In Heretics, G.K. Chesterton writes, “we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons.” Love is utterly gratuitous; true love is not conditioned by merits, recompense or worthiness. However admirable a thing, one may still not love it. And much love may be lavished on things that are wholly unadmirable. Love alone will remain in heaven; faith will give way to sight, hope will be fulfilled, and the God who is Love will abide with us in perfect peace.
And so we should dwell often upon love, “the one thing needful,” as St. John Henry Newman does in a sermon he wrote preparing his hearers for Lent. Although the penitential season of Advent has just ended, Newman’s exhortations are pertinent as we head into a New Year and resolve, with rekindled zeal, not to just make grandiose and novel promises, but to infuse what we already do with a true spirit of love, to examine ourselves to find, beneath all apparent surfaces and pious practices, where our love has perhaps grown cold.
St. Paul’s life and his famous dictum from 1 Corinthians 13 are Newman’s touchstones for reflection: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Many of us who earnestly pursue faith in God will come to a point where we are disenchanted with our own feebleness, frustrated we can’t offer more to God, discouraged by our lack of zeal and fortitude, disquieted by our frailty and fickleness, aggravated to discover time and again our “reason tending heavenwards, [our] heart earthwards.”
These experiences may be evidence of relying too much on our own selves for virtue, spirituality, and Christian living than on God Himself. To save us from this trap, Newman would remind us: love alone fulfills the Law (Romans 13:10).
St. Paul is known for his heroic endurance of persecutions, beatings, imprisonments, ship-wreck, and sleeplessness on behalf of Christ and His Kingdom. But it is not just through great sacrifices that we fulfill the law. As the greatest of missionaries, St. Paul was replete with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, pious and courageous with great depth of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Yet it is not just missionary work and spiritual gifts that fulfill the law. St. Paul had a faith no doubt much larger than a mustard seed, admirable for his utter trust in the ways of heaven, his “prompt, decisive, simple assent to God’s word,” holding fast to the unseen in spite of mere appearances. But it is not just great faith that fulfills the law.
St. Paul gave up everything, all his possessions, even his very life, and even sanctified his humble, everyday work as a tent-maker for the sake of the Gospel. Even so, it is not just poverty, martyrdom, or humble everyday righteous living that fulfill the law. One may give up everything, die a martyr, and perfectly fulfill every duty, but still be “deficient in love.” These external manifestations of faith, service, and virtue are great, admirable, and to be emulated. But they are in themselves not the “one thing needful.”
Love, the one thing needful, must infuse all that we are lest we become outward Christians while remaining worldly in spirit, else we fail to realize that we are indeed children of God. Such a failure may not be devoid of good, but is certainly not the goal or end of our journey. It is a subtle spirit of worldliness, a Christian striving for the sake of accomplishment or show of virtue, and not a true spirit of filial abandonment to God. A worldly Christian may “if possible, serve God and Mammon, and, whereas religion consists of love and fear, give to God their fear, and to Mammon their love.” Rather, true Christians in spirit should not merely glory in the external manifestations of a Christian life, but should “lament to perceive that they obey God far more than they love Him,” lest they keep “hearts set on the world… only restrained outwardly by religious rules.”
We must strive not only for “conviction of the reason,” for “remorse, regret, self-reproach, self-condemnation,” but also for “conversion of the heart,” the sole source of “saving penitence.” We should investigate our depths to see if our love has grown cold, since Christ said of the penitent Mary, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven her, for she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:38, 47).
History—salvation history and our personal history—shows that God’s love is lavish, indulgent, extreme, and even seems reckless. Opening ourselves to this torrent of love transforms us into the same. Abiding in love secures the true peace and joy of Christian living, makes burdens light, ignites the Holy Spirit’s fire, and wins souls. As St. Augustine has it, “Love—and do what you will.” The utter filial abandonment to God’s will in a spirit of true charity is described profoundly by St. Peter Chrysologus (Serm. 147).
…the flame of divine love enkindled human hearts and its intoxication overflowed into men’s senses. Wounded by love, they longed to look upon God with their bodily eyes. Yet how could our narrow human vision apprehend God, whom the whole world cannot contain? But the law of love is not concerned with what will be, what ought to be, what can be. Love does not reflect; it is unreasonable and knows no moderation… It is intolerable for love not to see the object of its longing. That is why whatever reward they merited was nothing to the saints if they could not see their Lord. A love that desires to see God may not have reasonableness on its side, but it is the evidence of filial love.
St. J.H. Newman’s writings and intercessions can aid us to a deepened self-knowledge and a greater openness to the inner transformation of God’s love. This New Year, make a simple, yet most grandiose resolution: to make love for God abound in everything that you think, say or do.