We’ve all heard this story before: “what is the greatest commandment?” Jesus is asked; and in answering recites the famous shema of the Jewish faith that confesses “the Lord is God, the Lord is one,” and continues in saying that the utmost devotion to God is required to truly have converse with him, his wisdom, and to receive his mercy and his ultimate justice.
Jesus, of course, makes of this now a dual-commandment that requires us to not only make God the focus of our thought and prayer, but makes explicit that our devotion as accomplished in giving the whole of our heart, mind, spirit and strength is to be evident in how we love our neighbour.
But really, there are three components to this dual-commandment: love of God, love of self and love of neighbour. Each building upon the next. So, we might think of it as we would an iceberg: as we learned either at school, or from out of simple curiousity, most of an iceberg remains unseen beneath the water. So, too with how we live our lives of faith: two-thirds should not be seen by others, or rather should not be practiced so as to be seen by others. We’ve heard Jesus telling us to pray “in secret”; to be careful of parading our piety before the world.
I know that one can’t help it if seen coming out of mass. You’re not being ostentatious in saying a quiet grace before a restaurant meal. If in talking with someone about a serious issue you reference scripture to illustrate a point, that is hardly inappropriate “showing off”– erudition in scripture and tradition is commendable if it is in aid of deepening your own understanding, and in equipping you to help others.
What is perhaps a great challenge to us today is the idea of how we ought to love ourselves, because the world is certainly inclined to indulge you in a ethic of self-care and self-concern. Sin thrives in the misunderstanding of what authentic love of self is; if you live your life in fear of its loss.
And if we do not love ourselves properly, in accord with what God has commanded for our well-being, then we can hardly do anything worse than to love others according to our mistaken and damaging love of ourselves; if we inadvertently teach people to live out of fear rather than in willing self-offering of oneself through Christ.
To know how to love ourselves, we must think about how God loves us. Then we will know both how to love ourselves and others.
It is very obvious that God’s love for us has very little to do with keeping us safe and secure in the bodily sense of these words; we are not insulated from temptation to sin. We are subject to accident, disease, violence, and so on in this life. God loves us by sharing his wisdom and truth with us; by showing us the way to holiness and happiness, the way to an eternal life with he who is life that involves overcoming danger and temptation.
“Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us. (CCC 2288)
Yet it qualifies that statement saying,
“If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value.” (CCC 2289)
It is how we navigate the dangers physical and metaphysical, resist the temptations, stay faithful to a life of virtue that sees us focussed upon God and neighbour that is the true substance of our lives. These things, when encountered in the company of God, when following the precepts of Christ, will be overcome… but it might cost you your mortal life, yet gain you eternal life with God.
We can think of the example of the Apostles, of the martyrs of the early Church, of missionaries in the ancient world and missionaries today who risk all, their lives, but not thinking life meaningless and disposable, but rather a precious thing to be spent well. It is not for you and I to demand others spend their lives to make us safe and secure; but we ought to be very grateful when we see that they do.
Life’s not supposed to be easy; suffering is involved, sacrifice is called for. The conclusion reached by a great many sainted theologians of the Church, such as our own patron, St. Augustine was that a greater good is achieved in our suffering and struggling against evil in the form of sin and death. We are greater for having overcome than if we had remained in our innocence, kept from ever having to choose, ever having to develop ourselves spiritually to face the challenge of evil. (https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/augustine_enchiridion_02_trans.htm#C4)
St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his Summa Theologica of the ironic benefit that arises from our struggle:
“For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom; hence it is written (Rom. 5:20): ‘Where sin abounded, grace did more abound.’ Hence, too, in the blessing of the Paschal candle, we say: ‘O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!’” (https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/sum452.htm)
It is readily apparent that we live in a safety conscience, I daresay, safety obsessed culture in which risk-taking is very limited. I think of my youthful adventures, as a Sea Scout for example, sailing across lake Ontario as part of a crew of 12-year-old boys with but one adult aboard. In traversing eh waters in fair weather and in storms, I learned responsibility, discipline, but more importantly how to manage stress and control fear in difficult situations. More and more, we keep our children from developing these qualities through recreation that has little risk, games that have no winners, contests that we ensure cannot end in any disappointment for their participants.
There is a growing expectation that government will look after us from cradle to grave; and that its job is no longer providing the conditions for our flourishing but rather the prevention of our suffering; to make good on our failures. We have an ethos of “too big to fail” in the financial world, and that trickles down to an ever-expanding state that seeks to manage all our problems, but does so at a very great price (and I’m not just talking about taxes).
This is something that is dangerous to us spiritually and psychologically, can make us selfish and self-regarding, and set ourselves against each other, as the reality that risk, harm, and suffering, highly correlate with our being around others.
Other people can give me a disease that could harm me; how well we know that. In business, the working world which requires an economy made up of others also busy in work, in business, one can go bankrupt through bad decisions, but also just bad circumstances. In the realm of interpersonal relationships, well, it’s not easy meeting people, finding someone to spend your life with; and that can mean heartrending disappointment.
All of those things wound us psychologically, spiritually, but also have physical consequences. Most obviously when we are talking about disease, but the person defeated in business, or unlucky in love can sink into depression, over-eat, look for comfort in a bottle or a bong.
Where the challenge lies for us is that it is in engaging once again with our God and our neighbour after the hurts and harms we’ve suffered, as much as we might conclude they are the source of our suffering (how can a loving God make me suffer; how can people be so cruel?). Yet it is through them that our faith is made and brought to fruition and suffering overcome.
That is a challenge that cannot be met by someone else. Not an agency of the government, not a private therapist, not a priest, not a school guidance counselor. We have “helping” professions yes, but that is all they can do, help. You and I must do the work by God’s grace and not look to others to make us safe, to make us secure, to preserve our personal health and welfare in the fullest sense.
In my years in street ministry, I saw so many people trapped in fear, desperate to preserve what little they had, and so, they were miserable. And I could sympathize given the traumas that many had suffered; but the ones, too few, but the ones who escaped that world did so by coming to understand that they first needed to get right with God, and from that devotion they came to understand his love for them and that became a transformative source of strength; and then finally they engaged the world in confidence. And thinking on how some of us might look on their accomplishments as modest (getting a low-paying job; kicking drugs; finding an apartment; taking a proper holiday), these were, given where some started, titanic achievements.
No worldly power can keep you safe. Insofar as it can shield you from the evils of life, it will only make you that much more delicate, that much weaker, so that what are today minor hurts and disappointments will become grievous injuries and crushing defeats as you become evermore diminished as a human being.
As Jesus tells us elsewhere in the gospels: he who would save his life will lose it…
But in keeping God’s decrees, following his commandments, observing them diligently in Christ, it will go well with you. You will find the promised land; the kingdom of God will not be far.