September 20, 2017

God’s Love Perfects Us Amid Pain, Suffering & Despair

The Carrying of the Cross

By Father Thomas Mattison

We have been conditioned by years (centuries?) of teaching to think of love/charity as a virtue, something to do or not. But St. John tells us God is love. He does not tell us that God does love. I want to suggest that this is the insight – although never spoken – that makes Israel think of God as Elector/Electing; having no other identity than the one who chooses his own people. I do not think that we go far wrong when we assert that the only God we know is the one who loves/chooses us. With those observations in mind, I might like to revise the translation of John’s phrase and say that God is Loving, not as an attribute, but as the very dynamic of His being. You may want to reread this paragraph in order to forge ahead.

If God is Loving, then all of creation is something like a love letter. You and I are words in that love letter. I don’t mean to sound like a song from the Seventies, but we must bite the bullet on this one and admit it: Unloving undoes creation and undoes the unlover. Whatever is must be love or it is not. I want to show you two examples of that.

As Jesus hung upon the cross, He experienced, with all the sensitivity that only a divine being could possess, what it means to be un-loved by priests and procurators, by disciples and strangers. In this moment when everyone and everything seems bent on un-loving/unmaking Him, He calls out to God who is Loving, “Why have you abandoned me?” Why does love feel so unloving?

At the end of her life, Therese Martin [St. Therese of Lisieux], as her intestines we rotting away from tuberculosis, ventured the observation, “I did not think that love could hurt so much.”

Each of them knows that to be is to be loved, and each of them affirms that even being in pain is being loved. The clarity of their understanding at first baffles us; then it makes us gape in wonder.

This is where real virtue begins. If pain or hostility or weakness or ignorance or poverty or disgrace or guilt means that one is unloved, then love is not worth the trouble. But if one is loved even in such untoward circumstances, then these circumstances are but a paring away of all that is not essential to life and love, allowing life and love to be seen in its purest form that we call resurrection. You might want to reread this paragraph too. (Or think of all the times the weight trainer tells you to go for the burn or to work to failure.) These are terribly clarifying (or maybe just terrible) thoughts. They reduce the whole of life and living to just one thing. But no other reduction allows for the same unified and coherent vision of reality.

Thus, while we pray that we will be spared abandonment and tuberculosis, we can learn from these great and holy people the power of this vision to comfort even as it challenges, to bring hope even as it plunges us into deeper darkness, to inspire love even in the unloved and, to paraphrase some poet or other, to find the Lover even in the unlovely.

Fr. Mattison is pastor of Christ Our Savior Parish in Manchester Center, VT.

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