18 August 2016

On Loving God With Our Whole Heart and Mind and Soul. . .(Reprise)

I have to say that whenever I hear Jesus' statement of the Great commandment --- as we hear it in last Friday's Mass, I feel a little stunned and my heart jumps into my throat. That is my immediate reaction.  I hear Jesus say to me, [[ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,]] and I am completely befuddled or confounded. Oh, of course I want to be able to say I do this but at the same time I know that I am completely unable to do so. More, I often am stopped by a sense that I don't even know what is being asked of me in this. after all, I am not being asked just to love passionately or "the best I can". More, it asks that I love God in this way. GOD! This commandment goes beyond anything I can even imagine. I wonder how many of us experience something similar when we hear this text proclaimed in Church or read it in private. Either this commandment is merely a constant goad to guilt and shame and has been given to us solely to remind us of what we can never accomplish, or it is truly a gift which points us to something almost unimaginable in its wonder.

Fortunately, over time, I have come to know that this commandment is indeed a remarkable gift; like so many things in the New Testament it is a paradox and the key to understanding what it means (at least the things that have helped me to understand it) are also paradoxes. The first key to understanding  what it means and calls for, I think, is the nature of prayer. It is entirely natural to think and speak of prayer as something we do, an activity we undertake. But more fundamentally, prayer is what happens when God is at work in us; it IS God's work in us. Our part in this is to allow God the space and time to do his work in us, to love us in whatever way he desires.  We are most truly "pray-ers" when we allow God to pray in us.

 The second, and related key to understanding it, I think, is Paul's observation in Galatians 2:20, [["I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.]]  Just as we are most truly ourselves, most truly human, when it is Christ who lives and acts in us, so too do we "keep this command" when we have become people whose entire hearts, minds, souls, and strength are open to, come from, and mediate the God who is Love-in-act. This commandment is, most fundamentally, not about something we do ourselves --- and certainly not something we do ourselves alone, but rather the persons we are in and with the power of God. It is a commandment that we allow God to truly be God for us and through us in an exhaustive way, that we let him gift us with his presence and make us into truly human beings.

Remember that the first part of this quote is Paul's explanation in Gal 2:19: [[For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for (or to) God.]] In other words, the Law taught Paul about his own inadequacies so that he might allow the Grace (that is, the powerful and active presence) of God  to be the source of his life. Like Paul we live for and to God (and that means loving God) when we allow ourselves to be opened to God's presence, power, and action in our lives. After all it is God who is Love-in-act. As we think about this commandment during Lent we are apt to hear a commandment to change in our lives. We are called on to allow God to dispose us in ways which open us to God's love, to make us into people whose hearts, minds, spirits, and all of our strength are given over to God's own life and purposes.

The final key, then, has to do with our understanding of what it means to be human. As I have written here before: [[We sometimes think our humanity is a given, an accomplished fact rather than a task and call to be accomplished. We also may think that it is possible to be truly human in solitary splendor. But our humanity is our essential vocation and it is something we only achieve in relation to God, his call, his mercy and love, his companionship --- and his people!]] Scripture calls human beings Temples of the Holy Spirit and speaks of God as "dwelling in our hearts." Theologians note that heart is actually a theological term defining where God bears witness to Godself. The bottom line here, as with all the other paradoxical expressions of this truth is that we are truly ourselves only to the extent we live life within, with, and from the power and life of God.

The Great commandment is exhaustive in what it asks from us. It requires nothing less than the whole of ourselves. There are many ways to trivialize it: we can suggest it involves a bit of Semitic exaggeration (like Jesus' comments about hating our Father and Mother); we can argue that our feelings of inadequacy make us hear it as more emphatic than it really is so we just need to work through these personal issues of ours. We might read this commandment as simply asking us to do our best and nothing more. We might even collapse this commandment into the second one given in Friday's Gospel, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," and read these as a single commandment requiring only that we love others to fulfill it. While the two commandments are inextricably intertwined however, and while love of God inevitably includes love of neighbor, these two commandments are not one. Still, if we allow the first commandment to truly be as exhaustive as it sounds, it will function just as Law is supposed to do. Eventually it will lead us to call out to God to assist us in our complete inability to keep it ourselves --- and that, as Paul well knew and taught throughout his letters, is truly the first gift of a grace that saves.