Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna with Child on her lap

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna with Child on her lapFalling short in the most important area of Christian life, that of loving God and our neighbor for His sake, is enough of a daily stumbling block to merit Blessed John Henry Newman’s focus in a sermon preached during the former pre-Lenten season of Septuagesima.[1] He depicts the dissatisfaction that otherwise devout Christians experience on this point as the haunting awareness that

… whatever their religious attainments may be, yet they feel that their motive is not the highest;—that the love of God, and of man for His sake, is not their ruling principle.

Observant Christians, he continues, sometimes “feel themselves to be hollow; a fair outside, without a spirit within it.” Who of us hasn’t felt this disappointing emptiness? No matter how busy we are or how countable the results of our good works, our good deeds seem to have no soul. Do we lack generosity or selflessness? Are we not hardworking enough?

Deeper than our efforts lies a root motivation or “ruling principle,” the heart’s wellspring of action and service. It is this that God values most, so much so that St Paul in his famous “hymn to charity” (1 Corinthians 13) discounts everything from eloquence to martyrdom as worthless if uninspired by love. This never ceases to amaze, because all of the admirable, even heroic, gestures that St Paul lists elicit spontaneous respect—and yet each falls short of the Christian standard unless gospel love fills them as the soul does the body.

To be ruled by love does not mean awkwardly submitting to an unfamiliar or unknown power, but to the most natural and noble desire we have. We all have a “ruling principle” and it should come as no surprise that that principle is always love. We are all lovers of something, and the real problem is not that we have no love but that our “affections,” as Newman says, “do not rest on Almighty God as their great Object.” Where they do rest is revealing, and powerfully demonstrates our Lord’s teaching on the law of human love and desire: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

The bulk of our ongoing conversion, of submitting to the principle of gospel love, is this redirecting of our love toward its highest Object. Newman elsewhere describes this as the “means” by which God creates a Saint out of a sinner:

He takes him as he is, and uses him against himself: He turns his affections into another channel, and extinguishes a carnal love by infusing a heavenly charity… [I]t is the very triumph of His grace, that He enters into the heart of man, and persuades it, and prevails with it, while He changes it.[2]

Grace aligns heart and treasure in God so that we can approach “Love one another as I have loved you” as the standard of all Christian love and see the condition “as” of this command as the heart’s true measure. Quality is not more activity, more to “show” for our efforts, but a deeper intensity of self-giving—so that for us, as for our Lord, nothing is withheld and all is spent.

If something less than gospel love (“If you love me, keep my commandments”) steers our decisions, the disconnect makes Christians feel that

…though they are, to a certain point, keeping God’s commandments, yet love is not proportionate, does not keep pace, with their obedience; that obedience springs from some source short of love.

And since no one can serve two masters without loving one and despising the other, we can’t allow ourselves to be governed by such lesser lords as fear, ambition, or merely the drive for survival.

The struggle we face here is as straightforward as our Lord presents it for Martha and Mary: anxiety for many things versus rest in the one thing necessary (even as we do many things). While Jesus does not discount Martha’s careful service, yet He won’t permit her to imagine that serving Him is a matter of multiplying projects and services. Love of God and neighbor certainly must include these, but preceding both is the heart that first says: I love God, because He has first loved me; and I love my neighbor whom I can see for the sake of the One I cannot see.

“It is possible to obey,” observes Newman, “not from love towards God and man, but from a sort of conscientiousness short of love.” That careful yet defective love comes from a desire to fulfill a law “more from fear of God than from love of Him.” It would be unfair to apply this wholesale to Martha’s love, but we can certainly measure the response we make to our daily distractions and burdens by the love of her sister, ‘sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his teaching.’ Is our heart in that place, or is it tossed about in a whirlwind of activity?

We are not called to stop our active lives even to the inevitable point of distraction, but to correct the defects in our love by thus questioning all of the objects that typically absorb our attention (and affection): “Is this leading me to God or away from Him?” Or even more pointedly, to hear the Lord’s question in our ears, “What do you seek?” (John 1:38).

Newman’s sermon suggests a fourfold path to redirecting our mind and heart back to God:

  1. Detachment: Learning to dispense with the “comforts of life,” and detaching ourselves “from our bodies,” so that our minds might “be in a state to receive divine impressions, and to exert heavenly aspirations.”
  2. Recollection: Making the effort to “cherish…a constant sense of the love of your Lord and Saviour in dying on the cross for you.” Because “Christ showed His love in deed, not in word, and you will be touched by the thought of His cross far more by bearing it after Him, than by glowing accounts of it.”
  3. Remembrance: Never forget the mercies God has shown you and those close to you. Recognizing how freely we are loved and forgiven helps us to return that love as freely to both friends and strangers, neighbors and enemies: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8).
  4. Contemplation: By contemplating the divine wisdom that has guided the Church throughout the ages—through the darkest and most perilous times—we better appreciate the unfailing providence that guides our own lives. Moreover, “the deep gifts and powers lodged in the Church,” especially sacraments and charisms, afforded us strength and comfort on our pilgrim journey.

“Love, and love only,” says Newman, “is the fulfilling of the Law, and they only are in God’s favour in whom the righteousness of the Law is fulfilled.” We can be sure of the genuineness of our love the more it leads us to the cross—that place of ultimate self-giving, where no rewards are sought or given except the Giver Himself.

[1] “Love, the One Thing Needful,” Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. V, no. 23. Quinquagesima Sunday. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from this sermon.

[2] Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations. Discourse 4: Purity and Love.

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