Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself. We repeat these words of scripture at the start of every Divine Worship Mass. It is the central message of the Gospel passage this morning. But what is love?
That needs answering because the word ‘love’ is sorely misunderstood within modern culture; from where it is, so often, presented to us as a sentimental feeling quite devoid of other virtues. Love is held to be ‘easily arrived at’ not ‘worked for at cost’ Love has been unmoored from old fashioned concepts that used to be associated with it, like sacrifice, self denial or self control. “All you need is love” sang the Beatles- as if loving is easy and our problems are solved by it in a heartbeat. What rot! To love sincerely is far from easy and requires all sorts of other virtues, like justice and hunger for truth. Which is why we sinners struggle to love, yes even a little.
Let us unpack in more detail the problem with love is presented as sugary feeling. First: feelings are horribly unreliable guides in life. This is one of the major problems for our age which has placed sentiment above reason. Feelings are not necessarily on our side. They can even lead us to imagine grave evil is good! Just ask the person embroiled in adultery who feels as if betrayal of their spouse and child is justified because, well, romantic feelings tell them so. Because the new love is thrilling and interesting whilst the old love is demanding and dull.
Second feelings are not fixed and therefore untrustworthy. Feelings are fluid being dependent on things like mood; hormones, the weather, our health can all alter how we feel in any given moment. Just ask the depressed parent who, in time of darkness, feels no love for child or spouse but who, six months later, when fully recovered, is horrified by the memory because love was real only horribly obscured by mental illness.
Third: human nature is notoriously fickle making us feel, quite illogically, more love for some than others. If I meet a man in Tunbridge Wells rugby club tie I would be more friendly, on the whole, than if he wore an Ipswich town football shirt. My feelings about sport impacts on how I subconsciously judge people. If I gave you a second hand jumper, you might thank me. But, be honest, would you wear it if I then revealed it had belonged to Fred West when he killed his poor victims. Your feelings would probably lead you to ditch the clothing, even though it is, ultimately, just a jumper.
So love as sentiment is a rotten guide. We cannot live detached from reason. Clearly when Jesus commanded us to love God and neighbour he was not asking for sentimental mush. Which is my beef, incidentally, with so many ghastly Christian choruses- most are sentimental rubbish that sound as if they were written by Barry Manilow! A better guide to sincere worship of God is St. Paul who, when writing about love, was careful to present it alongside other corresponding virtues- faith and hope. Paul was saying love requires other virtues to be true. That we cannot ultimately love, of our own volition, without possession of wider virtues. If you doubt that open your eyes to a world full of broken families, broken promises and broken people. Consider a church broken because so many who have spoken of love and mercy sentimentally ignored the other virtues like justice, chastity, humility, obedience, etc..
So St. Paul explains that love is something to be worked at over a lifetime not arrived at easily. A point G. K. Chesterton drove home when he said the happiest men are not those who married the women they love but those who learnt how to love the women they married. It works the other way round ladies! Who pushing beyond sentimental feelings accepted the graft of true and dutiful caring. Seen here love is an unsexy nursing of a spouse with dementia, or an unromantic forgiving of the person who hurt you, or the offering of kindness to a spouse you would rather, if given over to your feelings, bury under the patio!
We begin to see love is neither fuzzy nor sexy nor in anyway linked to what MTV sings about interminably. Love is a project of hard work that takes a lifetime to achieve and which is perfected, so often, via friendship with God. For God is the source of love. Without him, and most of us live the majority of our life without him, we struggle to love. Our efforts are enfeebled. Which is why I prefer the Mills bros to the beatles; they sang you always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at all. Whatever love is – it does not come naturally to us. We are too prone to selfishness. We are too prone to error. Making love a gamble requiring forgiveness on both sides. And it really does require heroic effort, lots of prayer and the mastering of unreliable feelings, of fallen tendencies, of sin.
Which isn’t to say the ungodly cannot find love. Anyone can virtuously work at relationships and be rewarded by God. It is to say love is hard because so many things in this fallen world will test it to breaking point; rebellious children, demanding parents, unhappy spouses, unreasonable bosses; yes, consider reality not fantasy, you soon see that sentimental love won’t cut it. The real thing requires selflessness. But let us not end on a miserable or pessimistic note. For, despite all this, love is still possible. We can find it if we know where to look.
Where do we find true love? We find it in the lives of saints who, having achieved sanctification, shone amidst the darkness. Who loved in a world obsessed by love but in which there isn’t really much love to be found. Do you want to love? Do you wish to be loved? Turn to God, become a Saint. Then, I promise, love will flow into your heart as never before, to the point it overflows from you to the people around you. In the end we can, none of us, give to others what we do not have our selves. And unless we have love to give- we will struggle in life. Come fill up your hearts at this altar each day.