SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
After saying we ought to love one another — in other words, love of neighbor — he says that:
… if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:12b)
So this is interesting. John says that God’s love is perfected in us in a special way, through the love of our neighbor. Now, why would he say that? There’s a passage in St. Catherine of Siena.
This is a copy of her book The Dialogue
. It’s a classic work of mysticism. Catherine is writing in the late 14th century, so she’s a medieval mystic, Dominican nun. And she, in her Dialogue
, it’s basically the recording of a long conversation (a long dialogue) between her and Christ. So the risen Christ comes to Catherine, and He speaks to her, and then she responds. And they have this long dialogue about the spiritual life, about the interior life of the soul.
And there’s one paragraph in Dialogue
64, where Jesus explains to St. Catherine why love of neighbor is the perfection of charity. Because some of us might think, “No, no, no, no, no. I need to love God first. That’s the most important thing. And then if I get around to it, I’ll love my neighbor. Or if they don’t annoy me too much, I’ll love my neighbor. As long as I love God, I’m fine.”
Well, not quite. Listen to what Jesus says to Catherine in the Dialogue
[Jesus says to Catherine:] “I ask you to love me with the same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I loved you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously.
So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you. This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me—that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me. [cf. Matt 25:40]…
And of course, that’s an allusion to the parable of the sheep and the goat. What you’ve done to the least one of these, you’ve done to me. So press pause here for a second with a quote from Catherine.
What is Jesus saying to Catherine of Siena? What He’s saying is, the most perfect form of love is not the kind of love that flows out of duty, where you owe someone love. The most perfect form of love is gratuitous love, where you love someone who doesn’t deserve it. And what Jesus says is, we can’t love Him in the way He loves us, because He loves us gratuitously, but our love for God can only ever be out of duty. It can only ever be something we owe, because He’s given us everything, and we owe Him everything.
So in order for love to actually be perfected in us, in order for us to love the way God loves, we have to have an object of our love who is completely undeserving of that love. Whereas God deserves our love and infinitely more, we need to have an object of love that is undeserving. And so, Jesus says, “That’s why I gave you your neighbors. That’s why I gave you your family. That’s why I gave you the people you work with. That’s why I gave you the people under whose political power you may live” — your governor, your mayor, your president, whatever it might be. The human world that surrounds us is the opportunity for the perfection of charity in us, because if it was only us and God, we could only ever love Him with the love that He deserves. But for us to love someone who doesn’t deserve it, we have
to have a neighbor.
And that’s why Jesus says He gives us our neighbors around us to do for them what we cannot do for Him. And that’s why Matthew 25 (in the parable of the sheep and the goats), Jesus says at the evening of life, we’ll be judged by our love. Well, actually, St. John of the Cross says that, but that’s the upshot of the parable. How are the sheep and the goat judged? The only criteria given in there is whether they loved their neighbor or not:
I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. (Matthew 25:36)
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40)
Love of neighbor enables us to love God gratuitously through
those we serve, whether it’s our spouses, our children, our religious community, our parish (if you’re a priest), our diocese (if you’re a bishop), and the world. This is why holiness is possible no matter what your state in life. It’s why you don’t have to live in a consecrated celibate state or consecrated religious state in order to be holy, to achieve the perfection of charity, because every one of us has a neighbor that we can love with the love that Christ loved us.
So Jesus is revealing a profound mystery to Catherine of Siena here. And it’s a very challenging one, because it helps us to realize that all those neighbors we so easily consider annoyances or obstacles to us, are in fact precisely the opportunities that God gives us to grow in love and have love perfected in us through charity.
Now...pretty inspiring, pretty challenging, beautiful stuff — St. Catherine of Siena. Wow. Now Jesus doesn’t stop there. He never does. He also goes on to kind of drive home the point, so one last thing. He continues to Catherine; He says:
Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you. From these and from many other things you should be able to tell if your love for me and for your neighbors is still imperfect…”
So in other words, what Jesus is saying to Catherine is, if you love your neighbor expecting something in return or if you’re distressed when they don’t love you as much as you think you deserve or as much as you wish they loved you, you’re still not loving perfectly. Because as Paul says:
But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
So God loves the world, Paul says, as Christ loves us when we didn’t
love Him, when we hated Him, when our lives were opposed to Him. So in order for us to have love perfected in us like Christ’s love is perfect, we have to love those who don’t
love us in return. And that’s why, in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says to his disciples:
You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
The preceding verses give one command, and that command is:
...Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you… (Matthew 5:44)
That’s the perfection Jesus is calling us to. It’s one thing to love those who love you — that’s good. To love those who hate you, that’s perfect, and that’s the perfection of charity that St. John is talking about in his first letter.
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