Empty? Lukewarm? Or full of love?

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31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Nov. 4, 2012
Deut 6:2-6; Ps 18; Heb 7:23-28; Mark 12:28-34

When I was in my early 20s, for a number of years I was questioning the Christian faith in which I had been raised. And as I explored, I read that there were many similarities between Christian spiritual practices and Buddhist spiritual practices. And yet, for all the similarities, there was quite a difference when it came to the goals toward which they were striving. Buddhism sought to reach nirvana, a state that is the absence of suffering, through the absence of desire: a sort of emptiness. Christianity, in contrast, sought to reach the point of being filled—with love. What would I seek: an emptiness from desire, or a fullness of love?

Certainly love is utterly central to following Christ. For, as we hear in today’s Gospel reading, he identifies love as what is commanded by the two greatest commandments:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.

But what does that mean? I remember feeling at one point as a boy that I didn’t seem to love God: I didn’t find within myself what I could recognize as love for him. And how can you command love, anyway? What is love for God? How do we recognize it? How do we get it?

We may do well to consider the opposite of love: which is not hate, but apathy, or perhaps lukewarmness. St. John Vianney was a parish priest in the French village of Ars in the 1800s; and he once gave a sermon on the “lukewarm soul.” In it, he says, faith, hope, and charity are not altogether extinct—but it is a faith without zeal, a hope without resolution, a charity without ardor… it hears the word of God… but often it just bores it… For the last 20 years this soul has been filled with good intentions without doing anything at all to correct its habits… Its Confessions and Communions bear no fruit. He does not prepare well for prayer or Mass or confession; he does not think about God but rather about everything else. When he prays, he does not know what he wants to ask God, nor what he needs, nor even before whom he is kneeling. He writes:

The person who leads a lukewarm life does not fail to do plenty of good works, to frequent the Sacraments, to assist regularly at all church services, but in all of this one sees only a weak, languishing faith, hope which the slightest trial will upset, a love of God and of neighbor which is without warmth or pleasure. (“The Dreadful State of the Lukewarm Soul,” Sermons of the Curé of Ars, pp. 1-10)

This lukewarm soul clearly is not one that loves the Lord with all that it has. For we know what it means to love someone, don’t we? It means that we think about that person quite often; that we want to please them; we want to be with them; we want to speak with them and know them even better; and we are concerned with any wound or deficiency or need in them, and what we can do to supply it. Aren’t these the indications of love? And so:

  • When we love the Lord with all our heart, we desire him: we desire to be with him, to know him better, to follow him more closely, to be united with him.
  • When we love him with all our soul, we turn our desire for him into decisions for him: we freely choose to live as he created us to live, to obey all the other commandments, to say yes to his plan for our lives.
  • When we love him with all our mind, we seek to know the truth of our faith so that we can see and understand ourselves, him, and the world around us as he does.
  • When we love him with all our strength, we are ready to desire, choose, and think as God wants us to even when this is inconvenient or dangerous or causes us suffering—when we too must climb up on the cross with Jesus.

Our Lord Jesus joins the commandment to love God to the commandment to love our neighbor. They go together; and indeed they must. You have surely heard that, if we do not love our neighbor, then we do not really love God. But the converse is also true: if we do not love God, then we will also fail at loving our neighbor. For to love another, to will his or her good, requires us to know what that good truly is; or else we may fall into an empty sentimentalism that is actually acting against their good—for example, in the voting booth this Tuesday.

But when we are rooted in the love of God and in his truth, then we are freed and enabled to truly love our neighbor. The late Fr. Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Jesuits, once wrote:

Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

What did I choose as a young adult? To seek an emptiness from desire? No, I knew that I wanted to be filled with love. The journey to that goal is a long one: it takes a lifetime! But it is worth it. With the help of regular confession—in which we confess our failures to love, and Love himself raises us up again—may each of us continue to progress upon this shining path that our Lord Jesus has laid out for us.

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