I have been ruminating about Courage and Encourage for the last month or so. This morning, I woke up singing the Beatles’ anthem to myself and wondering how much truth there is in it.
My initial response as I woke up was, “Yes, but …” “Yes, but” is just a polite way of saying, “No,” and I bristle when I hear someone say this to me in confession or spiritual conversation. We seem to be “kicking against the goads” (Acts 26:14) when we both agree and disagree with a dawning insight.
Yes, love is our origin, our sustenance, and our destiny. “God is love, and all who abide in love, abide in God, and God in them” (1 Jn 4:16). This is the essence of the gospel message. God is infinite love and pure mercy. He created us because He loved us, and “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God loves us so much that the Son became human so that we could become divine, a maxim of the fathers that is embedded in the prayer said as water is mixed with wine at the Offertory. Every human being was designed by God for an eternal marriage to Him, and our hope is in our Bridegroom that He will complete “the good work” He has begun in us (Phil 1:6). The Hindu expression “satchitananda” reflects our desire for infinite being, infinite understanding, and infinite joy–what we call “the Beatific Vision,” a consummation of love that never ends.
Love is soul food for us on our pilgrimage. We must feast on love or we will die by the wayside.
Yes. But love is a notoriously complex reality, and it is a battlefield that has been drenched in blood over these two millenia and especially in the last forty or fifty years in our culture. People disagree passionately, sincerely, and hopelessly about the nature and meaning of love in our day.
As a chaplain for Courage and Encourage, I feel that I am called to uphold the Church’s understanding of love, both divine and human. I find myself chanting the words of Inigo Montoya in “Princess Bride”: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Our culture advocates “unconditional love” in a way that counterfeits and falsifies the gospel message. Yes, God’s love for us is uncaused by anything that we say or do. It is sheer gift. “All is grace” (Dorothy Day, interpreting Catherine of Sienna). We can never merit God’s love. We cannot stand on our own works and get God in a headlock so that we can force Him to love us. The Pelagian heresy was condemned long ago, but it is a weed that springs up spontaneously in our hearts and that threatens the fruitfulness of the good seed that has been planted in our hearts. I meditated daily on love when I was going through a bout of depression in the 1990s:
I am a man of God.
I am a man of the Church.
I am full of grace.
I am a masterpiece of grace.
I am God’s handiwork.
I am a child of God.
I am a son of the Father.
I am a brother of Jesus.
I am a spouse of the Holy Spirit.
I am beautiful because I am loved.
I am beautiful as I am because I am loved as I am.
I am beautiful now because I am loved now.
God loves me totally.
God loves me now.
Love requires love. God does not want robots or machines that are compelled to act as if they loved Him. He wants sons and daughters who give themselves as freely and fully to Him as He gives Himself freely and fully to us. I have heard it said, “God does not take hostages.” He gives us invitations, and waits to see whether we will co-operate with His initiative in our lives. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). The fact that God loves me first and that He loves me now does not mean that I have “life to the full” (Jn 10:10); it means that I am on the path that leads in that direction.
We cannot accept love and reject love at the same time. All of us must repent of our sins and learn to let love transform us into authentic lovers. Like the Israelites on their Exodus from Egypt, we have to give up our idols and let the living God be our true God.
Jesus commands us to forgive “seventy times seven times” (Mt 18:22). This implies that we may need to repent seventy times seventy times ourselves as well as being patient with those whom we love as they learn how to be God’s partners in love. We need to be as gentle with our brothers and sisters in Courage and Encourage as God is with us. He does not break the bruised reed nor quench the smoldering wick (Mt 12:20)–neither should we.
Perfectionism breeds depression. Puritanism is another weed in the garden of love that chokes the life of grace. In my work with Courage and Encourage, I strive to uphold the full gospel message, but not brutally. Joy matters. Happiness makes all the difference in the world to us. I aim for the serenity of Jesus Himself when He told the woman caught in adultery that He did not condemn her but that He wanted her to “Go and sin no more” (Jn 8:11). That thought consoles and strengthens me as I deal with my own sins and shortcomings. I hope and pray that it will also console and strengthen my brothers and sisters in their journey to the Promised Land, the Kingdom of Divine Love.