The Transforming Power of Love

Christ in the Desert, by Ivan Kramskoi (1872).

A rich Japanese widower decided to retire from the city to a high cliff above the ocean. He built a beautiful mansion overlooking the ocean and was very happy, surrounded by beauty and solitude. He liked to gaze down the beach and observe the people enjoying the sun and water. In his solitude, he discovered a deeper meaning of love.

From time to time, he would descend to the bottom of the cliff and mingle with the people of the town. He showed a special concern for the elderly and poor, and he quietly assisted families who struggled financially. He grew to love this community.

In addition to observing people frolicking on the beach far below, he spent many hours gazing through a powerful telescope observing the movement of the passing ships and the sea mammals. One day, he saw gigantic waves, possibly the result of a tsunami, and he shouted frantically to the people on the beach. Unfortunately, they were unable to hear him, so, in his desperation, he set his mansion on fire in the hope they would see it, and make their way up the steep hills to assist him, and escape the gigantic waves.

The people on the beach saw flames shooting from the roof of the mansion. Someone shouted to the people on the beach: “Let’s climb the steep hills, and help our friend put out the fire.” Many responded to this call for help. Others said: “We are having such a great time. We will stay here. You help him.”

Soon the gigantic waves rolled ashore, and swept all on the beach far out to sea, and they were drowned. Those moved by an act of love for the widower reached higher ground and were spared the fury of the waves.

This story calls to mind the heroic acts of soldiers who throw their bodies over explosive devices to save the lives of their fellow soldiers. Recently, in a terrorist attack in a restaurant, a mother of two children threw herself over the body of her pregnant friend to protect her from the bullets of the terrorists. She died, saving this woman and the child in her womb.

In today’s world, with its cacophony of noise, God beckons each of us to prayerful solitude to enable us to experience peace of mind, and discover the true meaning of life. Sad to say, too many turn to ceaseless activity or, more disastrously, to drugs, and the second condition becomes worse than the first.

A TV series on public broadcasting focused on pilgrims at shrines of various religions seeking peace of mind, or deepening of faith, or answers to other needs. The narrator participated in all the activities with the pilgrims. The initial TV offering was the gathering of veterans of war from many countries who traveled to Lourdes in southern France to visit the Marian Shrine where the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette in the 1850s.  This shrine has baths where people go to seek healings. Some seek physical cures. Some seek psychological healings, and others seek to discover a deeper meaning in life, and a richer faith. In addition to processions, religious services, and lighting of candles, the soldiers held group sessions where individuals shared what the experience did for them. In some cases, it was their second or third visit to Lourdes. Some participants were Catholic, others were from protestant denominations, and still others had no particular religious affiliation. They all agreed it was easier to share with others who had experienced war. They felt veterans of war could understand their experiences better than the average civilian. Sharing had a healing effect.

The second pilgrimage was on an island in Japan which had many Buddhist shrines, and had been the home of a Japanese Buddhist whose pilgrimage to China enriched his life, and led to a rejuvenation of Buddhism in Japan. Those pilgrims who walked had to spend more than a month to visit all the shrines. Some of the pilgrims used bus transportation. For others, it was the second or third visit, and they divided the pilgrimage into a visit of a third, or a half, of the shrines. Participants may have been practicing Buddhists. Many were not Buddhists. All found the experience gave them a deeper sense of self-knowledge and peace. The pilgrims rang a gong at each shrine, lit candles, prayed, and in some instances participated in religious services with the monks. All agreed that the inhabitants of the island had given them support, and shown them love and understanding.

Those who walked alone, or with a partner, found a richer sense of solitude on the journey. This pilgrimage demanded much greater physical stamina than the pilgrimage to Lourdes.

God beckons us to solitude, and it leads to discovering meaning in life. I will reflect on the experience of solitude of John the Baptist, Jesus, the Little Flower, and Anwar el Sadat. At a young age, John the Baptist was moved by the Holy Spirit to seek solitude in the wilderness, and he emerged from this experience a great ascetic, a powerful prophetic preacher, a reformer, and a humble man. Some thought he might be the Messiah, but John pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, and added, “I must decrease and he must increase.” John was imprisoned by Herod for calling him to accountability, and he was beheaded by Herod to satisfy the whim of a dancing girl and her mother.

Jesus spent a month in the desert fasting and praying, and, at the end of this experience, he endured a threefold temptation by Satan. Jesus, who was the Son of God, and who shared our human nature, emerged as a humble, gentle, loving, itinerant preacher. His sole possession was a seamless garment, and he preached the love of God and neighbor. Love was his mantra, and his greatest act of love was to die on the cross for you, me, and all of humanity.

In her autobiography, written under obedience to her superior, St. Thérèse, the Little Flower, describes the search for her mission in life. While she was engaged in prayerful contemplation of Sacred Scripture in the solitude of the Carmelite monastery, she discovered her call was to live out the words described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 on the excellence of the gift of love. In near ecstasy, Thérèse realized her mission in life was to love all of humanity, beginning with some difficult members in her community, and, as she expressed it, she intended to cast flowers upon each individual in the world. Eventually, she called her spirituality “The Little Way,” and many find it is a path for their way of holiness. People of all faiths, and of no faith, read her autobiography, and realize how much the Little Flower loves God, and loves each one of them.  Reflecting on how this “little way” could be used by all people, and maybe even be the missionary tool of conversion Thérèse wanted, I was led to read the autobiography of Anwar el Sadat, entitled In Search of Identity.

Anwar was born in a village where he learned self-worth and values. However, he discovered the true meaning of life, and his true calling in prison. He was transferred to the solitary confinement of Cell 54, and was forced to live in horrendous conditions. Anwar el Sadat was a man of deep Muslim faith. While in solitary confinement, and stripped of all material possessions, he began to pray to God. He experienced a deep friendship with God, and he wrote: “God is the only friend who never lets you down, and never abandons you.” He added that God creates you, shapes your soul, breathes his Spirit into you, and charges you with responsibility. God’s love, he says, is limitless and benignly infinite, and he wants creatures to be inspired with a sense of honor, beauty, and strength.

Sadat’s friendship with God changed him a great deal, helped him to know himself, and his point of departure became love of home (Egypt), love of all beings, and love of God. From that moment on, Sadat proceeded from love in all his responsibilities, including his office as President of Egypt. He described himself as “a tireless advocate of love.” Love gives and builds, he said, but hate destroys. Love became the mantra of his life (p. 84-87). He had the courage to fly to Israel, and begin the process of mutual state recognition, and was assisted in the final phase of this effort by Jimmy Carter, then President of the United States.

While Sadat never came to profess Christ in this life, his “Cell 54” experience represents the universally human need for solitude and deprivation in order to discover the truly transforming power of Christ’s unmatchable love. Jesus is the supreme model of this love of God and neighbor. His greatest act of love of the will of his Father, and love for all humanity, is his passion and death on the cross. Even at this time of year, we recall that, while we all were born to live, the Baby Jesus is the only man who allowed himself to be born in order to die. No greater love does a man have …

Only in solitude, engaged in contemplative prayer, and in imitation of the Little Flower, and even in remembering a fellow human, a man of Muslim faith like Anwar el Sadat, can we know our true self, be freed from all that hinders our friendship with God, and discover the transforming power of love, human and divine. In this condition of liberation, we can walk freely in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the greatest lover of all times. May these final days of Advent be spent with the silent Christ Child in the womb of his Mother, our Mother. May Christmas Morning find us all filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, more able than ever to receive into our own hands and hearts “Love-Now-Made-Visible.”

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Editor’s Note: Fr. Nessel has published over 50 articles, and has had five essays in Homiletic and Pastoral Review since his official “retirement.”

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About Rev. William J. Nessel, OSFS

Rev. William J. Nessel, OSFS, has an AB in Philosophy, an MA in Politics, and a JCD from Catholic University of America, and an MDiv from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. He has published over 50 articles in various journals, including several in the Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

Comments

  1. JOAN MARIE REILEY says:

    When I saw the title of the article, I felt a deep desire to read it. The opening story of the Japanese man and what he did to try and save others caught my attention. You have a gift for spinning a story straight to the readers heart. You talk about finding God and His Transforming Power of Love with true examples. I was touched by the story of Sadat, President of Egypt, and his journey to know God’s love and His living that love. One feels like you are speaking directly to the reader – one on one. Then at the end of the article I noticed the name of the author. What an inspiring message you have given to us. Thank you, Father Nessel!