Think of the person you love the least in this world. That’s how much you love God.
Nothing like staritng Sunday morning off with a challenge. The community’s mind, I think, is very much on Father Malachy; he is much loved and much missed. Natural enough that the homily today would center on love.
The longer I think about it, the less I understand that word. Certainly I can define it to at least some satisfaction in both the spiritual and the secular sense, but really, I don’t have a clue. Love, like everything else in the Christian life, is learned by encountering it and this place provides the time and the space to begin to do so. The encounters start at a place far past the mind and work their way up. Clues are the last thing to fall in place.
The celebrant’s words disturbed me. There’s a part of me that celebrates God’s love in the positive parts of my life, those I like as well as love. Those whose presence and affection give me pleasure, nourishing and sustaining me in ways that feel good. There is nothing wrong with that; absent those experiences of worth and value, how could we ever learn to respond to the God we cannot see? How could we ever hope to understand His love for us without feeling those things that reaffirm us from those around us? The good feelings of love are surely the start of the journey of faith.
This weekend, though, has brought into focus the ways in which I still have to grow first in awareness and then in love. So many of the images we looked at from the greats of photography were images of the broken human family, no accident, I expect, for the leader of the retreat is man intimately connected to the human condition and who has, as a consequence, a great understanding of the brokenness in even the best of us.
The journey begins there, with an awareness of those outside us—the “others” of the world who are at once so different and individual we can never really know them and so much the same that we cannot help but recognize them. After that, I think, comes the detachment that these monks teach so well: learning to put the created world into proper perspective.
For most of us on the retreat, detachment means learning to conquer our desires for material comfort in order to encounter—and love—all things and all people in proper order. Maybe it’s the same for the people in the images we looked at, only for them it is not detachment from having so much as detachment from wanting to have. I can’t possibly know. But it makes sense. We are, all of us, ultimately much the same in spite of circumstances, too much possessed by possession, too much involved with creation and not realizing how intimate is our relationship with the Creator.
And that ought to be the basis of learning to love, whatever that ultimately means. Finding that hidden likeness in each of us that provides a place of encounter, a place of relationship, a place of love.
I found an image of that this morning between nocturnes when I knelt in front of the Easter decorations at the back of the church to pray. An empty cross made of posts is draped in white cloth, with a huge branch of silk dogwood flowers making a spray above and around. A white candle stood in front and potted palms behind. In the low light of the morning, it almost glowed in its clean, bright lines.
I was halfway through my prayers when I noticed the light from the tabernacle through the leaves of the palms behind the cross. The fronds were interlaced with each other, like the bars on a protected window, like the bars that too often are on my heart. When I focused more deeply on what was before me this morning, looking beyond the flowers and the candle and the wood and the fabric, there was the brilliant gold of the wall behind the tabernacle, lit up with the light that announces Jesus is here!
That image surfaced again as I listened to the homilist take me through the demands of love and the connection with Christ that makes something so impossible a reality. Jesus, His life, coursing through me, vine and branches, the grace without which I can do nothing, not even accept the grace I need. That mysterious encounter with the Divine, the delicate dance of wills that is the Christian life. If I look deeply enough in the world around me, I’ll see that light that tells me Christ is present there, too, beckoning me to encounter Him wherever I am. The challenge of this life and the goal of this journey is to let my light out and the light of others in. Love seeking love, no matter how difficult and obscured. I imagine I'll figure out the details as i go.
How much I love the ones I love least is indeed a measure of how much I love God and with God's grace, that will increase as I learn to take my proper place in the world and let the world take its proper place around me. But I am reassured that it is not just my love for God that ultimately matters. It is God’s immeasurable love for me.