What is love asking?
We have reached the end of our Lenten journey together, and perhaps been challenged by a number of questions. The big question that weaves through everything else, echoing the great commandment, and has reverberated all through the story of humanity is this: ‘What is Love?’ Inigo also places this question very prominently right at the end of his Exercises, challenging us to ponder its depths as our lives move on. He calls his challenge the Contemplatio ad Amorem, calling us to consider how we might love God and each other with a love that reflects the divine.
A key tenet of Ignatian wisdom and of Gospel truth is that love reveals itself in action more than in words. The word ‘love’ has been seriously devalued in contemporary society. We use it loosely, and sometimes thoughtlessly, to express affection or romantic feelings, or even a preference for a particular food or fashion trend. The real deal is far more demanding. M. Scott Peck provides an invaluable key to understanding divine love when he asserts that ‘Love is not an emotion. Love is a decision.’ Or in the words of Samuel Johnson: ‘Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not.’
This insight tells us that, however we may be feeling, we can choose, in every situation, to do the more loving thing, to act and behave in a kind and loving manner. This choice, this decision, doesn’t depend on our emotional state at the time and Jesus tells us plainly that it applies to ourselves, our neighbours, colleagues, friends and strangers, and, crucially, even our enemies.
There are no exceptions, because God is the one in whom all have their being. To love God, as the first command requires, is to choose to act lovingly not only to each other, but to our living planet and all the life it sustains. We cannot claim to love God if we behave unlovingly to any part of God’s creation. Jesus also calls us to be especially aware of the demands of love in the way we relate to the poorest among us, the marginalised, the oppressed, the voiceless, helpless and exploited ones.
Love, it is clear, is the answer to every question we have considered during this retreat. Love asks us to live from our deeper ‘God-Centre’ and not from our shallow and self-focused ego-centre. It is Love that invites us to launch our lives into the deeper waters and follow Jesus through the events of his earthly ministry, modelling our own lives and values on his. Love is the heartbeat of the challenge of discernment, prompting us to make choices that reflect the very best we can be. Love asks of us that we let go of all that is impeding our soul’s journey, moving forward with empty hands so that we are free to receive all the graces that God still longs to give us. It is Love that calls us, and empowers us, to make the journey into darkness and death alongside Jesus in Holy Week, remembering that in our world and its perils, especially for the poorest, the marginalised and the lost, every week is Holy Week. And it is Love who stands on the shore, showing us that the treasure we long for may be in the place we never thought to look. It is love who invites us to share breakfast, as a new beginning dawns for humankind and for all creation.
A new dawn beckons. We can see the first glimmers of that dawn as we walk, wounded and fearful, yet grace-blessed and hopeful towards the One who invites us to breakfast. What kind of world lies beyond that shoreline? Will it be ‘back to the old normal’? Or will our children’s children look back through the history books and say: ‘2021 was the beginning of a new different’?
The experience we have shared, as a global family, of crisis and pandemic has potentially brought us all to the cusp of a new stage of our evolution into human beings who more fully reflect the love of God. What have we learned from the harsh lessons of 2020? St. Paul reminds us (in 1 Corinthians 13:13) of the three things that really matter: ‘Faith, hope and love abide’.
Do we have faith? Not just creedal believing, but trust? Do we believe and trust that, by the grace of God, we can grow back better from all that we have faced?
Do we have hope? I think we do even though we sometimes feel we are hanging on to it by a slender thread.
‘But the greatest of these is love.’ This new beginning offers us all a new dispensation. We can choose to slip back into our old and mainly selfish ways, or we can choose to let love transform the way we live together on planet Earth and grow back from the experience of loss and destruction to become a better generation of the children of God. Dare we ask for the grace to choose love, and to keep on asking ourselves: What is love asking of me right now?
Talk to God
As you travel on, try applying this question to any situation in which you find yourself. ‘What is the more loving thing to do next?’ There are no easy answers. Sometimes love will ask us to intervene, perhaps to challenge an injustice; sometimes it will ask us to stand back and leave another person free to discover their own way forward. Love will sometimes be tender, comforting the afflicted, and sometimes it will be tough, refusing to allow ourselves or others to be manipulated or exploited. Love may come easily as we support our loved ones, or it may be the hardest task imaginable as we try to be alongside someone who has hurt us or those we love.
God’s love is continually being poured out into all creation. How does the love we claim to have for God reveal itself in a corresponding love for our planet and all her life forms? How can we express this love in practical ways?
Look back over your journal or any notes you have made during the retreat. What graces do you feel you have been given as you have made this journey of prayer? What has changed in your life, your heart and your faith since Ash Wednesday? How will you sustain this growth and respond in practical ways to what you have learned?
Two new graduates, standing on the dais at their graduation ceremony, were asked by the Dean ‘What are you going to do next?’ One announced the intention of making a world-changing breakthrough in medical science. The other replied ‘I am going to turn left and walk very carefully down these three steps.’ Each of them had grasped half the truth. We are pilgrims of God, called and empowered to dream big, big dreams for the greater good of all creation, and to make them real on planet Earth. But we make them real by attending carefully to the next three steps we take, our next three conversations, interactions or choices, asking moment by moment: ‘What is Love asking me to do next?’
May God, who has brought us to Easter 2021, bless and guide all our steps, from this day forward, until God’s kingdom is fully birthed on Earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.