Love’s Oblation

William L. Stidger told about a young lad he had baptized as a baby. The boy grew up, and when World War II began, he joined the Navy. One night his ship came into Boston, and the lad visited his former pastor and friend. During their visit together, Dr. Stidger said, “Bill, tell me the most exciting experience you have had thus far.” The boy seemed to hesitate. It wasn’t that he had difficulty in selecting the most exciting experience. Rather the experience he had in mind was so wonderful and sacred that he had difficulty in putting it into words. He was the captain of a large transport and along with a big convoy, was making his way across the Atlantic. One day an enemy submarine rose in the sea close by. He saw the white mark of the torpedo coming directly toward his transport, loaded with hundreds of boys. He had no time to change course. Through the loud speaker he shouted, “Boys, this is it!” Near by was a little escorting destroyer. The captain of that destroyer also saw the submarine and the torpedo. Without a moment’s hesitation, he gave the order, “Full speed ahead.” Into the path of the torpedo the tiny destroyer went and took the full impact of the deadly missile midship. The destroyer was blown apart, quickly it sank, and every man of the crew was lost. For a long time the boy remained silent. The he looked at his beloved pastor and said, “Dr. Stidger, the skipper of that destroyer was my best friend.” Again he was quiet for a while, then slowly he said: “You know there is a verse in the Bible which has special meaning for me now. It is, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’” (John 15:13)1

This kind of love is the most difficult to describe or to understand. Few people have the opportunity to lay down their lives and die in defense of a loved one. However, many people are called to lay down their lives through daily dying. Sacrificial love can be experienced in many ways, even though it is not the most popular interpretation of love.

We discover the character of a person by watching what he or she loves. Thomas More sets us on the right path: “If our love for something causes us to break God’s commandment, then we love it better than we love God — and that is a love both deadly and damnable.” Ask several people what is love and their answers probably will not reflect Thomas More’s words, but rather feelings that are romanticized by music, art, literature, and other media. Modern definitions focus on finding that one individual who satisfies our heart’s every desire. However, no one person can meet all our needs. Over time, love based on feelings can change, even wither or grow cold.

The heart is known as the center of an individual. It can be weak, strong, broken, mended, empty, full, hard, or soft. It should be our silent, cloistered refuge, where we can be still and gain strength in order to respond to whatever may be asked of us. Sometimes this can be uncomfortable, especially when we are called to correct that which is not right. Loving those around us can be difficult. Love entails the art of perseverance. We try again when we fail. We get up when we fall. We move forward when we fearfully hesitate. The life and love of God pushes us forward. And life teaches us that the Cross is at the center of every great love.

We Give What We Have

We come to know God’s love in prayer and live that love in service. We are the vessels that bring God’s love to others. John of the Cross said, “In all things, both high and low, let God be your good, for in no other way will you grow in merit and perfection.” Sacrificial love goes that extra mile. It is an ongoing challenge. To express love in actions is not a people-pleasing response. Sometimes love has to be tough. There is a commitment to seek the highest good no matter what the response. There is no keeping score. Sacrificial love does not demand or hold on to personal preferences. I did this so you can do that. I got this so you can get that. It strives to be selfless and have the good of others at heart. If we are true reflectors of God’s love, we cannot sit back and let inaccuracies pass. We cannot think a bad situation will take care of itself. It takes courage to stand up and gently correct that which is not right to the best of our ability.

It is often said we cannot give what we do not have. A person can give without loving, but cannot love without giving. When we truly love, we are uncomfortable with mediocrity, as well as clinging to, over-dependency on, or taking advantage of others.

We examine our busy schedules to see if our busyness is from a positive response to love or from our inability to say no, or a need for attention, approval, or love that is not being met. Does super-busyness indicate a fear of inactivity or solitude, or an escape from facing a longstanding problem? An evaluation with a practical common-sense orientation regarding the use of our gifts and limitations is worth periodic reviews.

Sacrificial love helps us deal with life’s difficulties in a positive way. We maintain realistic expectations, respect others, and trust in God. Only with the help of God can sacrificial love be a channel for personal and spiritual growth. He helps us function within the limits of our endurance. We try to avoid placing ourselves above anyone, or being consumed by our work of service. Trust in God moves us through dark problem tunnels into the light of possibilities. We find pieces of the answer to the puzzling question: “What are the growth ingredients in this situation?” Managing what we do well can purge false pride or a disordered need for affection. We learn to face unpleasant aspects of ourselves we may have avoided or denied in the past. God’s grace helps us grow.

The fruit of real love is sacrifice. Although sacrificial love is a healthy concern for others, it does not always follow our natural inclinations. History reveals that sacrifice is behind anything worthwhile. On rare occasions, human love can be the ultimate sacrifice. After the Sichuan earthquake in China, rescuers searched the ruins of a young woman’s house. They saw her body through the cracks, her pose somehow strange. She knelt on her knees, her body leaned forward and her hands were supported by an object. The collapsed house had crushed her back and head. The rescue team leader put his hand through a narrow gap in the wall to reach the woman’s body. He hoped she might be alive, but her body was cold and stiff. He and his team left the house, but for some reason the leader returned. He knelt down and put his hand through the cracks again to search the little space under the dead body. Suddenly he said with excitement, “A child! There is a child!” The team returned and carefully removed the piles of ruined objects around the dead woman. There was a three-month-old little boy wrapped in a flowery blanket under his mother’s dead body. She had made the ultimate sacrifice to save her son. When her house was falling, she used her body to make a shield to protect him. The little boy was sleeping peacefully when the team leader picked him up. When a medical doctor came to examine the baby, he opened the blanket and found a cell phone. There was a text message on the screen: “If you can survive you must remember that I love you.” The cell phone was passed around and everyone who read the message wept.

Love is present in the sweetness or sentiment of a few moments, but has greater prominence in the choices of each day. It is more about giving of ourselves than fulfilling emotional needs. It should be the force that moves the heart toward what is good. At times family members, co-workers, or friends rub us the wrong way. A dear one can get on our nerves and irritate us beyond description. We bear with the foibles of those we love. The young French Carmelite Therese of Lisieux wrote: “Perfect love means putting up with other people’s shortcomings, feeling no surprise at their weaknesses, finding encouragement even in the slightest evidence of good qualities in them.”

This sounds onerous. However, if we look at it within the context of each day, with God’s help we can do it. Love is defined by the actions it prompts. It’s all in the little things. Therese of Lisieux counsels us: “Draw profit from the smallest of deeds and do them for love. . . . Without love, deeds, even the most brilliant, count as nothing!” The most insufficient work is not done in vain if it is done for the love of God. In addition, we should not emphasize or be too dependent on the results of our work. If we concentrate on the value of the work itself, rather than the expected result, we need not worry about the work becoming worthless, or achieving no results. It is easy to become lost in or addicted to our work. Being too serious, or taking too much time, about work leaves too little time for other growth-orientated activities.

Yes, we flounder, but make small progresses. Sometime we are better at loving than others. Must we always have our own way, or always be right? Ego cravings are put on the back burner if we live so that those we love will get to Heaven. “Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to Heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress, make your ascent together,” wrote Fulgence of Ruspe. We serve others with love to the best of our ability because love is eternal and the only language spoken in Heaven. Our love grows beyond the elements of the material world to the Maker of the material world when we realize human love is a gift that comes from participating in the life of the Triune God. The beauty, symmetry, and intricacy of the natural world, and the sublime dignity of each person in it, are but reflections of the grandeur of the Triune God.

The Beauty of Presence

Compassion is one of the most profound expressions of love for humankind. Its silent presence comes with sitting with someone who is grieving, alone, or wounded. A person shares more by a loving, quiet Christian presence than by having the answers. An older couple’s only child tragically died several years ago. They spend time with a young couple whose son had just died. Their quiet presence does more for the young couple than most well meaning words people offer. A quiet, open availability seems so little but can be so much.

The source of our love is the divine love of God that is within us. Growing in the practice of that love is a great adventure requiring risk, openness, and patience. Love is our greatest aid in prayer and in work. It moves us from personal prayer to practical service. The people and places we serve then bring us back to prayer. If we truly love others, we desire for them far more than what is in our power to give them. This fact leads us back to prayer. Prayer gives us strength to do what we do. Basil the Great said: “He who has the love of Christ sometimes causes pain, even to someone he loves, for that person’s good.” He goes on to say: “What is the mark of love for your neighbor? Not to seek what is for your own benefit, but what is for the benefit of the one loved, both in body and in soul.”

The more we give loving service, the more receptive we are to the love of God. Although it is beautiful to realize God’s love for us through the care shown to us by others, it is more beautiful to desire to give rather than to receive. Love takes work, effort, and perseverance. It asks more than what seems possible and stretches us beyond what we think we can do.

With Eyes that Truly See

Teresa of Avila said: “The only mistake we make is taking our eyes off Jesus.” She was quite right, because Jesus is the source of love and he teaches us how to love genuinely. We try to let Jesus’ love be the mirror we look into each morning, so that during the day we reflect his goodness, truth, and beauty. Authentic love energizes our days and focuses our minds. To experience this love is to experience the presence of Jesus. Love rooted in Jesus and nourished by prayer increases our trust in the daily actions of Divine Providence. The Providence of God shines in light playing on shade-tree leaves, fire flickering in the fireplace, or the sun rising to greet a new day. Providential love opens our eyes to the multifaceted ways in which God blesses us. We find unexpected blessings in the mystery of people, circumstances, dying and rising experiences, suffering and sacrifices which flow through the mystery of life. Indeed, a world without pain, suffering, and loss would be a world without healing, joy, and redemption. Pain and struggle in service to others can bring deep peace and great love.

With faith, we strive to look at life through the eyes of Christ. This orientation helps us to see problems less as obstacles and more as encounters with Christ. If we look at an insult, misunderstanding, defeat, or weakness with the eyes of Christ, hope and trust come to the fore and changes our focus. Trying to change or eliminate a problem is altered by viewing it in the light of our future glory. Now it doesn’t seem so important. Somehow we are not concerned when the problem cannot be overcome or solved. We befriend what cannot be changed and let it teach us. Seeking the good of another without self-interest is the lens that helps us refrain from making judgments about people we serve and watching that we are not influenced by trivia and gossip. Respecting other’s privacy and acknowledging our need for God are treasured graces.

We are the channels of God’s love in our society. The services of sacrificial love usually are not noted in newspapers or other media. However, they make good impressions and serve as examples of authentic Christianity. Who will be remembered more, Mother Teresa or the current rock star? The apostle John helps us to understand God’s love. “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:1) Teresa of Calcutta offers a modern interpretation: “Because we cannot see Christ, we cannot express our love to him; but our neighbors we can always see, and we can do for them what, if we saw him, we would like to do for Christ.”

A French proverb states: Beauty without virtue is a flower without perfume. True beauty comes from the soul. When we act with goodness, kindness, and other virtues, the beauty of the soul shines through us. Generally, services of love are often random acts of kindness that become characteristic of our identity. We become beautiful by doing what we were created to do. This clearly shows our priorities. We serve on behalf of others. This sends a message to society. We take Christian responsibility seriously when we strive to help others and bring them closer to Christ.

A Far-Reaching Sacrifice

In the fifteenth century, in a small village near Nuremberg, there lived a family with eighteen children. The father, a goldsmith, worked almost eighteen hours a day at his trade and any other job in order to feed his family. In spite of their poverty, two of the children had a dream: they wanted to pursue the study of art. They knew their father would not be able to finance their education, so the two boys made a pact. They would toss a coin. The loser would work in the nearby mines and his earnings would pay for his brother’s tuition at the art academy. When the brother at school finished his studies, he would support the other brother as he attended the academy. Albrecht Dürer won the toss and went off to the art academy at Nuremberg. Albert worked in the mines for four years. As was promised, he financed his brother’s education at the academy. Albrecht’s etchings, woodcuts, and oils were better than those of his professors.

When the young artist returned home, the Dürer family had a festive dinner to celebrate. After the meal, Albrecht stood up and made a toast to his brother. His closing words were, “And now, Albert, blessed brother of mine, now it is your turn. You can go to Nuremberg to pursue your dream and I will take care of you.” Albert shook his lowered head. He could not go. His hands were destroyed from working for four years in the mines. The bones in his fingers were frequently broken because of the work. His hands were stiff and painful. The arthritis was so bad in his right hand that he could not hold a glass to return the toast. To draw the delicate lines required of an artist would be impossible.

More than 450 years have passed. Albrecht Dürer’s artworks are in great museums the world over. However, most people are probably familiar with only one of them. One day, to pay homage to his brother, Albrecht drew his brother’s abused hands with palms together and fingers skyward. He called this masterpiece Hands. We know it as The Praying Hands.

  1. Charles Allen, God’s Psychiatry (Westwood, NJ: Fleming Revelle Co.).
Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, and Living Through Cancer, A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns. Her latest book is Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity.

Comments

  1. Tom McGuire says:

    Carolyn I appreciate the contemplative experience expressed in your reflections. The story of the mother protecting her child is one I will remember as a clear act of true love.

    I thought also about people in our secular culture. Contemporary art, music and other cultural expressions of the beginning desire for human dignity and love. Our challenge as Christians is to find ways to share an appreciation of contemporary culture in a way that brings us to be close, to be brother and sister, with those who would not even come close to a church. This is the periphery where our hearts will be transformed and we will learn to love those who are poor in material and spiritual ways and walk with them in sorrow and joy.

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