Love has been defined, analyzed, explained and excused. It has been the cause of wars, feuds, heroism, martyrdom, inordinate passion and beautiful friendships. It pulls two people of opposite temperaments together into a married state and permits them to live happily. It makes friends understand each other without the necessity of words.
Love is an emotional feeling on a human level and a faith experience on a supernatural level. It motivates our wills and enables us to attempt the impossible for the good of His kingdom.
Love fills and empties simultaneously. It makes us reach out to God, ready to be pruned, recklessly desiring whatever the cost. It soothes the aching heart and then makes it thirst for more.
When the longing for God is seemingly satisfied by some joy, that very joy increases the longing and a bitter-sweetness enters our souls. We desire His Presence to fill the void but find the void ever deeper when His Presence is not felt. Those who endeavor to live a spiritual life — an interior life — a life with God in their souls, truly desire but one thing and that is to be united to the object of their love — God. The struggles of daily living seem geared to choking that interior life and snatching it out of our reach.
Loving Your Neighbor
The harder we try to live a life of loving union, the more difficulties we encounter. We find the various temperaments of those with whom we live and work an obstacle — we find God so far away — we find our determination to be holy short-lived and vacillating. To add to our distress, we read passage after passage from Scripture that demands the highest union — impossible attitudes of mind and heart. Our faith tells us God cannot command the impossible and yet how can we ever begin to follow the new commandment? “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “love one another as I love you.” . . . “As the Father has loved me, so I love you” (John 15:12).
We are asked by Jesus to love our neighbor as much as the Father loves the Son! What an awesome commission — what trust Jesus has in us!
The word “as” means equal to or in the same way and yet we find such a difference between our love and God’s love.
Creature love is finite, selfish, limited, vacillating.
God’s Love is Infinite, Selfless, Limitless, Constant.
Many of us use God’s love like the manna in the desert. We take what we need for particular situations and then go our own way — thinking we can handle other situations ourselves. The soul looks at God as holiness, then at itself and sees sins, frailties and weaknesses. It looks at its neighbor and sees, for the most part, opportunities for the practice of virtue. We reach up to God asking for help and the realization of His holiness mirrors our own unworthiness. The self-knowledge that comes from our daily encounter with our neighbor makes us rebel or feel inferior. We run in an unending triangle from petitioning God for help, to receiving strength to endure, to adapting ourselves to the demands of our neighbor.
We fear God and punishment and expect reward for any good we accomplish. On this level it is difficult to see the Gospel message as Jesus gave it to us. Though we ourselves are sinners, we expect perfection from our neighbor and mercy from God for ourselves.
There is a continual struggle on the part of the soul to keep any kind of serenity or peace. Love, as we find it in God, seems out of our reach and the ability to love our neighbor as God loves him seems an impossible task. We practice virtue in varying degrees depending on how strong the adverse feeling within us happens to be.
Learning to Love
There is great advantage to this stage of the spiritual life. Though we seem to be on a treadmill — going nowhere fast — we are acquiring both natural and supernatural self-knowledge. Natural self-knowledge comes with the awareness of our weakness. For example, when we feel impatience — it becomes a part of our physical being. We react as we feel — we know we have offended our neighbor but we often blame our neighbor for bringing out our weaknesses. The emphasis at this stage is more on our neighbor’s weaknesses causing us to react in a faulty way. Neighbor becomes “cause” and we suffer from the effects of that cause. Our prayers are turned toward God in supplication to change our neighbor and give us the strength to endure.
Self-knowledge at this level tends to place most of the blame for our own actions on others. This can be very frustrating because our time is spent in waiting for others to improve and expecting some special grace that will enable us to be totally indifferent to everything around us. Though we are running around in a vicious circle we begin to realize the uselessness of spending so much time on circumstances and dispositions beyond our control.
When we realize we cannot change our neighbor except through love and example, we seek new ways of prayer — new secrets of the spiritual life that will enable us to overcome. This is the work of supernatural self-knowledge.
When, in the midst of some failure to respond to demands of the present moment, we receive a light that makes us see ourselves, see God’s pruning hand, see future good in present turmoil, then we are experiencing supernatural self-knowledge. The emphasis shifts from neighbor to self. This is not done so as to make us feel guilty or inferior. This self-knowledge is from God’s Spirit. It brings acknowledgment of our weakness, repentance, compassion for self and neighbor, determination to do better and a deeper love for God whose grace gives us light to see truth without flinching. There is no resentment towards our neighbor. We realize that no matter what the cause, our temperament and weaknesses are the real cause of our reaction to adversity. Our neighbor may cause a demand on our virtue, but we ourselves are the cause of our response to that demand. We see this clearly in a situation where three or more people are involved. The response of each will be totally different. One may become angry, another be indifferent and still another be in the dark as to anything happening at all.
Supernatural self-knowledge enables the soul to be attuned to the needs of others and at the same time aware of what response is best suited to the occasion. It looks at the soul almost as a third person, honestly evaluating its weaknesses, loving with the love of Jesus and dying to itself in order to witness to Jesus’ love for another.
There is no time wasted hiding from oneself or being guilty over the constant effort needed to be good. Natural self-knowledge has a tendency to engage in self-pity and discouragement but the honest acceptance of one’s weaknesses comes from the Spirit and bears the fruit of the Spirit. The Spirit uses our weaknesses and the effort we put forth to increase our longing for God, empty our souls of inordinate self-love and create a loneliness that can only be satisfied by God. These three effects of longing, emptiness and loneliness develop a thirst for God in the soul. The fourth beatitude takes up residence in the soul. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right: they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).
Thirst for God
Thirst for God is a desire to possess Him with all our heart. The pain of thirsting for God is purifying and meritorious. It increases the soul’s capacity for God — for love — for grace. The soul is at this point seeking ways and means of acquiring more knowledge of God. It reads Scripture, performs acts of kindness, frequents the Sacraments, prays more fervently and seeks opportunities to be virtuous. Devotion to the Eucharist and Mary increase as the soul’s desire for God becomes almost unbearable.
Humility of heart is a continuous source of strength and the soul begins to increase in trust. In the past the soul’s prayer life was more of a struggle — a struggle with past sins and mistakes, present trials and sufferings and future events. Petition and reparation were almost the only goal of the soul’s prayer to God. Without realizing it the soul is slowly changed by the Spirit and directed to new ways of prayer and union. Trust, rooted in Hope, enables the soul to give its past and present to God and place its future in God. Trusting to God is to place everything and everyone in His Mercy and Providence with complete confidence. Trusting in God is to have the assurance that our loving Father will take care of us and our loved ones.
Living Faith and Hope
Trust and Hope release the soul from fear and disperse the clouds that so often make Faith difficult. Faith that is only an intellectual assent to truth can make a soul complacent, satisfied that all is well and there is no need to grow in something one already possesses. Is this perhaps the reason so many who profess their Faith do not advance in the interior life?
Living Faith gives the soul the ability to see God in everything. It raises us above the sense feeling level and permits us to touch God in our daily lives. The trials that increase Hope make us humble and thereby purify Faith in the soul. St. Paul assures us that Faith “proves the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen” (Heb. 11:1). The ability to extract from the present moment the Presence of a loving Father, is a living Faith. When our souls become more and more aware of that Presence we grow in Faith. When Faith becomes so strong that no adversity can quench its growth in the soul, then that soul is well advanced in loving as God loves.
Faith detaches the soul from the necessity of having constant proofs of God’s providence and care; of positive answers to all our prayers; and of a need for consolations. It assures us of His pleasure in us and destroys the fear of dryness and desolation. The soul of faith believes because of God’s word and that word bears the fruit of love.
When Hope sees good and Faith sees God in the present moment, in oneself and in one’s neighbor, Love is pure and selfless. It is an exchange of love between the soul and God with neighbor as the recipient of the overflow. The exchange of love between Father and Son in the Trinity is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is a power — the Spirit is Love. At Baptism we begin to participate in the Nature of God. In a mysterious fashion the Trinity makes Its home in us. The Father implants Hope in our memory and lives there, the Son implants Faith in the Intellect and lives there and finally the Spirit implants Love in the Will and lives there.
Memory and Grace
It is important to understand that as we feed the Memory through grace with compassion and mercy towards self and neighbor, the image of the soul resembles Jesus in a more perfect way. Humility and meekness free the soul from an inordinate attachment to its own opinions and will, leaving the soul open to seeing the Father in everything. It gives the Intellect the ability to discern the Father’s will and paves the way for the soul to make right choices.
As Jesus kept His eyes ever on the Father, our soul should ever seek what the Father desires of it. The Scriptures, the Church, the Commandments and the precepts all enlighten the Intellect to motivate the Will to live in the Spirit — to live in Love. Jesus consistently asked us to do the Father’s Will, to love the Father, to love our neighbor as much as the Father loves Him, to make our home in Him as He makes His home in us.
We should make an effort to be aware of the marvelous work being accomplished in our souls. God the Father is loving God the Son and that mutual Love, which is the Spirit, lives in each soul in grace as in a temple. The Trinity truly lives and loves in the grace-filled soul.
If we were more aware of what is happening within us — if we could close the eyes of our senses long enough to take joy in God loving God in us, we would perhaps begin to absorb that love and share it with our neighbor.
If any soul would develop a habit of being aware of the Father within it, loving Jesus in every human being the soul meets, would not that soul make giant strides in holiness? Would it not look upon everyone with new eyes and new love? Would it not treat everyone as Jesus? Would it not understand in a new way that whatever it does to its neighbor it does to Jesus? It would truly begin to love as God loves. Its inner life and exterior life would be Jesus-centered, God-fearing and full of love.
The soul that follows closely the Trinitarian life within it and patterns its own life accordingly, will love as God loves.
“Father may they be one in us as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:21).
The three faculties of the soul in grace — Memory, Intellect and Will — enjoy the Divine Indwelling. As it becomes more one with each Person of the Trinity, the soul is slowly transformed. A soul living in God as God lives in it, draws all mankind into its heart. It loves with God’s own love because the soul and God have become one. “You will understand,” Jesus said, “that I am in the Father and you in me and I in you” (John 14:20).
Let us often contemplate the wonder of the Father loving His Son in us. Let our hearts, overflowing with love, give the Father the joy of loving His Son in our neighbor through our eyes, our touch, our concern, our compassion and our hearts.