Yesterday’s (Sunday of the 4th Week) reading from St. Paul (1 Cor 13) is too magnificent to overlook. I chose to preach out of the Jeremiah text on Sunday, but in the mode of “Sunday and one day” there must be offered, this second reflection on the Pauline treatise on Love.
St. Paul speaks in essentially three movements on the theological Virtue of of Love: Its primacy and prerequisite, in Movement One, and its portrait and power in Movement Two. Lets look at both, Movement One today, and Movement Two, tomorrow.
In this first movement, St. Paul and the Holy Spirit teach us, indeed, I would say warn us, that without love, even good deeds run afoul and can become not only less effective, but even dangerous. Unless the theological virtue of Love instill humanly good acts, they too easily devolve into grandiosity, pride, and a dangerous paternalism that crushes rather than elevates. Lets see what St. Paul and the Holy Spirit have to teach us in this regard.
Movement I - The PRIMACY and PREREQUISITE of Love – St. Paul says, Brothers and sisters: Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
And thus the Holy Spirit through St. Paul says, Love is the greatest gift and the gift by which all other gifts are properly governed and moderated. Let us reiterate, Love is the gift by which all other gifts are assessed, understood, moderated and properly set forth.
Read the following litany first then look at each. If love does not infuse each of these gifts they are NOTHING. Not just something, not just imperfect, but NOTHING, nothing at all. Thus the text teaches that preaching, prophesying, powerful faith, passion for the poor, and even martyrdom are NOTHING without love. In fact, as we have reflected, they may even be dangerous. Let’s look at each and try to understand why this is so.
1. PREACHING – The text says, If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
It is possible that some preach well, but without love. Some preachers are eloquent and powerful, but are not really interested in the conversion of their hearers. They wish more to win an argument or to appear eloquent and feed their own egos. They want to impress them and be impressive rather than save. Some are arrogant and look down upon their hearers.
All of this is worse than no preaching at all. The word of God is brought into contempt, and because it is proclaimed without love, has no effect, or an “anti-effect” by alienating the listeners who detect arrogance and feel humiliated rather than encouraged.
Truth expressed without love can seem impossible and condemning. Only with love is the door open to explore the actual wealth of the truth.
Avoid being a noisy gong or irritating and clashing cymbal. Ask for the gift to love the people you address. Comboxes and blogs need more love and less venom, more light and less heat. Love must precede preaching and correction.
2. PROPHESY – The text also warns of prophesy without love: And if I have the gift of prophecy
A danger to avoid is to pursue Scripture and its application without love. Some folks are interested in grasping all the details of scripture but they miss the main point, which is to give us the loving and merciful mind of God, in all truth. And thus, there are endless debates over details of hermeneutics, but a forgetfulness of the focus on grace, mercy and love.
Yes, some can tell you all about the third toe on the right paw of the second beast in the Book of Revelation, and what it means, and the evil person in our times to whom it refers, but they miss the larger point of praying for conversion, loving our enemies and manifesting a confident joy in the midst of grave affliction.
To illustrate this lack of priority imagine with me two people in a train station. First there is the Station master whose focus is time schedules, trains, destinations, tracks etc. Second there is a young woman awaiting the return of her new husband form the war. Which person really grasps the significance of the arrival?
Honestly, arrival times, track numbers and the like are good to know, but the deeper meaning of the moment is the love of reunion, the happiness of return and safety. The track number and arrival time are good, but they are in service of the beautiful and grateful young woman being reunited with her husband. The urgent points to the important and supports it.
In the same way, it is love that helps us helps us grasp the full significance of God’s word.
The biblical image at work here is that of St. John, the mystic, and the one who knew he was loved by Jesus, he got to the tomb first, he saw and believed, before St. Peter. He defers to Peter, for the Magisterium must ultimately reckon the insights of love and mysticism with the Holy Tradition, but Love grants insights and proposes what the Church must reckon.
Pure reason untempered by love can be dangerous. Love without reason is also dangerous. But here, note this, love must infuse reason and draw it beyond simple logic and human limits and the Magisterium of the Church has respected this.
3. PERCEPTION - The text says, and if I comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge.
Here is a related teaching. Knowledge without love too easily becomes arrogance. The knower gets a spirit of contempt and snobbery, prefers jargon and superiority to clarity and communion with others.
Think of the saying, “Knowledge is power,” as though the purpose of knowledge was to gain power over others, to beat others or gain mastery over them.
Love tempers such arrogance as may come with knowledge and shares knowledge with humility and respect. Without love, my knowledge is nothing.
3. POWERFUL FAITH - The text says, if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
Here too, Faith without love can be a very harsh and critical thing. Believers can too easily become arrogant and impatient with the weaker faith of others. Faith is a gift and every true believer knows this. I am not better because I believe, I have only received the gift to believe, and must earnestly work for others to be open to the gift.
Frankly, the fact that I believe, and believe strongly, is a mystery to me. Why is it easier for me to believe than many others I know? I am not sure! I am only grateful and pray that I not be put to the test.
Scripture advises, We who are strong in faith must patient with the concerns of those who are weaker in faith (cf Rom 14:1) In the end love and understanding often gains more ground than anger or contempt. Here too Love tempers and informs faith.
4. PASSION FOR THE POOR - The text goes on to say, If I give away everything I own
Now social action and care for the poor is a very great thing. But even here, if Love does not inform and inspire it, it can be merely another extension of pride and ego, a mere “limousine liberalism.” Indeed, care for the poor without real love for them can be downright destructive.
And old proverb says, “Bread, given without love, is poison.” Yes, too many people give with pride in their hearts. They look down on the poor, or patronize them. Many give more to assuage their own guilt or build their own prestige than out of true love for the poor. They are those of whom the Lord said blow a horn before them as they give. In other words, they give to be seen, esteemed and applauded, and may not have the truer care of the poor in mind.
Listen to this quote from some one who loved the poor, even looked up to them, and had his care for them purified by love, not merely sentimental love, but a theologically virtuous Love rooted in esteem, justice and respect. The quote is from St. Vincent De Paul:
You will find that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and full basket. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting. The more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.
5. PREPARED FOR MARTYRDOM - The text says, and if I hand my body over to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Even martyrdom, without love to inform it could be a form of grandiosity. It could be possible that glorious martyrdom is the easier way. I can go out in a blaze of glory! Sometimes it is the daily martyrdom of the Christian life that is more difficult and more hidden, less glorious, less likely to land us in the martyrology.
Yes, daily duty is sometimes more difficult. It’s one thing to do the big things, but it’s the little daily things that often matter most.
Without love, doing some big dramatic thing can make me smug so that I overlook the daily duties I have. Too easily I can be grandiose, so that what I do is about me, rather than Christ, and Him crucified. Only love can make true the words, He must increase, I must decrease. (Jn 3:30).
Love too can save us from the trap of comparing ourselves too favorably too others if we make great sacrifices and they make “fewer.” For true and eager Love does not compare, it only loves the Beloved (the Lord) and willingly makes whatever sacrifices love requires.
So in all these ways, St. Paul and the Holy Spirit teach us that even glorious things like preaching, prophesy, powerful faith, passion for the poor, and preparation for martyrdom, are nothing if they are not imbued with love and have love for their origin. Indeed, they can be dangerous and delusional without love. Only love (along with humility) can temper such virtues so that they do not become grandiosity.
Tomorrow we look to movement two in the Litany of Love, the portrait and power of Love.