This column appeared in the January 9, 2015, edition of The Boston Pilot.
In the consummating days of Christmastide, when the focal point of the season, the epiphany of divine love, is fully unveiled, we are liturgically brought into the divine atmosphere of the “ardent unlimitedness,” by means of the appearance in the flesh of the eternal Word of the Father. One thing is revealed, one thing effected: love. True love. Eternal love. Love leaping down from the heavens.
The Johannine readings tell us: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent His only-begotten Son into the world so that we might have life through Him. In this is love; not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as expiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:7-10)
Self-abasing love. Asymmetrical love. Reckless, heedless, sacrificial love. Love that reconciles. Love that begins everything new.
What enables you to sustain the rigors of life? Mark Helprin has a perfect phrase in Refiner’s Fire for the milieu that enables one to fight, in good humor, though ceaselessly pummeled, with fortitude beyond fortitude, crushed, yet rising. He speaks of the “ardent unlimitedness.” He says it of America, but surely what we sing of in America is precisely what foretaste there is in this polity of the New Jerusalem: openhearted, openhanded, open for personal exertion, open for the ever-greater impulse.
But the polity depends on the quality of the friendships that constitute it. That is, every city is determined by the loves driving each citizen’s heart. Solidarity is rooted in true love; true love gives birth to solidarity. The great mistake of most forms of romanticism is to privatize true love. (It is Dante who opens the way to a true romanticism.) The great mistake of most political activism is to forget the necessary rigors of true love.
One of Bob Dylan’s best songs, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” magnificently melds personal and political: “In the dime stores and bus stations/People talk of situations/Read books, repeat quotations/Draw conclusions on the wall./Some speak of the future/My love, she speaks softly/She knows there’s no success like failure/And that failure’s no success at all.”
How ardent are you and I? How open to Deus semper maior? To the city He wants to build of our loves?
We can get a sense by examining how we relate to whichever neighbor the Father places in our way. How do we treat our friends, our relatives, our children, our co-workers, our enemies? We have Pope Francis’s magnificent diagnosis of spiritual ills in his address to the Curia. Do we indulge in the “terrorism of gossip”? Go around with mournful face? Are we stonehearted? Acquisitive? Filled with an obsessive need to control? These deformations of the soul destroy communion.
What does health look like? True love. True intimacy. True openness and conversation of hearts.
Pope Francis has emphasized the intimacy of the divine touch, speaking of the “science of embrace,” which Jesus the Good Shepherd, with His Heart open for us, enacts. This “science” displays the “two pillars of love”: closeness and tenderness. “The shepherd is close to His flock, to His sheep that He knows one by one. …[And] the Lord loves us tenderly. The Lord knows the beautiful science of caresses, God’s tenderness. He does not love us with words. He approaches us, and in being close to us gives us His love with tenderness.”
Love towers over space and time, is not defeated by distance or death, and yet it yearns always for contact, for closeness and tenderness. This is the truth of the flesh. This is the true desire of all flesh: the caress that expresses true love; the epiphany of invisible love.
This goes for all true loves, all intimacies and friendships. One of my favorite breviary readings is from the Feast of Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzen (January 2nd), for here we have one of the great friendships, the kind of true love that allows the New Jerusalem to take shape. Gregory was attracted by Basil’s wisdom and virtue and sought to persuade others to regard him as he did:
Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.
True love. There is no life without it. Every true love we are blessed with causes us to be more alive, more trustful of the Father’s goodness, a trust born of gratitude. Love makes us open, expansive. When we trust in another person and in the God the Giver of love, we are free to run the risk of bounding into the future, on unknown ways and into unknown lands. We know that there is a good God working His way, somehow, in this mess of history, this mess of everyday life, a God Who grants us love when we were not expecting anything new.
And given someone to love and who loves in return, we know we have a companion who will supply for our faults, who will think better of us than we think of ourselves, who will see us as the Father sees us. Spurring each other on to excellence, lovers are on the royal road to holiness.
To become the saint the Father dreamed each of us to be before He kindled the first star into flame requires one thing above all: love—preceding us, enfolding us, inflaming us. Love gives birth to holiness; it gives birth to the communion of saints, the City, the Kingdom in which the Father’s wise and loving will is our will.
With the epiphany of true love, no trial will crush you, as your heart’s blood is forged into the City of Justice. In the ardent unlimitedness that now enfolds us, we can finally say with Samuel Beckett’s protagonist in The Unnamable: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”