The soul must learn to abandon purposeful activity ...
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As a young college student, I remember learning the branches of theology. I discovered soteriology (salvation), eschatology (the end times and our final destiny), ecclesiology (the Church), pneumatology (Holy Spirit), etc. As the concept of love kept surfacing again and again, I wondered whether its study had a particular name. In time the answer became obvious. The study of God and the study of love are one and the same, because God is love! History is the story of the unfolding of this love – from the creation of the world to its recreation. As Von Balthasar taught the world, “A theologian is a man on his knees” – not a man immersed in his books. He is a man in love with Love!
And love, when it is most fully itself, is extravagant.
And love, when it is most fully itself, is extravagant. Real love is not calculating limits and carefully measured – like high school seniors on a Friday afternoon counting down the minutes until the dismissal bell. It does not seek the least amount of work necessary to fulfill an obligation (how late can I arrive to Mass and still have it “count” or what is the minimum effort I can put forth to pass this class?) A utilitarian mentality – that I want to get the most pleasure from you without cost for me, without responsibility or sacrifice – is not love at all. The love that promises to be faithful in good times and in bad but really only perdures through the good times is not love at all.
Rather authentic love yearns to pour itself out in ways that defy reason, striving for the heights, giving all to the beloved, and more than all if possible. It scales a limitless horizon, seeking the most “useless” and impractical forms of expression. The pop song captures it well: “You know that I’d walk a thousand miles if I could just see you tonight…” There is the sense of “falling in love” in which lovers seem transported to another world, caught under a spell, captivated by a force beyond them. Yet real love is not always chocolates and roses – it involves effort and fidelity. A mother rising in the night, though completely exhausted, to nurse and rock her baby back to sleep. An elderly husband making the trip daily to visit his wife who no longer remembers his name. A young bride committing herself to caring for her newly paralyzed husband. This is the stuff of which love – worthy of the name – is made.
It calls to mind O. Henry’s famous short story The Gift of the Magi – about the young couple, Jim and Della, who were poor but ever so in love. Each had just one possession. Jim’s gold watch from his father was his pride and joy. And Della’s hair was her prize and glory. On Christmas Eve, the madness of love drew Della to get her hair cut so she would have the money to purchase a chain for his precious watch. Speechless when she returned home, and finding her lovelier than ever, Jim had spent his last pennies on jeweled tortoise-combs for her hair. All that remained for either lover was their love.
The familiar parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel could also in a sense be called the “Prodigal Father” because the Father’s mercy knows no limit – even if unreciprocated. After the ultimate “dis” his son gave him by requesting his inheritance early – akin to saying “I wish you were dead” – he shows no malice toward his offspring but goes out looking daily for his return home. Dad’s light was always on, the door always open, the table always set for the one he loved immensely who had gone away. The same reckless love can be seen in the shepherd going out looking for the one sheep that was lost, leaving 99 others on their own; or the woman who tears up her whole house searching for one minuscule coin. Many would call these behaviors madness, but such is the love of the Father for every person He created. None of his children is unimportant to him, no matter what they have done.
Oftentimes our human response to God’s love seems pretty pathetic. The amount and quality of undivided attention we give Him is rather meager, to put it lightly – like offering our best friend the cheapest thing we could find on the clearance rack. But once in a while our human response catches up with the grandeur of God’s pursuit. The human heart cries out in Psalm 116: “How can I make a return to the Lord for His goodness to me?” We see in the Gospels Mary of Bethany’s “return to the Lord” as she anoints Jesus with what is described as a pound of precious spikenard ointment that would have cost 300 days’ wages. She shatters the jar before him – no possibility of saving it or any of its contents for later. She is spending all. Risking the indignation of guests and defying common custom, she honors the Master and actually anoints Him as Messiah.
The greatest romantics, the finest lovers in all of history are the saints. And there is a place in their number for you.
The greatest romantics, the finest lovers in all of history are the saints. And there is a place in their number for you. None but the saints know how deeply they are loved at every moment, and no one else has dared return this love with their whole life. Faith was not compartmentalized for them in a neat little package for certain days and times of the week. It was their everything. While human love often idolizes the beloved, the saints found a beloved actually worthy of worship: God.
It was love of God that drove St. Frances Xavier Cabrini to make hundreds of journeys across the ocean while being seasick, that led St. Damien to bring the sacraments and hope to the lepers of Molokai and later die as one, and that compelled St. John Vianney to spend 12 to 15 hours a day bringing mercy to penitents in the confessional. Love made St. Elizabeth of the Trinity’s cell not a prison but a little Heaven, for when the noise and busyness of the world are aside one can at last commune with her Maker. Blessed Chiara Badano was compelled to bear her cancer with a smile, knowing if God willed it, He would be with her through it.
The saints were not immune to the ardor and necessity of work – St. John Paul II had to quit college to labor in the quarries to support himself, St. Maria Goretti cooked and cleaned for her fatherless family as a young girl, and St. Isidore knew intimately the field of agriculture (pun intended). But in whatever task – small or great, homely or heroic – God could be found.
And the saints also know that the highest of human activities are those done not to earn money or gain admiration or fame. The time spent for friends in one another’s company is among the least “useful” of activities, yet one of the most beautiful. Romano Guardini in The Spirit of the Liturgy, says:
The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with sayings and thoughts and gestures.
Medieval peasants who sacrificed money and risked their lives on the new invention of scaffolding to build the majestic cathedrals that would beautifully house the Real Presence of God for centuries to come – most of whom would never live to see their completion. A busy man on his way home from work pausing for a brief visit to the tabernacle in the church he passes by. A faithful woman spending hours designing, cutting, and sewing an inner veil for the tabernacle – that after its dedication would be seen really only by Jesus. Religious Sisters arranging flowers by a statue of Our Lady, practicing chants for chapel so as to glorify God through song, ironing altar linens and polishing candlesticks so that the Lord receives the best. A contemplative nun spending hours in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. And Jesus can look down and say to each of these, not, “She has done a useful thing for me” but a “beautiful thing.” These are the deeds that don’t pass away in a misty instant but carry us out of this life, into the next.
If you dare to give all to God, you are bound to be ridiculed, labeled as “wasting your time” or “throwing your life away” in something completely illogical and unhelpful to society. In fact, Jesus Himself, given the claims He made about His identity, was accused of insanity, but C.S. Lewis gives us three options of response: “You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.” G.K. Chesterton boldly defended the spiritual life and the mystery that comprises it: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason…Mysticism keeps men sane.”
In reality, the world goes round because of the love of – the beautiful things done by – the saints. British mystic Evelyn Underhill writes:
The action of those whose lives are given to the Spirit has in it something of the leisure of Eternity; and because of this, they achieve far more than those whose lives are enslaved by the rush and hurry, the unceasing tick-tick of the world.
The whole life of the saint revolves around the “deep conviction that the Good, the Holy, is the Real, and the only thing that matters…” Such a life is “fed and supported by the steadfast contemplation of the Holy and the Real – which is also the Beautiful and the Sane – and expressed in deliberate willful movements toward it, a sturdy faithful refusal to look at that which distracts us from it.”
As with any fire, love needs kindling from time to time. This Easter season is the perfect time to “return to Galilee” – as Pope Francis said in an Easter homily in 2014. This return means
treasuring in my heart the living memory of that call, when Jesus passed my way, gazed at me with mercy, and asked me to follow him. To return there means reviving the memory of that moment when his eyes met mine, the moment when he made me realize that he loved me.
Let us fix our gaze on the Beautiful One and let this love saturate all of our lives. Let us pour out the oil of our love, giving our very best to Him, who paid the ultimate price for our souls. Let us return to the seashore of our own hearts during these remaining Easter days, letting Jesus lay before Peter and us again the question: “Do you love me?” And may our “yes” take on flesh through our more extravagant giving to Jesus.