Some thoughts on Christian love

It is our nature to define love in terms of behaviors. “Jesus left us with one command: to love one another. What must we do in order to fulfill this command?” That is our question. But it is a question doomed to frustration.

In her book on the monastic fathers and mothers, To Pray & to Love, Roberta Bondi points out that in the deserts, people commonly came to the Abbas and Ammas, asking for a code of conduct to follow or some ascetic disciplines to practice. But the Christian virtues, love included, are not a matter of rules or spiritual disciplines. They cannot be externalized like this. Rather… “The virtues are Christian patterns of seeing, feeling, and understanding, as well as acting that affect everything we do and everything we are. They are the internal laws that make us who we are, as Christians, but also as human beings” (39).

“Patterns”… “internal laws”… Bondi is trying to describe something internal and intangible, but nevertheless easily recognizable. We cannot manufacture love, but we can recognize it when we see it. Love is not an external action, it is an internal orientation that manifests itself in action.

Here is one example. Bondi relates a particularly vivid saying of one of the desert fathers: “A brother asked an old man: ‘there are two monks: one stays quietly in his cell, fasting for six days at a time, and laying many austerities upon himself: and the other ministers to the sick. Which of them is more acceptable to God?’ The old man answered: ‘If the brother, who fasts six days, even hung himself up by his nostrils, he could never be the equal of him who ministers to the sick.” (39).

Here is another example. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). John does not define God's love; he illustrates it.

How do we learn love? By watching and participating more than by following codes or practices. We should note that it is not that the codes and practices are unimportant! They are, but they support love; they do not define or contain love.


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