A friend of mine who is an outspoken atheist recently asked me how I can listen patiently to and even sometimes form friendships with those who strongly differ with me on matters of great personal importance. In fact, I had separate versions of this conversation with three different treasured friends over the course of one week. To me, the issue at hand is the challenge of unconditional love. How can we love even those whose goals, interests, or ideas oppose our own? How about those who have wronged us or whom we call enemies? It flatters me if anybody thinks I manage to accomplish this. As flawed as my attempts at universally unconditional love may be though, I still believe in trying.
This Memorial Day Weekend, the Marist Brothers’ Center at Esopus is hosting nearly 200 adolescents for a mission conference with the theme “Live like You’re Loved”. Most of us need a reminder at some point of how loved we are, especially adolescents who typically deal with so many insecurities and uncertainties as they work at piecing together their emerging identities. My awareness of being loved has been momentous at different times in my own life: For instance, my call to return to Church in 2007 after a disaffiliation of 13 years had much to do with me feeling in a new way the immensity of God’s love for me and a desire to reciprocate. Living like I was loved meant that it was time for me to set new priorities in my life.
Love’s greatest mystery is the dimension that exceeds and even contradicts reason. I feel most powerfully loved not through the admiration of somebody who has only seen me at my best, but rather when I experience the love of one who knows my flaws, weaknesses, and limitations and loves me anyway, when it could conceivably be easier for him or her to walk away and leave this mess of me behind. If I am loved in spite of my faults, neuroses, misunderstandings, and poor choices, how stingy would I have to be to purposefully withhold such love from others? We can’t always afford to ignore the shortcomings of others—such awareness may be crucial to keeping ourselves safe from those who might harm us. However, if I insist on harboring animosity toward those who I find difficult to love, I become like the unforgiving debtor in the parable who, after having been forgiven a great sum of money that he owed nonetheless mercilessly pursued his own borrowers.
True love is expansive rather than constrictive. So-called exclusive love is deceptive: either it is not truly exclusive or it is not truly love. The most loving couples that I know cannot help but find new outlets for the love that continues to grow and gather strength between them. They raise children, they adopt their partner’s friends as their own, or they engage civil society in order to serve the least favored. Even when one person serves as a focal point for the authentic love of another, it cannot be limited to that person. Genuine love ruptures the walls of any would-be container and overflows its limits. For me, the experience of love in God is the big bang from which all my creative love flows. As I attempt to enter it more fully over time, relationships with particular individuals may help to refocus or refract this energy in a different light, but the origin remains divine… as all true love is.
Again, this does not mean it is easy to love everybody—it is a task at which I fail time and again. Loving compassion even for those who cause others pain becomes easier though when I remember it is hurt people that hurt people. Even one who appears to have all of life’s advantages may have become an agent of pain because he or she was never shown anything else. There is no way to know for certain. However, is there any possible way for such a person to be transformed other than by experiencing compassion firsthand? Won’t a misanthrope or bigot who is shunned and shamed only learn to persist in hatred? Again, Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies does not necessarily mean that one doesn’t actually have enemies. Just do your best to love them anyway as you and I are loved anyway by God (and hopefully by family and friends). It may end up to be the only way for enemies to gradually disappear.
This week’s “Ear Candy” is simply the theme song from the Marist Youth Mission Conference… because why not? As for the “Brain Food”, Michael J. O’Loughlin writes about Catholic responses to the Equality Act, a bill that would formalize policies meant to protect civil rights regardless of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. While I don’t use this space to promote particular policy stances, where would we land on this and other issues if we used love as our guiding light? How would we discuss disputed issues if we let love guide our arguments? I suggest it is crucial to start by listening, especially to the voices we don’t often hear. I think we have a long way to go.
Ear Candy: “Live like You’re Loved” – Hawk Nelson
Brain Food: “Some Catholic Advocates Support Equality Act, Despite Opposition from U.S. Bishops” by Michael J. O’Loughlin
Come back next Saturday for a new post!