“LOVE, LOVE, LOVE – all you need is love!” That’s what the songs and the tee shirts say. So why do 50% of American marriages end in divorce? And why do so many young people stumble their way through so many abortive relationships? Could it be because love has become a mere slogan, unrelated to the reality of the God who is love?
God’s love is described in Luke’s Gospel as being “kind to the unthankful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). An Athonite elder, commenting on this teaching, opined that God loves the devil as much as He does the Holy Virgin. That kind of love is incomprehensible to most of us. Yet this kind of love is put forward as a model for us to imitate: “be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (v.36)
Everyday Ideas of Love
Our ordinary ideas of love fall far short of this ideal. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “Show me your friends, and I will tell you who you are.” In other words, what we love displays the secrets of our hearts. Some people focus on sensual love, and everything they desire and fear, admire and loathe follows from this love Likewise people who have given their heart to wealth, to drugs or drink become the slaves of that which they love. Their every action is directed towards the acquisition of what they worship. In the Lord’s words, “Where your treasure is, there your heart shall also be” (Matthew 6:21).
Many good people, Church people included, focus on loving their spouses and children and, perhaps, their extended family. There is nothing wrong with that, surely. But the Lord says that we should not get stuck on family love from which we get great rewards in return: “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?” (Matthew 5:46-47): If you are seeking to live a godly life, you must do more than that.
Gospel Ideas of Love
When the Lord was asked which commandment was the greatest, He didn’t pick just one. He answered, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Matthew 22:38-39). It would be easy to delude oneself into thinking that I love God, when in fact what I love is ceremonial, music, or the fellowship of my church friends. It is not so easy to delude oneself about loving another concrete individual with whom we may not have any particular affinity. As we read in the first epistle of John, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20).
For the believer, then, godly love is directed toward God, but authenticated by our relationships with others.
How can a person show love for God while living an ordinary life in the world? Many suggest that we begin by getting out of ourselves as much as possible in our spiritual lives. We observe a Rule of Prayer without wavering. We don’t pray simply when we feel like it or when it is convenient by without fail. Just as a parent needs to feed their child without fail or a dog owner needs to walk his pet regularly, we need to make that act of love which is prayer as consistently as these other actions. Following a Rule of Prayer becomes as selfless an act because it is done for the Other, not to please oneself.
When we approach fasting in the same way it becomes a clear act of love. When people fast when they feel like it or according to their own regimen instead of the Church’s practice, they may well be doing it to please themselves. Fasting on the days appointed in the Tradition, without making excuses for oneself, is a way of leaving one’s ego behind in an act of love for God.
If these practices are authentically directed toward God, they will invariably lead us to reach out to our neighbor whom God loves. Almsgiving, particularly in terms of sharing our precious free time with others, is for the Christian a concrete act of love for Christ in His Body or on His creation.
Setting up one’s own plan of Godly practices can be little more than an ego trip. We try to show ourselves as truly spiritual by committing ourselves to unkeepable rules of prayer or fasting beyond what it required. We commit ourselves to serve others in ways that we cannot hope to sustain. Invariably we learn than these practices do not suit up and we give off all attempts at reaching out to God. The traditional remedy for excesses like these is that people striving to live for God obtain the blessing of their spiritual guide for each ascetical activity they attempt.
People in a free society become used to doing things their own way, to being independent. But a person who resolves to love God needs to move beyond his “rights” and look towards doing whatever is necessary to serve the Other. Following the directions of a knowledgeable spiritual guide in choosing acts of love appropriate to our spiritual maturity and state in life can help us avoid disappointing ourselves and those who we serve by being unable to complete the spiritual work we have begun.
Such a guide should be someone who knows both the Church’s Tradition of spirituality and who knows us as well. Having grown through their own practice of the spiritual Tradition, such a guide is helping us, not from books, but from personal experience. By the same token your guide should know you deeply – your strengths and weaknesses, your state in life and responsibilities – and be able to discern what is right for you at this stage in your life. Such a guide is usually a monastic or a priest-confessor, but not every priest or monastic is necessarily the best spiritual guide for you. If you do not now have such a guide, pray that the Lord lead you to such a person who can walk with you on your journey to Him.
The Greek nun, Mother Gavrilia, served in India for many years doing the same sort of work as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Her witness shows that she learned about love from her own experience.
“[Once she was asked] What does God want me to do?…The answer was: God is not interested in where you are or what you do…He is interested only in the quality and quantity of the love you give. Nothing else. Nothing else.”
“Love as taught by Christ is offered without expecting anything in return. This is the great, the vast difference [from earthly love]. In this love the ego no longer exists. Our own self ceases to be. We give our love to the other as we receive it from God, without any thought as to what he does with it…. All persons of God love in this way. They do not love because they expect something in return from the one they love. They love because if you cease loving you cease living.”