The Strength of Love
From his position in the multitude a man asks Our Lord a question. He was one of those learned men who were no longer able to understand the teaching that had been revealed to Moses, so entangled had it become because of their own sterile casuistry. Jesus opens his divine lips to reply to this doctor of the law and answers him slowly, with the calm assurance of one who knows what he is talking about: 'You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and your whole soul, and your whole mind. This is the greatest of the commandments and the first. And the second, its like, is this, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments all the law and the prophets depend.'
Let us now consider the Master and his disciples gathered together in the intimacy of the Upper Room. The time of his Passion is drawing close and he is surrounded by those he loves. The fire in the Heart of Christ bursts into flame in a way no words can express and he confides in them, 'I give you a new commandment that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.'
If you wish to get close to Our Lord through the pages of the Gospels, I always recommend that you try to enter in on the scene taking part as just one more person there. In this way (and I know many perfectly ordinary people who live this way) you will be captivated like Mary was, who hung on every word that Jesus uttered or, like Martha, you will boldly make your worries known to him, opening your heart sincerely about them all no matter how little they may be.
Lord, why do you call it a new commandment? As we have just heard, it was already laid down in the Old Testament that we should love our neighbour. You will remember also that, when Jesus had scarcely begun his public life, he broadened the scope of this law with divine generosity: 'You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I tell you, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute and slander you.'
But, Lord, please allow us to insist. Why do you still call this precept new? That night, just a few hours before offering yourself in sacrifice on the Cross, during your intimate conversation with the men who — in spite of being weak and wretched, like ourselves — accompanied you to Jerusalem, you revealed to us the standard for our charity, one we could never have suspected: 'as I have loved you'. How well the apostles must have understood you, having witnessed for themselves your unbounded love.
The Master's message and example are clear and precise. He confirmed his teaching with deeds. Yet I have often thought that, after twenty centuries, it is indeed still a new commandment because very few people have taken the trouble to practise it. The others, the majority of men, both in the past and still today, have chosen to ignore it. Their selfishness has led them to the conclusion: 'Why should I complicate my life? I have more than enough to do just looking after myself.'
Such an attitude is not good enough for us Christians. If we profess the same faith and are really eager to follow in the clear footprints left by Christ when he walked on this earth, we cannot be content merely with avoiding doing unto others the evil that we would not have them do unto us. That is a lot, but it is still very little when we consider that our love is to be measured in terms of Jesus' own conduct. Besides, he does not give us this standard as a distant target, as a crowning point of a whole lifetime of struggle. It is — it ought to be, I repeat so that you may turn it into specific resolutions — the starting point, for Our Lord presents it as a sign of Christianity: 'By this shall all men know that you are my disciples.'
Our Lord Jesus Christ became incarnate and took on our nature to reveal himself to mankind as the model of all virtues, 'Learn from me,' he says to us, 'for I am meek and humble of heart.'
Later, when he explains to the Apostles the mark by which they will be known as Christians, he does not say, 'Because you are humble.' He is purity most sublime, the immaculate Lamb. Nothing could stain his perfect, unspotted holiness. Yet he does not say, 'You will be known as my disciples because you are chaste and pure.'
He passed through this world completely detached from earthly goods. Though he is the Creator and Lord of the whole universe, he did not even have a place to lay his head. Nevertheless he does not say, 'They will know that you are mine because you are not attached to wealth.' Before setting out to preach the Gospel he spent forty days and forty nights in the desert keeping a strict fast. But, once again, he does not tell his disciples, 'Men will recognise you as God's servants because you are not gluttons or drunkards.'
No, the distinguishing mark of the apostles and of true Christians in every age is, as we have heard: 'By this', precisely by this, 'shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.'
I think it is perfectly understandable that God's children have always been deeply moved, as you and I are now, by our Master's insistence on this point. 'The Lord does not say that the proof of his disciples' faithfulness will be the working of wondrous miracles and prodigies, although he gave them the power to perform them, in the Holy Spirit. What does he tell them? "You shall be known as my disciples if you love one another."'
Not to hate one's enemies, not to return evil for evil, to refrain from vengeance and to forgive ungrudgingly were all considered at that time unusual behaviour, too heroic for normal men. The same thing, let's be honest about it, is true today. Such is the small-mindedness of men. But Christ, who came to save all mankind and who wishes Christians to be associated with him in the work of redemption, wanted to teach his disciples — you and me — to have a great and sincere charity, one which is more noble and more precious: that of loving one another in the same way as Christ loves each one of us. Only then, by imitating the divine pattern he has left us, and notwithstanding our own rough ways, will we be able to open our hearts to all men and love in a higher and totally new way.
How well the early Christians practised this ardent charity which went far beyond the limits of mere human solidarity or natural kindness. They loved one another, through the heart of Christ, with a love both tender and strong. Tertullian writing in the second century tells us how impressed the pagans were by the behaviour of the faithful at that time. So attractive was it both supernaturally and humanly that they often remarked: 'See how they love one another.'
If you think, looking at yourself now or in so many things you do each day, that you do not deserve such praise; that your heart does not respond as it should to the promptings of God, then consider that the time has come for you to put things right. Listen to St Paul's invitation, 'Let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of one family with us in the faith,' who make up the Mystical Body of Christ.
The principal apostolate we Christians must carry out in the world, and the best witness we can give of our faith, is to help bring about a climate of genuine charity within the Church. For who indeed could feel attracted to the Gospel if those who say they preach the Good News do not really love one another, but spend their time attacking one another, spreading slander and quarrelling?
It is all too easy, and very fashionable, to say that you love everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike. But if those who maintain this ill-treat their brothers in the faith, I don't see how their behaviour can be anything but 'pious hypocrisy'. By contrast, when in the Heart of Christ we love those 'who are children of the same Father, and with us share the same faith and are heirs to the same hope' then our hearts expand and become fired with a longing to bring everyone closer to Our Lord.
I am reminding you here of the demands of charity, and perhaps someone might object that it is precisely the virtue of charity which is lacking in what I have just said. Nothing could be further from the truth. I can assure you with a holy pride and without any false ecumenism that I was overjoyed when in the recent Second Vatican Council the Church expressed with renewed intensity its concern to bring the Truth to those who walk outside the one Way, that of Jesus; because I am consumed by a hunger that all may be saved.
Yes, I was very glad; glad too because it confirmed anew a favourite apostolate of Opus Dei, the apostolate ad fidem, which rejects no one and admits non-Christians, atheists and pagans, allowing them to share as far as they are able in the spiritual benefits of our Association. As I have mentioned on other occasions, this apostolate has a long history, involving both suffering and loyalty. So I am not afraid to repeat that I think it is a false and hypocritical zeal that leads some to be friendly towards those who are far away from us, while they trample on or despise those who share our same faith. In the same way, I don't believe that you are genuinely concerned about the poorest of the poor, if you persist in mortifying the people you live with; if you are indifferent to their joys, sorrows or grief; if you are not trying to understand or overlook their defects, provided they do not offend God.
Doesn't it move you to find the apostle John in his old age devoting the best part of one of his epistles to exhorting us to follow this divine teaching? The love that ought to exist amongst us Christians is born of God who is Love. 'Beloved let us love one another; for charity comes from God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who has no love does not know God, for God is Love.' He focuses on fraternal charity because through Christ we have become children of God: 'See what love the Father has shown towards us, that we should be called children of God, and should be such.'
At the same time as he raps sharply on our consciences to make them sensitive to God's grace, he also insists that we have received a marvellous proof of the Father's love for men, 'By this was made manifest the charity of God for us, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, so that we might live through him.' It was the Lord who took the initiative by coming out to meet us. He gave us this example so that we might join him in serving others, generously placing our hearts on the ground, as I am fond of saying, so that others may tread softly and find their struggle more pleasant. This is how we should behave because we have been made children of the same Father, that Father who did not hesitate to give us his dearly beloved Son.
Charity is not something we ourselves build up. It invades us along with God's grace, 'because he has loved us first'. We would do well to fill, to saturate ourselves with this most beautiful truth: 'If we are able to love God, it is because we have been loved by God.' You and I are able to lavish affection upon those around us, because we have been born to the Faith, through the Father's love for us. Ask God boldly for this treasure, for the supernatural virtue of charity, so that you may practise it even in the smallest details.
Too often we Christians have not known how to correspond to this gift. At times we have debased it, as if it could be confined to a soulless and cold almsgiving; or we have reduced it to more or less stereotyped good works. This distortion of charity was well expressed once by a sick woman when she commented with sad resignation, 'Yes, they treat me with "charity" here, but my mother used to look after me with affection.' A love that springs from the Heart of Christ could never countenance such distinctions.
In order that you might grasp this truth very clearly, I have preached on countless occasions that we do not have one heart to love God with and another with which to love men. This poor heart of ours, made of flesh, loves with an affection which is human and which, if it is united to Christ's love, is also supernatural. This, and no other, is the charity we have to cultivate in our souls, a charity which will lead us to discover in others the image of Our Lord.
St Leo the Great says that 'the term "neighbour" includes not only those with whom we have ties of friendship or family, but all our fellow men with whom we share a common nature… A single Creator has made us and given us our souls. We all live under the same sky and breathe the same air, and we live through the same days and nights. Although some people are good and others bad, some just and others unjust, God nevertheless is generous and kind towards all.'
We grow up as children of God by practising the new commandment. In the Church we learn to serve and not to be served, and we find we have the strength to love all mankind in a new way, which all will recognise as stemming from the grace of Christ. Our love is not to be confused with sentimentality or mere good fellowship, nor with that somewhat questionable zeal to help others in order to convince ourselves of our superiority. Rather, it means living in peace with our neighbour, venerating the image of God that is found in each and every man and doing all we can to get them in their turn to contemplate that image, so that they may learn how to turn to Christ.
Charity with everyone means, therefore, apostolate with everyone. It means we, on our part, must translate into deeds and truth the great desire of God 'who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth'.
If we must also love our enemies (here I mean those who regard us as such, for I do not consider myself an enemy of anyone or of anything) we have all the more reason for loving those who are simply distant from us, those whom we find less attractive, those who seem the opposite of you or me on account of their language, culture or upbringing.
What kind of love are we talking about? Sacred Scripture uses the Latin word dilectio, to make us understand clearly that it does not simply mean the feeling of affection. It signifies, rather, a firm determination on the part of the will. Dilectio comes from electio, choice. I would add that, for Christians, loving means 'wanting to love', making up one's mind in Christ to work for the good of souls, without discrimination of any kind; trying to obtain for them, before any other good, the greatest good of all, that of knowing Christ and falling in love with him.
Our Lord spurs us on: 'Do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute and insult you.' We might not feel humanly attracted to those who would reject us were we to approach them. But Jesus insists: we must not return evil for evil; we must not waste any opportunities we have of serving them wholeheartedly, even if we find it difficult to do so; we must never cease keeping them in mind in our prayers.
This dilectio, this charity, becomes even more affectionate when its object is our brothers in the faith and particularly those who, by God's will, work close beside us: our parents, husband or wife, children, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues, neighbours. Without this affection, which is a noble and pure human love directed towards God and based on him, there would be no charity.
I like to repeat what the Holy Spirit tells us through the prophet Isaiah, discite benefacere, learn how to do good. I like to apply this advice to all the different aspects of our interior struggle, because we can never consider our lives as Christians as something finished and complete. The Christian virtues develop as a consequence of real effort, each day.
Take any job in life; how do we set about learning it? First we find out what we want to achieve and what means we have to obtain it. Then we use those means, perseveringly, over and over again, until we have formed a well-rooted habit. As soon as we learn one thing, we discover other things hitherto unknown to us and they in turn stimulate us to continue working without ever giving up.
Charity towards our neighbour is an expression of our love of God. Accordingly, when we strive to grow in this virtue, we cannot fix any limits to our growth. The only possible measure for the love of God is to love without measure; on the one hand, because we will never be able to thank him enough for what he has done for us; and on the other, because this is exactly what God's own love for us, his creatures, is like: it overflows without calculation or limit.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his divine command of charity to all who are ready to listen with an open mind. At the end, by way of summary, he says, 'Love your enemies, and do good to them, and lend to them, without any hope of return; then your reward will be a rich one, and you will be children of the most High, generous like him towards the thankless and unjust. Be merciful, then, as your Father is merciful.'
Mercy is more than simply being compassionate. Mercy is the overflow of charity, which brings with it also an overflow of justice. Mercy means keeping one's heart totally alive, throbbing in a way that is both human and divine, with a love that is strong, self-sacrificing and generous. Here is what St Paul has to say about charity in his hymn to this virtue, 'Charity is patient, is kind; charity feels no envy; charity is never perverse or proud, never insolent; does not claim its rights, cannot be provoked, does not brood over an injury; takes no pleasure in wrong-doing, but rejoices at the victory of truth; sustains, believes, hopes, endures, to the last.'
One of its first expressions is to initiate the soul into the ways of humility. When we sincerely see ourselves as nothing; when we understand that, without God's help, the weakest and most puny of creatures would be better than we are; when we see we are capable of every kind of error and every kind of abomination; when we realise we are sinners, even though we are earnestly struggling to turn our back on our many infidelities, how could we possibly think badly of others? Or how could we harbour fanaticism, intolerance or haughtiness in our hearts?
Humility leads us as it were by the hand to treat our neighbour in the best way possible, that is, being understanding towards everyone, living at peace with everyone, forgiving everyone; never creating divisions or barriers; and behaving — always! — as instruments that foster unity. Not in vain is there in the depths of man's being a strong longing for peace, for union with his fellow man, for a mutual respect for personal rights, so strong that it seeks to transform human relations into fraternity. This longing reflects something which is most deeply imprinted upon our human condition: since we are all children of God, our fraternity is not a cliche or an empty dream; it beckons as a goal which, though difficult, is really ours to achieve.
As Christians we must show that affection of this kind is in fact possible whatever the cynics or sceptics, those disappointed in love or those with a cowardly outlook on life might say. It may be quite difficult to be truly affectionate, for man was created free and he can rebel against God in a useless and bitter way. But it is possible and people can attain it, because it flows as a necessary consequence of God's love for us and our love for God. If you and I want it, Jesus also wants it. Then we will obtain a full and fruitful understanding of the meaning of suffering, sacrifice and unselfish dedication in ordinary life.
It would be naive to think that the demands of Christian charity are easy to fulfil. Our day to day experience of the affairs of men, even unfortunately within the Church itself, tells us a very different story. If love did not bid us keep silence, each could tell a lengthy tale of disunity, personal attacks, injustice, slander and intrigue. Let us admit it openly, and try for our part to apply the right solution to the problem, which should consist in our personal efforts not to wound or ill-treat anyone, and not to humiliate others when we have to correct them.
The problem of course is not new. Only a few years after Christ's Ascension into heaven, when most of the apostles were still alive and active and there was a wonderful atmosphere of faith and hope, there were already quite a number who had begun to lose their way, failing to follow the charity of their Master.
To the Corinthians St Paul writes, 'Do not these rivalries, these dissensions among you show that nature is still alive, that you are guided by human standards? When one of you says, I am for Paul, and another, I am for Apollo, are not these human thoughts,' of men who do not understand that Christ came to do away with all these divisions? 'Why, what is Apollo, what is Paul? Only the ministers of the God in whom your faith rests, who have brought that faith to each of you in the measure God granted.'
The Apostle is not condemning diversity. Each person has his own gift from God, some in one thing, some in another. These differences, however, must serve the good of the Church. I feel moved right now to ask Our Lord (and if you wish you can join in my prayer) not to permit uncharitableness to sow its cockle in the Church. Charity is the salt of the Christian apostolate. If it should lose its taste, how can we come to the world and proclaim: 'Here is Christ?'
Therefore I repeat to you with St Paul, 'I may speak with every tongue that men and angels use; yet, if I lack charity, I am no better than echoing bronze, or the clash of cymbals. I may have powers of prophecy, no secret hidden from me, no knowledge too deep for me; I may have utter faith, so that I can move mountains; yet if I lack charity, I count for nothing. I may give away all that I have to feed the poor; I may give myself up to be burnt at the stake; if I lack charity, it goes for nothing.'
Some people have reacted to these words of the Apostle to the Gentiles like those disciples who, on hearing Our Lord promise the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, commented: 'This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?' It is indeed hard, because the charity described by St Paul is not just philanthropy, humanitarianism or an understandable sympathy for the sufferings of others. Rather it requires the practice of the theological virtue of loving God and of loving others for the sake of God. This is why 'charity never fails, whereas prophecies will disappear, and tongues will cease, and knowledge will be destroyed… So there abide faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.'
We are now convinced that charity has nothing whatever in common with the caricature that sometimes has been made of this central virtue of the Christian life. Why, then is it necessary to preach about it so constantly? Is it just a topic that has to be preached about, but has little chance of being put into practice in everyday life?
If we look about us we could find reasons for believing that charity is a phantom virtue. But if we then consider things from a supernatural point of view, we can also see what is the root cause of this sterility: the absence of a continuous and intense, person-to-person relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ, and an ignorance of the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul, whose very first fruit is precisely charity.
In commenting on St Paul's advice, 'bear one another's burdens and so you will fulfil the law of Christ', one of the Fathers of the Church says, 'By loving Christ we can easily bear the weaknesses of others, including those people whom we do not love as yet because they are lacking in good works.'
This is the direction taken by the path that makes us grow in charity. We would be mistaken were we to believe that we must first engage in humanitarian activities and social works, leaving the love for God to one side. 'Let us not neglect Christ out of concern for our neighbour's illness, for we ought to love the sick for the sake of Christ.'
Turn your gaze constantly to Jesus who, without ceasing to be God, humbled himself and took the nature of a slave, in order to serve us. Only by following in his direction will we find ideals that are worthwhile. Love seeks union, identification with the beloved. United to Christ, we will be drawn to imitate his life of dedication, his unlimited love and his sacrifice unto death. Christ brings us face to face with the ultimate choice: either we spend our life in selfish isolation, or we devote ourselves and all our energies to the service of others.
Let us now ask Our Lord, as we finish these moments of conversation with him, to enable us to say with St Paul, 'in all this we are conquerors, through him who has granted us his love. Of this I am fully persuaded: neither death nor life, nor angels or principalities or powers, neither what is present nor what is to come, no force whatever, neither the height above us nor the depth beneath us, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which comes to us in Christ Jesus Our Lord.'
Scripture sings the praises of this love with burning words: 'Many waters cannot quench charity, neither can the floods drown it.' So thoroughly did this love fill Mary's Heart that it enriched her to the point of making her a Mother for all mankind. In the Virgin Mary, her love of God is one with her concern for all her children. Her most sweet Heart, which was sensitive to the smallest details — 'they have no wine' — must have suffered immensely on seeing the collective cruelty and the ferocity of the executioners that led to the Passion and Death of Jesus. Mary, however, does not speak. Like her Son, she loves, keeps silent and forgives. Here we see the strength of love!