We must go towards people with a “gratuitous” or “free” friendship, which knows how to love without getting anything in return, without calculating the results. It is disconcerting to me to always be asked, “What are the results of your apostolate? What influence do you have on those around you?” … Well, God counts them and God sees them.
Little Sister Magdeleine (1898–1989)
Love of God and love of neighbour are one and the same love in grace. There are many ways that saints and lovers of God express this. There are as many particular ways to say a universal truth as there are particular people living and loving the Truth. For example, Jacques Maritain says,
Love of neighbour is the same love as love for God. Consequently, love for others unites us to God and makes us more like God.
And Saint John of the Cross says,
It is an evident truth that sympathy with neighbours increases the more, the more the soul is united with God through love. The more she loves God, the more she desires that he be loved and worshipped by all… tak[ing] trouble with great longing and heavenly desires and extraordinary carefulness to draw many to heaven with themselves.
(An evident truth!) And Saint Alphonsus says,
According to Saint John, love of God and love of our neighbour belong to one and the same commandment: “And this command we have from God, that he who loves God, loves also his brother” (1 Jn 4:21).
Saint Alphonsus roots the claim directly in the Apostles’ teaching. (No wonder the saints and lovers of God so often tell us that love of God and neighbour are one!)
There are many ways to express this truth. But perhaps one of the clearest and most insistent explanations, for me, lies with Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Jane Frances de Chantal.
Saint Jane’s treatment is brief: God, she says, it the source of all good, but
No virtue is perfect that has not been tested by one’s neighbour.
Saint Catherine’s treatment is much lengthier and informs her entire thought. The theme occurs over and over and, each time it recurs, gathers momentum and additional layers of insight. Throughout her Dialogue, in which she asks questions of God the Father and gives the answers as she understands them, she and the Father often return to the theme of love of neighbour. Every virtue and every vice is manifested and proved in relation to our neighbours:
The number one is excluded, for, unless a man has a companion, I cannot be in the midst; this is no indifferent trifle, for he who is wrapped in self-love is solitary.
I would have you know that just as every imperfection and perfection is acquired from Me, so is it manifested by means of the neighbour. And simple souls, who often love creatures with spiritual love, know this well, for, if they have received My love sincerely without any self-regarding considerations, they satisfy the thirst of their love for their neighbour equally sincerely.
Only by loving God can we love our neighbours. Only by going first to the One who created and redeemed us, can we love creatures “perfectly”.
Therefore to Me, in person, you cannot repay the love which I require of you, and I have placed you in the midst of your fellow, that you may do to them that which you cannot do to Me: that is to say, that you may love your neighbour of free grace, without expecting any return from him, and what you do to him, I count as done to Me…
This love you cannot repay to Me, but you can pay it to My rational creature, loving your neighbour without being loved by him in and without consideration of your own advantage, whether spiritual or temporal, but loving him solely for the praise and glory of My Name, because he has been loved by Me.
So that, it is in seeing the Trinity in our neighbours and acting on it, that we can love as freely as we ought; but in the first place, we receive this love from the Trinity, so that the only ones to whom we can give freely and gratuitously are our neighbours. We cannot repay God. But we can do to him in our neighbours. Every virtue and every vice acts in relation to our neighbours: who they are, what they are, where they come from, where they are going. Virtue comes from God. Love of God manifests itself fully and in bloom in love of neighbour.
It’s no secret that this is a mystery. But it’s a mystery of faith. Saint Catherine lays it out repeatedly in this form, but it is not a unique truth of hers. It’s simply the Gospel: “whatever you did to the least of these you did to me” (Mt 25:40). The implicit content of the Gospel made explicit – but the Gospel nonetheless.
We ask daily bread for our bodies and for our souls; pardon for our sins, in return for the mercy we show toward those who have offended us; we ask our heavenly Father to guard us from the dangers of temptation and for him to deliver us from evil. He will do this because He loves us and because He is the source of all good. And without this what could we offer him? The gifts that children make wholeheartedly to their father are always drawn in some measure from that father’s wealth.
Raïssa Maritain (1883–1960)
There is no way around it: you have to suffer. That is what Christianity teaches. Either in this life or the next, you have to suffer.
True? Definitely. You have to suffer. Either on earth, in Purgatory, or in Hell.
What Christianity really asks, though, is that we suffer in this life. “Be perfect,” says Jesus, “as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Become perfect like your Father through, in, and with Love. Love, love, love, like the Eternal Three. The trouble is, we walk very wounded following the first sin of our first parents. There are disorders gnawing through and festering within our whole human nature. To be sure, our humanity is not obliterated. But it is severely wounded.
To become perfect, then, is going to hurt. A lot. It is like C. S. Lewis said about inviting God in to live with us in our cottage; he then starts knocking down walls to expand our abode into a mansion. It is not without pain. it is not without suffering. The way for humanity is the same way that Jesus, in his Humanity, took: the Cross.
If we deny any of this, we lose everything. The transformation by grace involves – for us because of our wounded condition – suffering and darkness. To this truth, Jacques Maritain adds,
Whoever hears the words “Be ye perfect” must not expect his nature to be “perfected” in any more comfortable fashion. Should one entertain such expectation, even though it be only by diminishing his natural desires in order to cultivate them in peace, he will succeed only in atrophying his nature in order to suffer less.
If we aim too low, we get nothing. We get only a shrivelled-up, stilted, desensitized humanity. We get neither human nature nor the total transformation by grace.
Magnanimity is required.
Magnanimity is absolutely indispensable. We cannot ask to suffer too much for God (though we can ask in the wrong way and at the wrong season). The redemption comes to us through the Cross. Certainly, we are promised thirty-, sixty-, or a hundredfold even in this life. But the way is Jesus, who himself took the way of the Cross.
For Saint Catherine of Siena, the Scriptural images and realities of the Ascension and Pentecost are closely linked to the transitions between the three “steps” on her bridge across violent waters. Like many other Doctors of the Church and spiritual teachers, she divides the spiritual life into what are essentially (1) beginners, (2) proficient (“perfected”), and (3) perfect (“fully perfect”). There are three stages for those in a state of grace, three steps, two transitions. For Catherine, the Ascension and Pentecost are linked to the transition between Step Two and Step Three.
Early in her Dialogue with God the Father, Catherine says that
It was with this imperfect love that Saint Peter loved the sweet and good Jesus… enjoying most pleasantly His sweet conversation, but, when the time of trouble came, he failed…
Thus, he was only a beginner in the spiritual life at the time, still primarily struggling with his sensuality. When Christ looked at him, after the cock had crowed, Saint Peter was fortified and passed through the first, sensual purification. But he was still in need of a deeper purification, touching further into the roots of a soul-body person. The perfection needed to go deeper. Saint Catherine uses this as an image for all Christians: in the Dialogue, God the Father says,
I, in order to develop perfection in the soul, after the forty days, that is after these two states [of imperfection] withdraw Myself from time to time, not in grace but in feeling.
Jesus disappeared in bodily form. Spiritual consolations disappear. We all need this in order to, in the dryness, turn more fully towards God rather than towards his consolations.
What is the soul to do when Jesus “disappears”? Catherine has God the Father say,
Now the soul who wishes to rise above imperfection should await My Providence in the House of Self-Knowledge, with the light of faith, as did the disciples, who remained in the house in perseverance and in watching, and in humble and continual prayer, awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. She should remain fasting and watching, the eye of the intellect fastened on the doctrine of My Truth, and she will become humble because she will know herself in humble and continual prayer and true desire.
When Pentecost came for the disciples, they were taken into the way of perfection, made “perfect” (though still capable of indeliberate venial sins), strengthened, fortified, turned into true Apostles.
But first they had to wait. They had to endure the dryness, the deprivation of sense consolations. After all, Jesus had been taken away! His Humanity had been taken away. Sure, God was to come again. But they didn’t know when, and it wasn’t their place to know. If they had known, they would have had no benefit of being made more perfect and more able to love.
That is what, in the terms of Saint John of the Cross, is the dark night. The clear message is: the end is a Pentecost! It’s worth it! Hold on, and grow in love.
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