Christ's Love: A Harsh and Dreadful Love
by Noel E. Bordador
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:31-35)
A couple of years ago, while on my way to the monastic island of Valaam near Saint Petersburg, Russia, I made a point to visit the home where the 19th century novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, once lived. He was not just a brilliant literary artist. He was a deeply spiritual man, and his novels are in fact great spiritual writings. In his The Brothers Karamazov, we meet a character of a wealthy landowner, Madame Khokhlakov, who sought the counsel of Father Zosima, a monk. The woman reported that she was beset with religious doubt. It wasn’t that she did not believe in God. Her doubt was about belief in eternal life: “How could I prove it? How could I convince myself?” To this, the monk replied, “By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter our soul.”
God who is Love is known only through love (1 Jn 4:8). Heaven as God’s immortal Reign (“Kingdom”) of love can only be known through love. Father Zosima states the classical Christian teaching: One could only love and know God by loving one’s neighbor, for one’s neighbor is the image and the face of God. The love of God is inseparable from the love of one’s neighbor. We cannot say that we love of God without loving our neighbor (1 Jn 4:20).
In our Gospel today, Jesus informs his disciples of his earthly departure shortly after his death and resurrection: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’” Yet, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be with them, he will be truly and really present to them in a new way, that is, by the love they have for one another: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love is the infallible “proof” of God’s presence in the Church, and I should say, in the world. And this physical body of loving disciples- the Church- (supposedly) incarnates the presence of the crucified, risen and ascended Christ on earth through their love. Love, therefore, is the core being of the Church. The Church qua Church exists simply to love God by loving our neighbor who is the very face of Christ. In the end, it is not perfect understanding of and fidelity to dogma by which the Church will be judged by Christ. Rather, the Church will be judged in how it has incarnated the compassionate love of Christ to all people.
The 5th century African saint, Augustine of Hippo, once said that we being created in the image of God meant that God created us for love. Love is our nature. Human beings are creatures of desire, of love. We are made to love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves. That is the correct order of love (ordo amoris). The problem with us is not that we are unloving beings. In fact, we love all the time since that is our nature. But because we are fallen and fallible creatures, we manage to disfigure and distort such a beautiful thing as love. We love but we love wrongly. Augustine says that we love things that are wrong for us, or we love the right things for the wrong reasons. We subvert the proper ordering of love in that we come to love ourselves more than we love God. We come to love and prefer things - our career, our latest material toys, our search for money, fame or power- over God and our neighbors. And for the love of these things, we are willing to oppress others. When we do love others, our love is often tainted with self-interest. We love others for our own selfish ends, using them for our own benefit. We see them only through the eyes of our self-referential and selfish desires. There is much self-love and not enough love of God of and our neighbors.
When we love, we also limit it. We love only those we find easy to love- our family, our friends, people like us and people who like us. But we close our hearts to people who we find unlikeable or unlovable because they are, for example, poor, homeless, or sick (like persons living with HIV/AIDS who we too readily stigmatize). Rather than seeing others as our brothers and sisters who are God’s image, we make enemies of them. We demonize certain categories of people as unworthy of love that it becomes easy for the majority of the citizens of the Philippines to assent to extrajudicial killings committed by the current regime against drug users, communists, human rights activists, the press, and so on. And I fear, given the election results, things are not going to get any better; in fact, it may get worse.
The great Doctor of the Spiritual Life, the 16th century mujer varonil (“manly woman”), as she was referred to, Saint Teresa de Jesus (of Avila), once spoke of two kinds of love: natural and supernatural. Natural love is tainted with self-interest. Natural love involves loving others because we are naturally attracted to them, because we like them, or because of some benefits we could derive from them. Supernatural love, on the other hand, is selfless. It consists of loving those whom we have no natural liking or attraction to, and loving those from whom we do not derive benefit or reward whatsoever. Love of those we find unlikable, unlovable, or disagreeable (like our fiercest critics), or even despicable (like our enemies) is supernatural. Love- as Christ taught it- has nothing to do with emotions or moods. Ultimately love goes beyond and deeper than these. It is about “forcing” ourselves to see (and loving) God in our neighbor we find difficult to love. I once had a spiritual director, who lived with and ministered to people who struggled with drug use. I remember him saying once that we need to see “Christ in the face of drug user even if a syringe needle is sticking out from his neck. Sometimes, Christ is not pretty to look at.” [Indeed, what if we see Christ in drug users rather than view them as demonic? Perhaps we would not have killed those 30,000+ Tokhang victims.] Wouldn’t the world be a better place, a beautiful place if we see Christ in everyone? Wouldn’t the world be a safer place if we possess “disarmed” hearts that refuse to make enemies of others, preferring instead to make everyone a brother or a sister?
Father Zosima in Brothers Karamazov says so: “Love in action is harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Supernatural love is difficult- very difficult- to put into practice because it is very difficult to change our selfish and often hating hearts that manufacture injustice and oppression. Christian love is “harsh and dreadful” because it requires of us to turn against our natural desire to love only those we wish to love, and to avoid people we don’t want to love. Love is a fearful thing because it requires us to turn away from the injustice we commit out of excessive self-love. The contemporary African-American theologian, Cornel West, says, “…justice is what love looks like in public” and so we are reminded that love necessarily requires us to act justly in order for it to be authentic love. Love that is authentically of God requires us to surrender and give up our deepest love: the excessive love of self.
Love is also difficult because it asks to love our neighbors independent of rewards and benefits. When we love others, and we are not repaid in kind, or perhaps we are repaid with ingratitude, rudeness, or indifference (if not downright hatred), or we do not derive any benefits whatsoever, love that is supernatural nevertheless forces us to love. Christian love is, thus, ascetical, for it involves the denial of the self’s desire for positive reinforcement, recognition and praise for its charity. Madame Khokhlakov’s spiritual difficulty centers on her self. When she gives out charity, she expects something- praise or commendation- from others. Her love of others is tied in to self-love. To this, Father Zosima prescribes “self-forgetfulness” in the love of one’s neighbor. Ironically, he says, it is when love is purified of self-interest that one comes to experience the vision of God and immortality: “If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter our soul.” When there is less of “self”, there is more room for God in our hearts; and in this “vacant” heart, we truly meet God, and doubt is removed. In this self-forgetful love, we shall receive divine assistance to expand the capacity of our hearts to love supernaturally. Father Zozima says to Madame Khokhlakov (who Dostoyevsky dubbed the “Lady of Little Faith”) that when she tries to love yet finding it so difficult, nevertheless, “you will reach and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”
Cited Work: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Signet Classic, © 1999.
©2019 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a queer Episcopal priest in the Philippines. He runs Nazareth House, a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality for persons with HIV/AIDS in Manila.
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