“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.”—Matt. 22:37.
THE LOVE OF GOD
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.”—Matt. 22:37
Love of God is a divinely infused virtue which leads us to love the Lord Our God as the sovereign good, and purely for His own sake. The motive which prompts us to love God is His own boundless perfection, on account of which alone He deserves to be loved, even though we had no reward to hope for or no punishment to dread. He who loves God because he finds in Him his own happiness has an interested, a selfish love, which really belongs to the virtue of hope and not to love. But he who loves God because for His own sake He deserves to be loved, has the true and genuine love of friendship. The companions of King Louis of France met a woman one day who carried in one hand a burning torch and in the other a vessel of water. On being asked what these things signified, she replied: “With this torch I would gladly burn Heaven, and with this water extinguish the fire of Hell, in order that men might love God not because of the reward of Heaven or the punishment of Hell, but simply and solely because He deserves to be loved.”
The perfect love of God, however, does not exclude the hope of Heaven. We love God because He deserves to be loved, and we would love Him even though we had no reward to expect for doing so. But knowing as we do that He will give us a reward and that He even desires us to hope for it, we must confidently expect it and strive to attain it. To long for Heaven in order to possess God and love Him more perfectly is a true and perfect love of God, for eternal glory is the perfection of this love.
All perfection consists in the love of God; for love is the virtue which unites us most intimately with God. All the other virtues are of no account unless they are accompanied by love. On the other hand, love has all the other virtues in her train, according to the teaching of St. Paul: “Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up; is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (1 Cor. 13:4–7). “Love,” concludes the Apostle, “is the fulfillment of the law.” (Rom. 13:10). This induced St. Augustine to say: “Love and then do what you wish.” He who loves another is very careful to cause him no offense; on the contrary, he is eager to do what will afford him pleasure. In like manner, he who loves God above all things abhors an offense against Him more than death itself, and strives as much as in him lies to please God. The first and greatest commandment which the Lord has given us, bids us love Him with our whole heart. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart.” (Deut. 6:5). As God has loved us with an infinite love, He desires that we should love Him sincerely, and He longs to possess our whole heart: “Son, give me thy heart.” (Prov. 23:26). “What doth the Lord, thy God, require of thee, but that thou fear the Lord, thy God, and walk in his ways and love him, and serve the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart and with all thy soul.” (Deut. 10:12).
In the Old Law God commanded that fire be kept constantly burning on the altar. This altar, says St. Gregory, is a type of our heart in which the fire of divine love must ever burn. Therefore, to the command to love Him with the whole heart, God added this injunction: “And these words which I command thee this day shall be in thy heart; and thou shalt meditate upon them sitting in thy house, and walking on thy journey, sleeping and rising. And thou shalt bind them as a sign on thy hand, and they shall be and shall move between thy eyes. And thou shalt write them in the entry and on the doors of thy house” (Deut. 6:6–9), in order to be continually mindful of them and make thy life conformable to them. As a reward for this love, God promises to give us Himself: “I am thy protector and thy reward exceeding great.” (Gen. 15:1). The princes of this world reward their faithful subjects with possessions, honors and privileges. The Lord God gives them who love Him nothing less than Himself.
We should certainly be amply rewarded by the knowledge that God loves those who love Him, as He says in so many passages of Holy Writ: “I love them that love me.” (Prov. 8:17). “He that abideth in charity, abideth in God and God in him.” (1 John 4:16). “He that loveth me shall be loved by my Father; and I will love him.” (John 14:21). If we knew that in some distant country there lived a handsome, holy, learned and compassionate prince, we could not refrain from loving him even though he had done us no good whatever. But what are all the excellent qualities of such a prince compared to those of our God! God possesses every perfection in an infinite degree. He possesses everything that makes Him worthy of our love. Could He have offered a greater, better, nobler, richer or more amiable object for our love than Himself?
Who is of higher nobility than God? Illustrious people are proud of the fact that their nobility goes back five hundred or a thousand years; the nobility of God is from all eternity. Who is greater than God? He is the Lord of all. The angels of Heaven and the powerful on earth are to Him as a drop in the mighty ocean or as a miserable grain of dust. A single word from Him brought the world into being; a single word could consign everything to oblivion. Who is richer than God? He possesses the treasures of Heaven and earth. Who is more beautiful than God? The beauty of all creatures vanishes before the glory of God. Who is more beneficent than God? St. Augustine says that the efforts of God to bestow favors on us are greater even than our desire to receive them. Who is more merciful than God? As soon as a sinner, though it be the most abandoned wretch on earth, humbles himself before God and repents of his sins, God pardons him and receives him back. Who is more grateful than God? He never permits anything we do for love of Him to go unrewarded. In fine, who is more amiable and deserving of love than God? His very face fills the Saints of Heaven with a delight that constitutes their perfect happiness for all eternity. On the contrary, the greatest suffering of the reprobate consists in their knowing and seeing the lovable nature of God without being able to love Him.
We must therefore love God from our heart because He is worthy of all love. On account of the love God bears us, He is deserving of our sincerest gratitude. If we could unite the love of all men and angels and saints in one heart, this united love could not compare with the least degree of the love God bears each single soul. St. John Chrysostom says that God loves us more than we can love ourselves. “I have loved thee with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3), says God to each one of us. Those who loved us first on earth were our parents; but they began to love us only when they began to know us; God, on the contrary, loved us before we had an existence. Even before our parents lived, God loved us; yes, even before the creation of the world. In a word, He has loved us as long as He is God, and that is from all eternity. That heroic virgin St. Agnes was right when she said to those who sought to win her affections: “Another lover has come before you.” O world and creatures of the world, I cannot love you; for as God has loved me first it is no more than right that I should give and consecrate to Him my heart.
NATURE BIDS US LOVE GOD
Heaven and earth cry out, says St. Augustine, everything I see speaks to me and urges me to love Thee my Lord; all creatures tell me Thou hast created them for love of me. When the Abbot de Rance, founder of the Trappists, would gaze through the window of his cell and see the stars and the heaven, the birds and the flowers, and consider that God had created all these to show him His love, he felt his heart inflamed with love for God. The very sight of a flower enkindled love in the heart of St. Mary Magdalen; “The loving God,” she would exclaim, “has created this little flower to win my love.”
When St. Teresa looked at the trees or flowers or the meadows and brooks, she said they accused her of ingratitude and chided her with her little love for a Creator who had called all these things into being just to be loved by her. “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). Do you believe, O Christian soul, that Jesus Christ died for love of you? And if you believe this, can you love anything but Him? Before the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, says a celebrated author, man might doubt whether God loved him tenderly or not; but now that Jesus Christ has become man and died for us, such a doubt is impossible.
THE SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST A PROOF OF LOVE
How could Our Lord have better proved His love for us than by suffering so many pains and such contempt and by ending His life in bitter agony on the Cross? But alas, we have grown so accustomed to hear of the Incarnation and the Redemption, of a God born in a stable, a God that was scourged and crowned and crucified, that it makes but little impression on us. O holy faith, enlighten us that we may see what boundless love God has shown us in becoming man and dying on a cross. If Jesus Christ is not loved by mankind, it is because so few think of the love He has shown them; for would it be possible to think of this, and live without loving Him? St. Paul says: “The charity of Christ presseth us” (2 Cor. 5:14); that is to say, a soul that considers the love of Jesus for mankind is forced, as it were, to love in return.
When the Saints reflected on the Passion of our Blessed Redeemer they were so inflamed with love that they frequently gave vent to their astonishment and devotion. One day, in an ecstasy of devotion, St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi caught hold of an image of the Crucified and exclaimed: “O Jesus, Thou hast become foolish with love. I say it and I shall never grow weary repeating it, love has made Thee foolish, my Jesus.” If faith had not assured us of the truth of the great mystery of our Redemption, who could believe it possible that the Creator of the universe willed to suffer and die for His creatures. If Jesus had not died for us, who would ever have dared to ask God to become man and suffer and die to redeem mankind? Who would not have considered such a thought the height of folly? Indeed, when the heathens were told of the death of Jesus Christ they regarded it as a fable and called it an incredible folly, as St. Paul tells us: “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness.” (1 Cor. 1:23).
Yes, says St. Gregory, it seemed foolishness to them that the Author of life should die for men. How can we believe, they said, that a God who depends on no one and who in Himself is perfectly happy, should come down upon earth, assume human nature and die for His wretched creatures? That would be saying that for love of man God has become a fool. Yet it is a truth of our holy faith that for love of us poor ungrateful creatures, Jesus Christ, the true Son of God, gave Himself up to an ignominious death: “He hath loved us and delivered Himself for us.” And why has Jesus done all this? He has done it, says St. Augustine, in order that man might recognize the inexpressible love which God bears him. Our Divine Redeemer Himself expressed the same idea in these words: “I have come to cast fire on the earth and what will I but that it be kindled!” (Luke 12:49). The fire of divine love I will kindle on earth and I desire nothing else but that the hearts of men be consumed with these holy flames.
With wonder and astonishment St. Bernard contemplates Our Lord bound like a criminal by the wicked soldiers. “O my Jesus,” he exclaims, “how is it I see ropes and chains on Thy sacred body; art Thou not the King of Heaven and Holiness itself? It is we ungrateful servants who have deserved these ropes and chains.” What has reduced Thee to such a pitiable condition, appearing like a wretched criminal? Ah, it is love. Love seems to forget its dignity when it seeks to win love in return. God, therefore, whom no man can vanquish, has been vanquished by love. His love for us induced Him to become man and to lose His life in a very ocean of suffering and sorrow.
As St. Bernard contemplates our Divine Redeemer before Pilate, he addresses Him in the following words: “Tell me, my beloved Jesus, Thou who art Innocence itself, what hast Thou done to deserve so cruel a sentence of death? Ah, I see now the cause of Thy death; I know what crime Thou hast committed, my Jesus! It is Thy love for us; yes, it is not Pilate, but Thy love that pronounces the sentence of death, and delivers the fatal blow.” At the sight of a crucifix, St. Francis of Paul exclaimed: “O love, O love, O love!” And this is what we all must say at the sight of our crucified Lord: O love, O love, O love! Oh, that all men who look at the Cross of Christ would think of the love that God has borne each one of us! “With what love would we be inflamed,” says St. Francis de Sales, “did we but see the flames of love that burn in the heart of Christ! What a happiness for us did we glow with the fire that consumes our Lord and God! What joy, to be bound with the bonds of love for God!” As St. Bonaventure has said, the wounds of our Saviour must move the most unfeeling hearts and warm the coldest souls with love.
How many are the darts of love that issue from these sacred wounds and pierce the hardest hearts! “What is man,” says Job, “that thou shouldst magnify him? or why dost thou set thy heart upon him?” (Job 7:17). O my God, what is wretched man that Thou shouldst honor him so much? What good hast Thou ever received from him, that Thou shouldst be wholly intent, as it seems, upon bestowing benefits on him and showing him Thy love? St. Thomas says that the love which consumes the heart of God makes it appear as though in man He saw His God, and that He could not be happy unless man were happy too.
Truly, Christian soul, if you had been God could Jesus Christ have done more for you than He has done by His life of suffering and His ignominious death? And if there had been a question of our Redeemer saving the life of His own Eternal Father, could He have done more than He has done for you? But, O God, where is our gratitude? If an insignificant servant had suffered for us what our heavenly Spouse has endured, could we ever forget it? Could we live without loving him? In very truth, we ought to be fairly beside ourselves with love when reflecting on the death of Jesus Christ, and say with St. Paschal: “My Love is nailed to the Cross for me; my Love has died for me.”
But what we have neglected to do in the past we can at least try to do in the future, as God still gives us time. Jesus died for us, says St. Paul, in order that His love might win a perfect mastery over our hearts: “For to this end Christ died and rose again; that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” (Rom. 14:9). “And Christ died for all,” says the same Apostle, “that they also who live, may not now live to themselves, but unto him who died for them and rose again.” (2 Cor. 5:15). With this intention of the Divine Redeemer the Saints have corresponded most perfectly. When considering the love that induced their Lord to suffer and die for them, they deemed it but little, for love of Him, to offer Him all they had, yes, even their very lives.
How many potentates, kings, queens and empresses have renounced their riches and relatives and given up their throne and country to enter a cloister and devote their lives to the love of Jesus Christ! How many martyrs have considered it a source of joy and happiness to surrender their lives in the midst of cruel torments for the love of their Lord and God! How many young men and women have rejected the most brilliant alliances and have gladly offered their lives as a token of their love for a God who died for love of them!
And you, Christian soul, what have you done for your Divine Redeemer! What proof of your love have you given Him? It is certain that Jesus died for you as well as for a St. Lucy, a St. Agatha, a St. Agnes. Think of the special graces He has given you and which He has denied to so many others. Think of the many He has permitted to be born in countries where infidelity and unbelief hold sway! How many of these unhappy creatures deprived of the Sacraments and means of eternal salvation are consigned to eternal perdition! And you have received the grace to be born in the bosom of the Church of God! Think of the great mercy that God has shown you, forgiving the many offenses you have committed against Him. To move Him to forgive you, all that was necessary was to repent and to ask for forgiveness; but, alas, you have treated Him with ingratitude and offended Him anew. And yet He was willing to pardon you again and with the same love. Instead of punishing you as you deserved, He showered upon you His graces and inspirations. At this very moment, while you are reading these words, He continues to invite you to His love. Well then! What do you propose to do? Is it possible you can resist any longer? Why do you still hesitate? Do you wish to wait until God ceases to call, and abandons you?
MEANS OF ADVANCING IN GOD’S LOVE
We shall now consider the means of advancing in the love of God. St. Teresa says that it is an extraordinary grace for a soul to be called to the perfect love of God. To these happy souls, you, dear reader, belong. In order, however, to dedicate yourself entirely to the love of your Divine Spouse, as He desires you to do, you must courageously make use of the means conducive to that end. The first means is an ardent desire for this perfect love. With such a desire you have already taken a considerable step. God distributes His graces in abundance to those only who hunger and thirst for them, as the Blessed Virgin says in her wonderful hymn of praise, the Magnificat: “He hath filled the hungry with good things.” (Luke 1:53). But this desire is absolutely necessary for us, for otherwise we should never persevere in our efforts to obtain the treasure of the love of God. We take little or no pains in striving to obtain that for which we have little or no desire. On the other hand, all trouble is light and sweet when our efforts are prompted by an ardent desire. Hence it is that Our Lord calls those blessed who have not merely a desire, but a hunger—that is to say, a great desire—for holiness: “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after justice.” (Matt. 5:6).
The second means of obtaining the perfect love of God consists in renouncing all love that does not refer to God. God desires to possess our hearts alone and will tolerate no rival. St. Augustine relates that the Roman Senate willingly acknowledged the 30,000 gods of the pagans, while they refused to worship the God of the Christians, because He was a jealous God who wished to be adored alone. Our God was right in claiming exclusive adoration, because He alone is the only true God. Accordingly, if we wish to arrive at the perfect love of God, we must banish from our heart every attachment that has not God for its object. The ardent St. Francis de Sales said: “If I knew that in my heart there was a single fiber that was not from God, in God, and for God, I would immediately tear it out.” As long as the heart is not free from earthly inclinations, the love of God can find no entrance there; but as soon as it is detached from creatures the fire of divine love is enkindled and grows continually stronger. Therefore St. Teresa used to say: “Separate your heart from creatures and seek God; you will surely find Him then.” Father Segneri the Younger wrote one day to a pious friend: “Divine love is a beneficent robber who takes from us all earthly inclinations, so that the soul can say to her beloved Spouse: What do I wish but Thee alone.” St. Francis de Sales expresses himself in a similar manner: “The pure love of God consumes in the heart all that is not God, to turn everything into love, for all that man does for God is love.”
“I count all things but as dung,” says St. Paul, “that I may gain Christ.” (Phil. 3:8). When the love of God has entered our hearts, we place no longer any value on what the world esteems: “If a man shall give all the substance of his house for love, he shall despise it as nothing.” (Cant. 8:7). “If a house is on fire,” says St. Francis de Sales, “they throw everything out the window.” As soon as a heart is inflamed with the love of God it seeks to divest itself of everything earthly so as to love nothing but God. Does God ask too much when He desires the soul to love nothing but Him? “No,” says St. Bonaventure, “God is infinitely amiable and supremely good, deserving of our undivided love; He is perfectly right when He desires that a heart which He has created, should belong to Him alone; and since He has given Himself in sacrifice for us, He has acquired a still greater claim to our undivided love.”
In order to attain to the perfect love of God it is necessary, moreover, to deny oneself by gladly embracing what is opposed to self-love, and refusing oneself what self-love demands. One day when St. Teresa was sick, they brought her a very palatable dish; the Saint would not touch it. The attendant urged her to eat, saying that the dish was well-prepared. “That’s just the reason I abstain from eating it,” replied the Saint. And so with us; what pleases us most, in that we must deny ourselves, and just because it pleases us. For example, we must turn our eyes away from this or that object because it is beautiful; deny ourselves this or that pleasure because it is most agreeable to us; do a service to an ungrateful person just because he is ungrateful; take a bitter medicine just because it is bitter. According to St. Francis de Sales, our self-love wants to have a share in everything, even in things the most holy. For this very reason, says the Saint, we must love even virtue without attachment. For example, it is necessary to love prayer and solitude; but when obedience or charity prevent us from devoting ourselves to prayer and solitude we should not be disquieted, but accept resignedly everything that happens by the will of God to thwart our inclinations.
THE PASSION OF CHRIST
The fourth means of acquiring the perfect love of God consists in frequent meditation on the sufferings of Jesus Christ. St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi says that he who has given himself entirely to the love of his Crucified Lord needs but to look at the cross to be buried in the contemplation of the boundless love that Jesus Christ has borne him. It would seem as though our Redeemer endured so many different torments and insults, such as His betrayal, His agony, His scourging, His crowning and His Crucifixion in order to afford subjects for meditation to those souls that love Him. And yet we must not reflect on the sufferings of Jesus Christ for the sake of the consolation and sweetness it affords, but only to inflame our hearts with love for our suffering Saviour and to learn from Him what He desires us to do.
At the same time, we must declare ourselves ready to bear everything patiently for love of Him who suffered so much for love of us. The Lord once revealed to a pious hermit that no devotion was better calculated to enkindle the love of God in the heart than meditation on the sufferings of Christ. It has always been a favorite devotion with the Saints. St. Francis of Assisi became a seraph of love by meditating on the Passion of Christ. He was found one day bathed in tears and uttering loud sighs. When asked what was the cause of his grief he replied: “I am weeping over the pains and insults of my Divine Master. But what grieves me most is that men for whom He suffered so much never think of the torments He endured.” If the Saint heard the bleating of a lamb, or saw anything that reminded him of the sufferings of Christ, he was forced to shed tears. Once when he was sick and someone advised him to read an edifying book, he replied: “My book is Jesus Crucified.” He constantly exhorted his brethren to think of the Passion of Christ.
The fifth means of acquiring the treasure of God’s love is prayer. The constant prayer of a Christian soul must be: “Jesus, give me Thy holy love; Mary my Mother, obtain for me the love of God; my Guardian Angel and all my holy patrons, intercede for me that I may love my God with my whole heart and soul.” The Lord is generous in the bestowal of His gifts; but He is especially bountiful in giving His love to those who seek it.