all acts of love, but they are guided by secular thinking.
The answers are so familiar: “because it is a good thing to do”; or, “it makes the world a better place’; or, “it builds community”; or, “it helps us all get along.”
And I get that, and these have some truth in them.
But if the Christian life were simply about that, why wouldn’t we see that reflected in Jesus’ activity? Heavens, he was a carpenter, but we don’t see Him building houses for the homeless. Yes, we have feeding miracles, and healing miracles. But all those people were hungry again, all those healed eventually died of something else. If the purpose of Jesus’ life was to end all human suffering, He didn’t do much in the way of achieving that; and that is because for God to simply fix everything, to remove all the challenges we have through elimination of them by divine fiat would rob all of us the necessary conditions for achieving holiness, sanctity, eternal life. Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness before He began His ministry, preparing Himself for the challenges ahead. He is not only going to walk a difficult road, but He is going to walk it in loving obedience to God, and in loving service to us, and so show us the way to the Father.
We need to remember that the earliest of Christians referred to the Gospel teachings and their whole system of belief, not as “Christianity.” They simply called it “the Way.” As in, “this is the way.”
The reason Christianity enjoyed such success in ancient times, and put down such deep roots in medieval times was that in the minds of so many, rich and poor, intellectual and the person of plan common sense, is that in the gospel was the answer to the questions, why am I here; what am I to do – I am here to achieve holiness, and I do that by acts of love for God and humanity.
And none of this was about asking how you felt about it; if you felt good about all that you were asked to do wasn’t the point because often the actual feeling would be fear, or a loathing of the effort involved.
What they meant by love then, and what our culture regards as love today, really are two different things that bear only superficial resemblance, like gold to brass, silver to nickel. One precious, the other base, but at a glance indistinguishable.
We went from aspiring to be human beings as we should be to celebrating human beings as we are. Love and all the virtues Christianity teach are derived from looking at what our end is to be: a life of eternal union with God. In modern thinking, virtue is discerned from observing human behaviour individually and collectively and assessing whether a behaviour is good for us.
So, we don’t murder our neighbour and take his wife because that would make for a chaotic situation and society would be difficult to maintain. From a Christian perspective, you don’t murder your neighbour because the greed and lust at the heart of such actions is contrary to sanctity and so alienates us from God.
In an ironic way, the Christian desire for sanctity which leads to eternal life can seem a matter of self-concern while the modern person appears more community-minded in his morality.
But then, this is a respect for the individual: you are responsible for yourself; not for others, and so have no business lording yourself over them in the cause of righteousness. The Christian road to sanctity is often a hard and lonely journey through the desert, but you can see the dusty trail where others have trod. The modern person, is faced with political correctness, wokeness, whatever you might call it, and it is not a road to follow, but an ocean of chaos to cross in a small, leaking row boat. The “good” you are to seek keeps changing, and is often only “good” for some, and an evil for others; and so, not good.
Jesus tells us how to know love properly: you must keep His commandments. But they will seem pointless if you don’t believe that natural end, that for which we are born, live and die is to come to know God in this life, love Him and serve Him in this world, and to be with Him forever in the next.