Step 4: Love for our Neighbor
“If you wish to know how much a person loves his God, see how much he loves his neighbor.” – St. Catherine of Genoa
Wow! Bold statement. Does that mean someone can know how genuine my love for God is by simply observing my interactions with those around me? Do you realize the weight of this comment?! It implies a level of transparency! an exposition of the heart. Surely this cannot be true.
Truth is….”It is impossible to love the Lord our God without at the same time loving our neighbor.” Do you believe this? If we recall the previous post we will see that our true happiness lies in entering into the fullness of Love, who is God. John the Beloved , as he reflected on the delight of being in the presence of Jesus, recalls these words: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you!” John 15:12.
We cannot for a second forget that love is a virtue and as a virtue it requires we embrace it entirely if we want to perfect it; both love of God and love of neighbor. But, what exactly is virtue? We can see it as habitually choosing to do the good; a moral inclination of the heart, if daily conditioned can become a life of genuine Charity. Grace will inevitably follow us all along the way and will ultimately be what adorns our virtuous efforts with a fragrant delight. It is up to us to let it become our companion.
As we begin to build up the virtue of charity we quickly realize its difficulty. Simultaneously, we realize its possibility. First, as might seem reasonable and obvious, we seek those closes to us; family. Those who will make our initial efforts comforting. God places them in our life because He in his Omniscience sees the benefit of allowing us to initiate our practice of virtue using the love of storge. They are our bread and butter, our cherry on top. Then come friends, the ones who tickle our joy from time to time and enter steadily into our loving heart. We come to share special moments with them and become fond of our new-found philia love. We must not forget, nonetheless, that the love we share is the love we’ve been given. God supplies it and in His goodness allows us to lay hold of it for our personal distribution.
Now, what of those whom find their way into our life? Those who God places in our lives involuntarily? Coworkers, roommates, peers, in-laws, strangers, _______, fill in the blank. Those who we do not naturally gravitate towards and yet God draws them toward us. “if you are desirous of practicing the beautiful virtue of charity, strive in the first place to reject every rash judgment, every distrust, and unfounded suspicion of your neighbor.”(St. Alphonsus Ligouri) Suddenly, virtue is no longer a pleasant undertaking.
If that seems unpleasant though, then the next step might seem undesirable. What was before a smooth incline in virtue has become a steep battle. Now placed before us are those we dislike, look down upon, hate, and desire to avoid at all cost. These are the people who incite strong emotions in us and along with those often lie words, thoughts, or deeds that are beneath our dignity as sons and daughters of the Father. Almost consciously, we begin to consider a justification for our new and lesser love. “Can I possibly give of myself to this person who I am in no way inclined to?” “the love that is directed to the spiritual welfare of your neighbor is doubtless the best love . . . in the eyes of God, says St. Bernard, a soul is worth more than the whole world.” (St. Alphonsus)
In our fallen nature lies a finite capacity to love, yet, it is precisely this finite reality that the Infinite God longs to enter. He desires to abide in us and most importantly He desires to Love through us. He never asked us to rely on our own efforts! All he asked was permission to use our hearts as channels of HIS Love! We eventually reach a point when we exhaust our love and turn our gaze toward Christ. He takes advantage of our gesture to intoxicate us with his love thus giving birth to a pure and undivided heart. Grace of this nature turns our bias, judgment, hate, fear, and resistance into an irrelevant and dissipating passion of the heart. Our experience of Christ’s Agape; unchanging perfection of Love, transforms all our encounters into a true virtuous achievement.
Returning to the continued mission of our soul, we recall our purpose in striving for the perfection of Charity and all other virtues as the salvation of souls and the glory of God. In vain would we love our neighbor if it were not done with the sole purpose of drawing him nearer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
“If you truly love God, you will do all in your power to make others love Him. . . If you truly love yourself, you will make every possible effort to win souls to God, for he who converts a sinner saves not only the sinner, but himself.” (St. Augustine).