How do we move along the spiritual journey to the experience of the Father’s loving presence? The answer comes through Our Lord’s teaching in the gospels. He tells us that “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” The way to perfect union with God is the way of love, perfect love.
Common sense tells us that the precondition for experiencing the lovableness of others is the presence of love in our own hearts. Insofar as love is in our hearts we are able to experience, we might say touch, taste, hear, see love in others.
We can be surrounded by love, but if love is not in our hearts we remain blind, deaf and insensitive to its presence in others. Only love in our hearts awakens us to the lovableness around us. And only perfect love can awaken us to the perfect love of God.
God is love: perfect, eternal, infinite, pure love. The face to face encounter with God, then, involves the experience of perfect love. The primary internal change that Christ must effect in us, therefore, is that which makes us capable of experiencing pure love.
In my evangelizing travel from parish to parish I often have the following experience. I arrive in a new parish and meet one of the parishioners. I ask him or her to tell me about the parish. The answer can be, “This parish is the pits, Father. We have no one here but gossips. The people are critical of everyone. Most are power hungry types who try to run everything. Father, you will find little of the loving and lovable in this community.”
Asking the same question of another parishioner I can receive an entirely different answer. This person says to me:
Father, we have wonderful people in this parish. Of course we have our headaches and problems. You cannot get a group of persons together any place without problems. Notwithstanding, we have wonderful people here. You cannot believe the loving service that comes out of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and the Legion of Mary. Down the block we have this mother of three who is struggling with cancer. Her joy and strength are an inspiration to all of us. Old Joe here is in church daily for hours, praying for the rest of us. Father, I could go on all day boring you with examples of loving persons who inspire us all. Father, there are a lot of loving and lovable people in our parish.
These individuals are telling me about the same group of persons and offering entirely different accounts. Each thinks that he is telling me about the parish community. Each is, of course, telling me about himself. The first person, without realizing it, is telling me that he is a self-centered, unloving person who can see no good in others unless they fit into the narrow world of his preoccupation with self. The second person, unknowingly, is revealing to me that there is a great, generous love in his heart for others. Because of this love he is able to recognize and celebrate the love he experiences in those around him.
To repeat, it is the love in our hearts that allows us to recognize and experience, that is to hear, see, smell, touch, feel and celebrate the love we meet with in others. Absent such love in our hearts we can be surrounded by wonderful, loving and lovable persons but we will remain deaf, blind, and insensitive to the presence of their love. This is true of the love we meet with in this world. It is equally true of the experience of the presence of God’s love.
Let me describe another experience I come across. I enter a parish community where everyone points out to me a person I will call Mary. They tell me:
Father, Mary is the most wonderful person. She is everyone’s mother. Your problems are her problems. Your joys are her joys. She is an inspiration to all of us. Sam, her husband, is the luckiest person in the world to have such a loving and lovable wife.
Then Sam comes to me to talk over a problem he has to endure:
Father, my great cross in life is my wife, Mary. She is a miserable housekeeper. She cannot cook. She cannot even boil water. Every time she takes the car out, I know that it will come back with a dent somewhere on it. I sit there waiting for my dinner while she is off visiting someone in the hospital or someone sick at home. This is my heavy burden, Father
Poor Sam! Everyone can see the goodness of Mary except him. Sam thinks that he is telling me about his wife. In fact he is telling me about himself. He is revealing to me that there is little love in his heart and so he remains blind and insensitive to the lovableness of his wife which everyone else in the parish sees and celebrates.
Unless Sam becomes a more loving person himself, he will never recognize what others see in Mary. If he cannot recognize and respond to the lovableness of Mary whom he can see, hear and touch, how can he recognize and respond to the invisible presence of divine love. Jesus puts it simply, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” If we do not respond to the love we see around us, how can we respond to the love of God that we cannot see?
Recently I offered Mass for a group of elementary Catholic students on the feast of All Saints. The grades ran from the first to the eighth. I began my homily by asking, “How many of you want to become saints?” Three or four hands went up, slowly, and tentatively from the first and second graders. The students from the third grade on up raised not a single hand.
I then asked, “How many of you want to get to heaven?” Immediately every hand in the group was raised with no hesitation whatsoever. Some, in their eagerness to get into heaven, even raised two hands.
I told them, “We have a problem here. To my knowledge, the only way you can get into heaven is by becoming saints. The only ‘ticket to heaven’ is holiness. Should you all get to heaven, and I pray that all of you will, the only persons you will find there will be saints. If you really want to get into heaven and spend your eternity with those you love, your parents, family and friends, you will have to think seriously about becoming saints.”
When persons hesitate to think about becoming saints, it is usually because of a flawed notion of holiness. Many identify holiness with bizarre phenomena, extraordinary mortification, strange mystical experiences, revelations, apparitions, performing miracles, out of the body experiences, prophecy and other equally unusual phenomena.
Holiness essentially has little to do with these extraordinary kinds of things. We come across nothing of this in the life of the Little Flower. What made her a great saint was that she did the ordinary, everyday things of life with an extraordinary love.
We do not read of Mary performing miracles, although at Cana she occasioned one. Apart from two significant dreams, we read nothing about these strange happenings in the life of Saint Joseph. We know that he was a good husband and father. We can assume that he was a good carpenter. No one in the little village of Nazareth suspected anything unusual about the Holy Family.
After observing Jesus closely for thirty years in a small village, no persons were more surprised than the villagers when Jesus began his public ministry. They said, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary.”
Jesus tells us that holiness has to do with one essential reality, love. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as your self. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
Let us quote again Jesus’ description of the way to salvation “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” This is his Father’s plan for us. If we are not seriously striving to become saints it means that we are saying, “No” to God’s plan.
Holiness means love then, and love is the only way to the face to face union with God. The journey of salvation is primarily an internal journey of transformation of the heart, from imperfect to perfect love. Only through Christ can such a transformation be effected. What is the single, most critical change that Christ must effect in us? Christ comes to take possession of our hearts. He comes to change our heart of stone into one filled with his love.
Dying on the cross Jesus teaches us a supremely important lesson about love. We see in him hanging there, a broken, helpless, ineffective human, stripped of everything. He is abandoned by his friends, betrayed by one closest to him, taunted by his enemies, physically immobilized, the symbol of utter impotence. His opponents have successfully taken everything from him except one last possession, the inner freedom to chose how he will react to his tragic plight.
With his last breath he exercises that inner freedom by raising his eyes to heaven and praying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” He exercised the most perfect act of love that will ever come from a human being. His act of love contained in it the fullness of divine love. His act of love gave birth to divine love in our world in a radically new way.
With that inner exercise of love Jesus overcame the hatred of his enemies, brought victory out of defeat and conquered the world of human sinfulness. His victory opened the door to heaven! The face to face loving union with God, lies open before us!
Jesus on the cross teaches us that it requires nothing to love but a great, generous heart. The essence of holiness is love. You can not plead, therefore, that you are unable to aspire to holiness because you are too poor, too old, too young, physically handicapped, uneducated, illiterate, lacking in social status or influence, untalented, a nobody, alone, emotionally distressed, bereft of artistic ability, ugly, unlovable, a victim of stuttering, afflicted by nervous habits, sick, terminally ill, or frail in other ways.
None of those things have anything to do with your capacity to love. Among the greatest saints you will find persons suffering from all those and other human limitations.
Nor can you plead that you would like to be a more loving person, but others will not allow it. No human has such control over your inner freedom. The only person that has this control and can keep you from growing in love is yourself. If you are not growing in love there is only one explanation. You, yourself, choose not to love. This is the lesson we receive from Jesus on the cross.
If you were to say to me, “Father, this discussion is all well and good but, I find the word ‘love’ too abstract to understand. What in the concrete is expected of me if I am to become a more loving person? Please provide me with a more detailed map. Help me along this journey of salvation, this transformation of heart that will bring me more and more alive to God’s presence.” I could find no better source of such an outline than Saint Paul.
Saint Paul tells us all about the anatomy of holiness when he writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
In these words Saint Paul says it all. He offers us a perfect map to guide us on our journey. Love, is the way, and the only way to the end of the journey of salvation. It is the way to the face to face encounter with the God, who has been with us from the beginning.