Dear Father John, I am trying to pray the Litany of Humility [by Servant of God Cardinal Merry del Val] with special reverence and attentiveness during this Lent, and in doing so the following question keeps recurring to me: In the Litany of Humility, the second request is: “From the desire of being loved, Lord Jesus, free me!” How am I to understand this request? I had thought that to want to love and to be loved is a part of our human nature. What am I missing?
It has been argued (quite successfully, in my opinion) that Christ’s greatest virtue during his earthly sojourn was humility. That you have felt nudged to pray the Litany of Humility as a Lenten devotion, then, seems a sure sign that you are listening to the Holy Spirit. It is edifying and encouraging to hear about it!
Your dilemma is a good one. True, the deepest needs of our human nature, as designed by God, are to be loved and to love. This is because we are created in God’s image, and God is love, the infinite love of the relationship between the three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Insofar as we reflect that divine Trinitarian relation of love within the limitations of our human nature, we live out our vocation as God’s children and we discover and enjoy the fulfillment we long for at the very bottom of our souls.
Looking for Love in a Fallen World
But remember, our current condition includes both a fallen human nature and a fallen world. As a result, these deep needs of our human heart have a tendency to express themselves in distorted ways.
Think about a secular family in which the parents are trying to re-live their own youth vicariously through their children. They pressure their kids to excel at sports, the arts, academics, and everything else. And as the children grow up, they either rebel against this self-centered mode of parenting in some destructive way, or they fall into the over-achiever trap, thinking that achievements are a condition of love. In the latter case, they unconsciously form a habit of the heart in which their need to be loved is almost inextricably intertwined with a need to achieve. If they don’t get straight A’s, if they don’t get into a top college, if they don’t win this or that award, then they will let their parents down and therefore not be loved. As a result, they live in constant tension, deathly afraid of failure, because failure will disqualify them from being loved. This is an unhealthy spiritual state.
Or think about a girl who grows up in a broken home. Mom raises her all alone, because Dad abandoned the family early on. She reaches adolescence with a void in her heart, because she hasn’t grown up with the love of a faithful father. She starts dating early, and unconsciously tries to fill that void by winning the love of a boy, a boy who, naturally, is immature and full of adolescent lust. What happens? Her frustrated thirst to be loved leads her to give herself to someone who is not worthy, and only magnifies her emotional instability, maybe even leading to unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and a whole Pandora’s box of painful complications.
The Key Concept
We could multiply examples, but the core concept is very simple: it is possible, unfortunately, to aim our natural desire to be loved in the wrong direction. The unconditional love we are created to yearn for should be sought in only one place – God. St Augustine put it beautifully in a phrase quoted early on in the Catechism:
You [O Lord] have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you. [Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 30]
If we seek to fill our need for love from any other source, we will end up frustrated and confused at best, and wounded and lost at worst.
We should serve others and do good to others and encourage others, not in order to win their love and worship, but because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ and therefore deserve our love. We should strive to develop our talents and utilize them to make a positive impact in the world not in order to win love, esteem, and praise from others, but because we are God’s children and this is what he has created us to do.
The alarming, effervescent, energizing, and contagious freedom of the saints flows from their having learned this lesson. They no longer gauge their actions or decisions by what other people will think of them. And so they don’t live in fear, instability, and hesitancy. Rather, they have discovered that God’s love for them is as firm as the mountains (as the Psalms tell us). They don’t need to earn it; they just humbly accept it. And once they do, it propels them to echo and reflect it spontaneously and joyfully, regardless of the consequences.
When you pray that line of the Litany of the Humility, as the context of the rest of the Litany helps make clear, you are praying for that same grace:
“From the desire of being loved by others, from the thirst of winning the approval of others, from the slavery of depending on the praise and recognition of others, Lord Jesus, free me! Instead, Lord, grant me the grace to fill my infinite need for love at the only infinite fountain that exists: your Sacred Heart.”
Yours in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC, STL
Art for this post on the litany of humility and being freed from the desire of being loved: Homme en prière (Man praying [Man in Prayer]), Pierre-Louis Delaval, 1826, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.