Friday, November 2, 2012

Love - and do what you will

Thirty First Ordinary Sunday Year B

In the 4th century, St. Augustine offered advice that looks like something one would find in Playboy or Cosmopolitan: "Love – and do what you will." Sounds like a rallying cry for mayhem and debauchery. To be fair, it sounds more refine in the original Latin, “Dilige et quod vis fac”. (Ok, I may be wrong) Our initial reaction may be one of shock because the quote does seem to be more at home with the libertine period now popularly known as the hippie era, where you would find many advocates of the sexual revolution chanting the slogan associated with the anti-Vietnam war sentiments of the 60s and 70s, “Make Love! Not War!” It was the age of ‘free love’. Anarchy and love do seem to hit it off right from the start.

The ‘Free Love’ movement’s initial goal was to separate the state from sexual matters such as marriage, birth control, and adultery. The movement saw marriage as a form of social bondage. According to this concept, all free unions of adults are legitimate and no one has the right to interfere or impose any moral restraint on matters of the heart, even if it involved promiscuous lifestyles, swapping partners, same-sex relationships, etc. It claimed that such issues were the concern of the parties involved, and no one else.  In other words, morality is a private matter. The movement sought freedom from state regulation and church interference in personal relationships. Love and the law were seen as irreconcilable opposite ends of the spectrum and one should never try to make them unwilling bed partners. It is interesting to note that the arguments used by the ‘Free Love’ movement have not become passé with the demise of the hippie era. Today, the same arguments in favour of or against have been resurrected in the run-up to the present presidential elections in the U.S.A.

Did St Augustine, one the greatest doctors of the Church, actually give his stamp of approval to free love? To argue that he did would be really stretching it, given the fact that Augustine had personally turned his back on such a free lifestyle which he had prior to his conversion to Christianity. He lived with a woman in concubinage for many years and even had a child out of wedlock. In his early years, he followed his father to frequent brothels. He finally saw the error of his ways when he came to discover the true love of his life, the Beauty ever ancient, Christ Himself. Here is a more extended quote from the great homily on the First Letter of St John: “The deeds of men are only discerned by the root of charity. For many things may be done that have a good appearance, and yet proceed not from the root of charity… Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; … let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” (Homily VII, paragraph 8) The context clarifies the meaning of the quote: love should never be an excuse to justify any action, all and sundry, or a license to live immorally. On the contrary, St Augustine was insisting that love must be the foundation of every action and decision. If love was truly the basis of our actions, then we would not risk sinning.  

St Augustine uses a metaphor derived from family life to further elucidate his point. He observes that if a person had to choose between being chastised and being treated affectionately, everyone would pick the latter. Nevertheless, suppose the punishment comes from a boy’s father and the caress comes from a kidnapper. “In that case,” he says, “it is Love which disciplines and iniquity which caresses.” Love does not necessarily mean that you make the other person feel good. First and foremost, it requires that your actions flow from a right relationship with that person and with God. If that is the case, says Augustine, “Love and do what you will.”

One of the most challenging expressions of love today is to correct someone else who has done wrong. No one enjoys being corrected – and few people enjoy correcting others. It requires tact, patience, prayer, courage, humility and perseverance. But St Augustine reminds us that the most important ingredient is love. Political correctness, however, has distorted our understanding of love. Our truncated notion of love is confined to kindly feelings and being nice. If I am ‘nice’ or benevolent toward others, it was interpreted as fulfilling the command of love. Don’t get me wrong. Kindly feelings are important and we should do everything we can to cultivate them. You can and you should develop affection for others, even those who seem unlovable. Nevertheless, as Augustine’s example illustrates, much more than benevolence is required. Love is not just about being nice and courteous. A kidnapper may feel kindly towards his victim, but no one can claim that he truly loves the child.

A distorted notion of love got us – and a lot of others – into trouble. We think that love demands us to withhold the truth. We think that being loving means learning how to tip toe around difficult issues and avoid contentious ones, like sin, salvation, and repentance. We started making a list of words to throw out of our vocabulary – first there was ‘hell’, then there was ‘sin’ and before you know it God got thrown out too! But real love involves a daily examination of conscience; not just warm mushy feelings, but the avoidance of sin and cultivation of positive habits. Ultimately, real love must be founded on Truth and in service of Truth. Love is never about selling a lie just to ensure that feelings are not hurt and relationships are not spoiled. Truth should never be sacrificed at the altar of good relations.

The problem with our modern times is that we have come to understand law and love as antithetical. Many believe that to follow the law is to be under a burden, to be compelled, to be constrained. To love, on the other hand, is to embrace the capacity to choose, to be creative, to be liberated. Moral and religious norms are seen as archaic and even anti-love. Many in our Church seems to have been affected by this same malaise in the last fifty years. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI made this observation in an interview with the Papal biographer, Peter Seewald when asked to comment on the lack of action taken against clergy sexual offenders in the past: “the prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people.” The Pope then proposed: “Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate.”

It is only when love is founded in the truth can love finally reveal its most profound meaning. Love is the other name we give to God, as St John so firmly affirmed in his first letter, “God is Love”. God is Truth and God is Love. In God, we see the harmony of his law and his love. God’s law is an expression of his love. That is why Jesus frames his greatest teaching in the form of a legal injunction – Love is a Commandment. Love is the Law and the law is love. There is no contradiction. The Law is a guide that helps man on the path of life to salvation, it is the means by which man is released from the slavery of selfishness and sin and introduced to true freedom and life. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI made this profound point during an Angelus catechesis. “For this reason, in the Bible, the Law is not seen as a burden, an overwhelming limitation, but as the Lord’s most precious gift, the testimony of his fatherly love, of his desire to be close to his people, to be their ally and write with his people a love story.” Love, and do what you will … because when love is true, there you will find God’s will, not just a feeble version of our own design, a sorry excuse for immorality.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.