Keeping the Great Commandment

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“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” our priest droned for the tenth time. His pedagogy was nothing if not dogged. He would have said it again, but I jumped in: “How can I love someone I can’t see?”

The other kids sat up. Would he ignore me or call my parents? I always tried to rattle him, but for once I wasn’t showing off. The first hymn I’d learned as a child wondered, “Jesus, my Lord, my God, my All, how can I love Thee as I ought?” It was a rhetorical question, more mystical than mechanical; but from the day I read in my Baltimore Catechism that I‘d been created to love God, I’d wanted an answer to the question, How?

The nuns in grammar school used to tell us that you could love God so much that you’d join the convent and ‘marry God.’ I didn’t know what she meant exactly, but at Catholic summer camp, I got a clearer picture. Camp was a piety blitz: daily mass in the chapel, devotions at the grotto, rosary in our cabins after lights-out. Spiritual aspirations ran high; dreams of joining the convent were as common as athlete’s foot—we were all potential Brides of Christ. One summer, both my fervent counselors made plans across bunks after dark. “I’m joining this Fall,” one whispered. “Are you?” She wasn’t sure: “Maybe if I were more in love with God…”

In love with God!—there it was again! Girls couldn’t grow up Catholic in the pre-Vatican II era un-scorched by the possibility of such a passion. For one thing, we were surrounded by God’s lovers. I knew their stories the way boys knew box scores: Agnes, martyred for choosing Christ over a pagan spouse; Francis of Assisi, stigmatized with the real wounds of Jesus; Ignatius Loyola, who drenched his diary with one mystic word over and over: tears; John of the Cross, crooning to Baby Jesus in his cradle; Simeon the hermit, for years perched atop a pole.

This was rich fare for the affections. Loving God, you found out early, was no tame thing. It made you say yes or no — but never maybe. It made you loopy. It ruined your health. Most of all, it made you feel something. How did they come by it? How could I come by it?

Sure that in the convent I’d find out, I married God during my first year at college, only to discover that in my religious community, passion for God implied coolness towards people. Of course, we didn’t ignore the second great commandment, “… and your neighbor as yourself.” Indeed we were resolved not only to die for all our generic unknown neighbors, but also (and this proved more difficult) to suffer Sister Peggy’s nasty quirks in close quarters.

No one missed the logic of 1 John 4: 20—you don’t love God if you loathe your roommate. Nevertheless, when it came to loving “creatures,” we found ourselves at a far emotional remove from the torrid love for God to which we aspired.

We were drilled in this odd theology: All love is divine, one in origin and end. In practice, however, people-love is a different breed and a greedy competitor. You can never love God inordinately, but you can love God too little by loving people too much. So you have to be vigilant: creatures can sneak up and steal the love reserved for God while, distracted, you make supper or service the car.

We tried hard to love others, including each other, for Christ’s sake alone. You had to aim x-ray affections through people’s skin and hit the One who alone made them lovable in the first place. If somehow you could by-pass the reality of embodiment, you could even licitly feel love for others: pure intentions kept your affections chaste, and chaste affections did not cheat God. But some of us never got it right, and others never tired of disapproving. Some of us sinned warmly, pursuing various attractions to unsurprising ends; others sinned coldly, loving no one at all really, thus attaining (we imagined) perfect love for God.

This painful affective muddle was foreign to the Catholic high school kids I ended up teaching. They were oblivious to the wary rationing of love going on around them. Whatever loving God was like, they knew it wasn’t like loving your boyfriend, your school, or your Harley. They also knew that if it meant sitting on a pole, they’d never love God. No one they hung around with would either. When I’d drone on about it, they’d object: “You can’t love a God you don’t see!” It crossed my mind to call their parents.

If they got romantic about God at all, it was on weekend retreats. Then, softened up by candles and guitars, they’d weep for love of parents, classmates, all living things on the planet, and especially God. On Monday, they’d revert to a normal state of emotional inconstancy. But they always showed up for service projects. Matthew 25 was the one scripture passage they knew by heart; and since the Judge in the story was happy with deeds of love, deeds were the way to go. In the daylight, the saints those kids admired did not weep or croon or pole-sit; they were all business, dispensing coats and crusts to the least and lost.

I left high school teaching and went on to graduate school, no closer than I’d been at six, twelve, or twenty-two to feeling what saints in love with God must surely feel. In the first month, an earnest classmate reading Andres Nygren intervened. From him I learned that human “love” for God is a false and blasphemous thing, hardly a Christian ideal.

Nygren had my number: I was all eros, no agape. All my life, it turned out, I’d craved not God, but the false rewards of experience. According to Nygren, I’d reduced God to one among many objects of human avarice to satisfy my selfish needs. Mortified to have made it to graduate school still desiring, I gave it up and hitched my wagon to obedient trust through naked faith alone.

It didn’t take me long to unhitch it. For one thing, I found that renouncing the rewards of experience was, well, rewarding. For another, I wondered why God, whose history with us is a trajectory into flesh and blood, would require from us a fleshless and bloodless response. But mostly, it just seemed silly to pretend that God was not in fact attractive (I was now reading Augustine).

I relapsed completely while writing a dissertation on the 16th-century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila. You’d be hard-pressed to find a saint more in love with God than Teresa. While Spain’s top bishop did time in the Inquisition’s jail for preaching that Christians could be friends with God, she was practicing spousal mysticism, exposing flustered nuns to the Song of Songs, and frightening confessors with reports of angels penetrating her heart (her heart?) with hot flaming darts.

Teresa would be easy to dismiss had she not also been so surprisingly averse to the idea that loving God is exhausted in such experiences. In good monastic fashion, she taught that you can’t build anything sturdy on the base of experience alone. Feelings are fickle, easily induced and easily manipulated. Experiences are overrated, a dime a dozen. Whenever one of her goose-bumpy novices, languid with love and hoping to levitate, tried making permanent camp in the chapel, a no-nonsense Teresa laid down the law—nix the theatrics, eat something solid, and go help out in the laundry.

Yet Teresa came down even harder on the idea that loving God has nothing to do with experience. She was never convinced that trust, obedience, and service cover the whole territory of love. To love by doing good was essential, but by itself it was too small an ambition for people who have been saved by God’s passion. So she taught the nuns also to love God explicitly, to unleash their hearts. To be sure, she also taught them humility, theology, and discernment; and she created a demanding communal life and required obedience to the hierarchy—all traditional safeguards against self-deception. But the most important thing she taught them was not to be afraid, not of feelings for God, not of feelings for each other (she herself tended to sin warmly).

Finishing graduate school, I began teaching in a Protestant seminary. Soon afterwards—Nygren notwithstanding—I became a Protestant myself. I still hoped to love God passionately some day, but by then I’d decided that steadfastly hoping for such a love was itself a pretty good way of loving, and that it would have to be enough. Now and then, however, I felt compelled to conduct comparative spot-checks among unsuspecting seminarians. They’d come in to consult about a paper or a course selection, and I’d ask, “Do you love God?”

Most said yes, but not without qualifications (“Well, yes, if what you mean by love is…”). Others spoke of awe at the natural world or at the birth of a child or other blessings in their lives. Only rarely did anyone speak of explicit feelings for God. Now, these were the same students who never said “think” if they could say “feel,” and who let you know their “comfort levels” with everything from classroom temperature to creedal affirmations. Why were they so diffident when it came to God?

Some, I imagine, were protecting themselves, and rightly so; how they felt about God was in fact none of my business. Others said they were afraid of sounding flaky. It was clear that they had no serviceable language for what they may have felt. One woman told me that the church she grew up in was still mortified by outbreaks of enthusiasm in previous centuries and newly anxious about the high number of Catholics, with their propensity for “smells and bells,” now joining the congregation. Speaking about or showing signs of passion for God in that church was to invite polite but effective ostracism.

I especially remember one frank young man who said he loved God the way his late father had loved his family: his wife and kids rarely saw him, yet they knew he cared because he worked hard and provided well. Shouldn’t that be enough? Aware of my own lack of sacred diligence, I dissembled and said I wasn’t sure. But I am sure: it may be enough, but it’s not all there is.

A few years ago I led a program for a church group about loving God. A middle-aged pastor at one session complained that it was much ado about nothing. “Navel-gazing” was his verdict on the heart’s quest for the divine (so much for Augustine, Jonathan Edwards and Bernard of Clairvaux). At my urging, he spent the afternoon free time reading the Song of Songs, a book he knew only by snippets. He returned for the evening session with red ears and a pained look, “What’s this doing in the Bible?” A sharp young laywoman wondered whether trying to love God after the Holocaust might be a morally vacuous enterprise. Someone else observed that a command to love is a contradiction. A thoughtful denominational leader wondered whether love for God is best conceived as a corporate activity — the whole church loves; the individual members participate in Christ’s perfect love for God.

Most of the participants agreed finally that loving God explicitly (with or without feelings) is probably required if Christian life is to be more than “anonymous monotheism,” in Jesuit ethicist Ed Vacek’s words. They also agreed that it’s easier to talk about God’s love for us and our love for self and neighbor than it is to get a fix on love for God. Even though the famous verses of John’s first letter teach that love for God is both inseparable and distinct from love for neighbor, we had to acknowledge that the modern habit is always to collapse the former into the latter. Inseparability then gives way to substitution, and the result is near-silence about the one thing necessary. Vacek calls it “the eclipse of love for God.”

When I first read that scary phrase, I tried counting the sermons on loving God I’d heard in the last 15 years. I couldn’t recall even one. A cursory check through a theological library’s holdings did turn up a scholarly book (Vacek’s), a dissertation, a published sermon. That was all. I had to strain hard for sounds of recent mainline reflection on keeping the great commandment. Independently, a pewmate noticed this hush too. After another in a series of fine sermons about Christian obligation in the world, he sighed, “OK, I think I know what I’m supposed to do. What I’d really like now is to know the God who wants me to do it.”

So how do you meet, know, even fall in love with God? Well, over the years I’ve learned this much from the classics and the saints: Loving God is not any one thing. As Roberta Bondi observes in a slim but juicy book on prayer, people love God differently, employing “incalculably numerous expressions” over a lifetime.

Astute Christians will say this too: love for God in any form is God’s initiative, a divine gift. If we love at all, the New Testament says, it’s because God loved us first—although as much as I believe that to be true, I’m not sure it’s much practical help. In that church group I led, the idea that love is a gift was kind of a conversation-stopper. After all, when something’s a gift, you might be given it, or you might not. More bewildering than a command to love or a hot angelic arrow to the heart is the prospect that God is going about whimsically wooing some people, but not others.

Fortunately, the same New Testament that says love is a gift also tells us it’s universally available, and that God does not consider it excessively forward of human beings to ask for it. If we want to love God wholeheartedly, whatever that means in practice, we begin by praying. I’ve found, however, that persistently begging for “More Love to Thee,” as the old hymn goes, is such a no-frills, basic step that even sensible people sometimes skip it as they cast about for fancier techniques by which to deepen their life with God.

I’ve also learned that great lovers of God tend to have imagination and a lot of cheek. They create conditions of possibility for love, waving their arms in God’s face, as it were, so there’ll be no mistaking a potential target for grace. Believing themselves unworthy and incapable, nonetheless they expect God to draw them into intimacy. They put themselves in the way of every kind of beauty, knowledge, person and pain, developing reflexes of awe, reverence, compassion, compunction, gratitude, zeal and delight. They meditate on the gospels, exposing themselves daily to the ambush of Jesus’ appeal. They hang around God’s likely and unlikely friends—the precious folks, as Rowan Williams once observed, in whose presence you sense that what God promises is possible and in whom you catch a glimpse of life as it was meant to be. And if it seems like they’re getting nowhere, God’s lovers don’t quit; they fake it if they have to, knowing that God deserves even an “as-if” love arising from utter incapacity.

The canonized saints of my childhood fascination did these things and more. To be sure, they were often bizarre, in many respects utterly inimitable—even if you are so inclined, rolling naked in thorn bushes like Francis did is not a good idea, and Lord knows we don’t need any more violent conquests of infidels born of zealous love for God. All the same, if you scratch this distancing surface, you’ll always find more than messy psyches and fervor run amok. You’ll also find the hard muscles of heroism on behalf of the neighbor, some of it as subtle as a kiss on a leper’s eyes, some dense as a notion that feeds the minds of millions over time.

Now, my old saints uniformly attributed their formidable love for neighbor to their prior love for God. Without that first love, they claimed, no heroism or longevity in the service of others is possible. How could Mother Teresa lift the dead from Calcutta’s streets day after day, year after year, if not for love of God? But we know that this claim, although edifying, is not altogether true. Atheists routinely do the same, humbling believers like me who do much less.

We must love our neighbor if we say we love God; but experience teaches that the reverse is not necessarily so. Vacek claims that the believer is distinguishable from the atheist in this alone: one loves God, the other doesn’t.  And if he’s right, the next question is a terrible one: So, if the end result looks the same, why bother?

Don’t ask me. After all these years, I still have no idea. And I still wish more than anything that I did.

Don’t you?

Do you love God?

9 thoughts on “Keeping the Great Commandment

  1. latetogod

    Aahhh, Mary! The first part of this answered the question I was always so eager to ask you over coffee, over cokes, alone or in the company of others, which was: what was it that seduced you into joining the Sisters? and that question’s close companion: what was it like growing up Catholic? THANK YOU for making a start on those answers! As a new lover of God, I knew (I KNEW!) that adoration was in you, and I found it more than a little confusing about the exact forms this Great Commandment was shaping my own love into. Thanks for such a wonderfully human bunch of thoughts and feelings about loving God and loving people!

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  2. Carter West

    By way of thanks, Mary, a hymn that will be sung at my memorial service (you know it well, I’m sure … ) Does verse 4 kill, or what?

    1. Spirit of God, descend upon my heart:
    Wean it from earth, thro’ all its pulses move.
    Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art,
    And make me love Thee as I ought to love.

    2. Hast Thou not bid us love Thee, God and King?
    All, all Thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind.
    I see Thy cross; there teach my heart to cling;
    O let me seek Thee, and O let me find.

    3. Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
    Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear
    To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
    Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

    4. Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love,
    One holy passion filling all my frame:
    The baptism of the heav’n descended Dove
    My heart an altar and Thy love the flame.

    Do I love God? I’m not even sure that God exists, in any vernacular, non-theologged sense of that phrase. But something in me loves God, enough to sing God into being every so often now, at other times in vivid memories. Rilke will do it, and Rumi, and sometimes Mary Oliver. Something in me loves God enough that once in a while I am waylaid by the desire to love God (four “teach me’s” in vv. 3 and 4). I am disturbed that I don’t have more of a disciple’s life to show for this – but then (I know) showing-forth is rather beside the point. It seems to be about the readiness to receive, most of all – “My heart an altar and Thy love the flame.” It’s about quieting my soul (while refusing to repress any of it), which serves like the blank pages at the front of any book: turning them yields no sense, but still moves you further to the place where the word may appear. I will keep turning my pages.

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  3. JoCarol

    You have addressed a topic that has recently been on my mind, and I was comforted to know I’m not alone in my struggle with what it means to “love God,” showing love for God and, well, lots of variations thereof. I understand I must love God with all my heart and mind and soul, but I find that a scary proposition because I am unsure how that would “feel” or whether it would even be a “feeling” or whether it would be expressed by acts. Probably a combination of both, but . . . . I want to do it, but I know I fall short. I can say I’m in awe of God, I’m scared of God, I’m grateful and thankful to God, but I’m not clear on “loving” God. I guess I just keep praying and having faith that the Holy Spirit will get me to where I need to be as long as I’m willing and trying. Anyway, your writing has helped me see that I’m not being an idiot about the subject, which I had rather feared, thinking that people more schooled in religion knew the answers and I just wasn’t getting it. Thank you.

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  4. Cherylann Richards

    Oh Mary, I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about whether I loved God. I have just assumed I do. Growing up Catholic post Vatican II, the lessons I most remember were that if I loved God I would behave and I would love and serve others. I spent a great deal of my childhood afraid of God because my little brother died within hours of his birth, had not been baptized and was, unfortunately for his tiny soul, in limbo. So I went about “loving” God with the fervor of a frightened child by being the “best” kid I could. As an adult, I lost a 21 year relationship that I cherished because I chose to return to church (a protestant one) after a long absence. Shortly after this loss, I gave up a good paying career and nearly all of my free time for 5 years and spent a boatload of money going to seminary knowing I would forever earn significantly less with my shiny new Masters degree than I had been making with my dusty Bachelors. Of course I love God! But do I? I love my neighbor to the best of my ability which I admit isn’t what it should be. I believe God loves me thanks to some personal experiences that I can only explain by believing they were evidence of God’s love and presence in my life. Do I love God? I’m definitely no longer afraid of God which is perhaps a step in the right direction. Do I love God? I assumed I did. I certainly want to. How would I demonstrate my love outside of loving and caring for my neighbor? Not sure. Thanks for the question my dear seminary professor and friend. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life pondering it!

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