In my last post I discussed the misuse of the word ‘love’ in contemporary culture, and the challenges that living a life of true, self-giving love presents to us, but did not go into those challenges in detail. Since then, I have been reflecting on the difficulties living the spiritual life presents, and decided upon two fundamental principles that may act as guidelines when trying to be a truly loving person. First, I shall talk briefly about the challenges that face us as we try to ‘do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation’ (Philippians 2:14-15).
However much we may try, we nevertheless find ourselves more often than we would like doing any number of things that are not particularly loving – cursing people under our breath, gossiping about neighbours, crossing the road so that we don’t have to deal with the guilt and sorrow that confronts us in the homeless man we see on the pavement. These are just some examples of things which I am sure most of us will have experienced on occasion, if not a lot of the time. Sometimes there may also be the realisation at how commonplace certain sorts of behaviour have become – that we so habitually gossip or lie or snap at people when tired, etc, that we no longer feel the weight of them. In one sense this is a good thing: to be constantly burdened with the guilt of every single lack of charity or direct act against charity that we have been party to would be too much for most people to bear. However, it is also good that our consciences bring these things to our attention from time to time, that we may lament them and amend our ways.
This is, to some degree, to be expected – we are all of us affected by original sin; we find it hard to do good and easy to be selfish, even with the aid of the sacraments. Also, it is often so very hard to know when we are really cooperating with grace – its operations take place at a level that we are unaware of, and so me must trust in its efficacy even when we don’t ‘feel’ the change in ourselves. To return to the Epistle to the Philippians: ‘work out your own salvation in fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:12-13). This is all good in theory, but I personally have always found it somewhat difficult to translate an intellectual commitment to the exhortations of Scripture into guidelines that actually help me develop my spiritual life in practice. More often than not it is only by way of hard experience (i.e.; a long period of making the same mistakes over and over again) that I finally realise the practical realities of what the Church has been telling me all along (see my earlier post on these kind of discoveries here).
Anyway, the practical question at hand here is: how do we go about loving our neighbour, especially when we don’t like them very much? How do we pray for those who persecute us, and forgive our enemies? It is so very easy to hold on to resentment and a spirit of revenge, and thereby block the operations of grace which would draw us into a life of charity. Also, as I touched on earlier, it is often even hard enough to love those who have done us no harm at all – so how do we go about it? I have decided on two points (again taught consistently and repeatedly by the Church, but that have only really ‘clicked’ recently) that help me:
- Remember that everyone is made in the image of God – not just the people we happen to like, and/or those who are nice to us. It seems obvious enough, but I have found this very hard to put into practice when confronted with people who are either incredibly cruel (either to me or others) or just happen to be annoying me at the time!
- Judge not, lest ye be judged. Again, this is basic to the Christian life, and even some (albeit a watered-down version) of secular culture, but time and again I find myself criticising the faults of someone else with no thought of taking the ‘log’ out of my eye first. I must always remind myself, as Pope Francis said in his recent interview, that I too am ‘a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon’.
As I said, the above points are axiomatic for Christianity, yet I find myself neglecting them in practice constantly. I may have to get them printed on a card to carry around with me or something! My point, I suppose, is that we all need practical guidelines to help us live out the lives we are called to, because this calling is difficult. We will always be given the grace we need to grow in the spiritual life, but to give ourselves the means to discern our growth, and to facilitate it in lieu of any obvious ‘signs from heaven’ pointing out when and how we need to be loving (it is of course, a guarantee of our free will that we ordinarily do not receive such signs) such guidelines are, I think, important. I hope those I have mentioned above may be of use to someone else as well as myself; if not, just ignore them – it is always better to find a framework conducive to one’s own personality and experience. For myself, I shall strive harder to remember my own guidelines, in accordance with the words of Aslan (paraphrasing the Shema) in The Silver Chair:
‘…remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs.’
The Silver Chair (1990), p. 27, Lions.
Substitute ‘rules’ or ‘guidelines’ for ‘signs’ in the passage above, and substitute whatever helps you personally realise in practice the demands of loving God and neighbour, and you have a good recipe for putting charity at the heart of daily life – Aslan is a very wise lion! If no such guidelines are forthcoming, or they don’t pass the test in the long run, then some other words from C.S. Lewis often help me:
‘Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him…There is indeed one exception. If you do him a good turn, not to please God and obey the law of charity, but to show him what a fine forgiving chap you are, and to put him in your debt, and then sit down to wait for his “gratitude”, you will probably be very disappointed.’
Mere Christianity (1982), p. 114, Fount Paperbacks.
In other words, just do it. We must put away the excuses and the sense of awkwardness that often prevent us from fulfilling the ‘law of charity’ and just act lovingly, quite literally for the love of God. If this is our motive, we cannot go wrong, and He will give us the grace to keep going forward. Furthermore, we must never forget that ‘if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself’’ (2 Timothy 2:13). In these words are a great deal of comfort.