…the Son Jesus Christ has revealed the true nature of God the Father’s love for us: a love who becomes incarnate, not despite our sinfulness, but precisely because of it—a love that longs to suffer on behalf of the beloved, a love that says to each: “nor do I condemn you” (Jn 8:11).
Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni
The opening line of our Catechism teaches that God has created us simply to make us “sharers in his own blessed life … his adopted children and, thus, heirs of his blessed life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church—CCC §1). Why is this foundational truth so hard to believe? Why don’t we want God to make us his own, to love us perfectly, and without conditions? After the fullness of revelation, and after literally millennia of so much erudite theology, after the Church’s conversion of nations and cultures throughout every part of our globe—a Church who overcomes any power seeking to crush her, from Nero to the Nazis—her most basic message still seems fanciful: God loves you! Sadly, however, this strikes most of us as trite, an empty platitude, or something that must be meant not for me, but for the other guy. It is the Good News, but even faithful Christians, and daily communicants, will sweep aside this truth as they go back to pondering their own plans or misdeeds.
What is easier for you: to receive or to give a gift? Do you enjoy watching others open what you have purchased and wrapped for them, or would you rather be at the center of that attention, having to receive a public pledge of affection from another? Most of us prefer to give, than to open, presents because most of us are more comfortable being a generous giver than being a grateful beneficiary. We eschew that feeling of indebtedness, of not being able to provide for ourselves. Most often when I receive presents from others, my first instinct is to selfishly calculate how I might repay them. “Hmmm … this must have cost $20. What does he need that costs $25?” We would rather bestow upon others what we have, than to admit any neediness on our part. Gratitude is intimate. Vulnerability is dangerous. Receptivity is humbling.
This past summer I have been blessed to give numerous retreats to religious and clergy, as well as to speak at large venues. (If you have never attended a “Defending the Faith Conference” at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, I most highly recommend you to do so next summer—a most delightful experience of God’s joy and love. (Go to: http://www.steubenvilleconferences.com/adult/defending-the-faith-conference) Yet, whether it be a bishop, priest, deacon, nun, consecrated religious, or a baptized layman or woman, I am always surprised at how we Christians refuse to let the truth of God’s love seep into our very being and permeate, not only our own self-image, but all we do throughout our day.
I wonder if those old voices from childhood are not still at play in each of us: when I am good, I am rewarded; when I mess up, I am punished. When we do what mom and dad say, they treat us to what we want; when we are disobedient, we are then penalized. So we grow up thinking that must be the way all love works, and so we apply this quid pro quo mindset to Love himself. Yet, this is not the way the Trinity treats us, which is as Love—love can be the only response God has with his children. We may, at times, experience that love as suffering or obedience, but the reality is that everything in our lives occurs because God loves us. All is his invitation to let him have us—even in situations, and in places, which we would not naturally desire or seek out.
Not wishing to let ourselves be so unprotected, we instead surround ourselves with diversions and distractions, anything that will take our minds off our mortality—off our “wretchedness,” as Blaise Pascal puts it. We would rather stay in charge of our own lives, and control our plans, than to receive an even greater excellence from another. The Servant of God, Catherine De Hueck Doherty, called this original rebellion the invention of the “asbestos man”—the one who is too scared to get too close to the human condition:
Once in time, unto the earth, Love spilled itself in tongues of fire. Men then became columns of flames that burned without consummation, torches themselves who spilled God’s fire wherever they set their sandaled feet … Encased in his asbestos suit (modern man) does not know himself. He wears it night and day, his prison; and his safety, and his reason, are all woven into the very fabric of it all. Around him, men cry out in hunger, hunger for love. He does not hear. Nor does he know that his asbestos boots are soaking up their blood, shed in despair. He is immune—or so he thinks—in his asbestos suit. But soon, so very, very soon, the blood will seep through, for asbestos is so porous, it drinks up all the moisture. What fire cannot touch, blood will. Asbestos man, soon you will die, soaked with the blood of brothers and sisters you did not know, and could not love, because you hid yourself in your asbestos suit. Soon you will die, not even knowing where; but it will be upon a hill in Palestine, alone, beneath an empty cross you did not choose to love. Asbestos man, while you have still some time, little time, tear off your suit, and let the sheets of fire renew your soul, and make you clean (Catherine De Hueck Doherty, Lubov: The Heart of the Beloved).
The time to undress from this suit of asbestos is now. Each of us, in one way or another, refuses to let Love draw too close. In our weak desires, we remain content simply to be islands unto ourselves. We are tired of arguing, of feeling useless or rejected, of being moved to tears by the plight of another (e.g., I have noticed my own growing hesitation to read about what is happening to so many innocent children in our world these days, from our own borders to the wars in Israel).
Let us examine our consciences and ask what keeps us from opening ourselves to the mystery of charity, to the riskiness of relationship. The Catechism instructs us that every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we must remember that the true charity we have received from others in this world is real and good, yet still a faint refraction of the perfect love who is our Lord. The rejections and injustices we have received at the hands of imperfect creatures are in no way how God longs to be with us.
Before we make this first exclamation of the Lord’s Prayer our own, we must humbly cleanse our hearts of certain false images drawn “from this world”… The purification of our hearts has to do with paternal or maternal images, stemming from our personal and cultural history, and influencing our relationship with God. God our Father transcends the categories of the created world. To impose our own ideas in this area “upon him” would be to fabricate idols to adore or pull down. To pray to the Father is to enter into his mystery as he is, and as the Son has revealed him to us (CCC §2779).
We all have idols somewhere in our souls. They may not be as easily discernible as a golden calf, but I imagine everyone still has the most primal idol of deity who loves me only when I am good. But the Son Jesus Christ has revealed the true nature of God the Father’s love for us: a love who becomes incarnate, not despite our sinfulness, but precisely because of it—a love that longs to suffer on behalf of the beloved, a love that says to each: “nor do I condemn you” (Jn 8:11). How our lives would change if we could only spend quiet time allowing this otherwise unbelievable truth to take root in our hearts.
Your Father obsesses over you.
The Son embraces you.
The Holy Spirit delights within you.
God loves you.