It is a general obligation that that we must love all our fellow human beings. It is also true that we must love God with our whole heart and mind, above all people and things. Loving all humanity presents problems, though, because we have not met most other people on the planet, nor have we met those who lived and died before we were born. Loving God fully also presents problems because we cannot possibly return Him the love that He is due. Due to our wounded hearts, we also struggle to love Him above all people and things.
These difficulties speak to the practical need for an ordered love that helps us to deepen and perfect the love to which we are called.
The word “order” refers to putting or doing things in a proper sequence. It also means directing something or someone to the proper end or purpose.
In both these ways, love must be ordered. We learn to love greater things by properly loving lesser things. And thus there is a sequence to love and also a goal for love. We often love certain things too much and other things not enough. Spending our love on foolish or inappropriate things dissipates it. Focusing our love on what is good and proper for us enriches us and makes our love grow higher and broader.
While we are obliged to love all others, our capacity to do that requires a proper order. We are first and foremost obliged to love people we know and to whom we have natural obligations. As we learn to love our family members, benefactors, friends, and neighbors, our love can grow outward to include an ever-wider number. Charity begins at home, but it does not end there. The growing love of neighbor also equips us to love God more deeply.
Some of these insights are taken up by St. Augustine in a short, practical treatise on love:
The Lord, the teacher of love, full of love, came in person with summary judgment on the two commandments of love. … Love God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and your whole mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
Love of God is the first to be commanded, but love of neighbor is the first to be put into practice. … Since you do not yet see God, you merit the vision of God by loving your neighbor. By loving your neighbor, you prepare your eye to see God. Saint John says clearly: “If you do not love your brother whom you see, how will you love God whom you do not see!”
In loving your neighbor and caring for him you are on a journey. Where are you traveling if not to the Lord God, to him whom we should love with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind? We have not yet reached his presence, but we have our neighbor at our side. Support, then, this companion of your pilgrimage if you want to come into the presence of the one with whom you desire to remain forever.
Begin, then, to love your neighbor…. What will you gain by doing this? Your light will then burst forth like the dawn. Your light is your God; he is your dawn, for he will come to you when the night of time is over. He does not rise or set but remains forever (from a treatise on John by Saint Augustine, bishop (Tract 17, 7-9, CCL 36, 174-175)).
Thus, we see how our love is to be increasingly set in order, to be ordered to an ever wider and higher goal. Paradoxically, if we are to love God with our whole heart (the first commandment), we do so more fully by better observing the second commandment (loving our neighbor as our self). We go to the highest love by mastering (through grace) the lesser or secondary love. The highest things are mastered through the humbler things.
In loving our neighbor, who has great dignity but is still a fellow creature, we enlarge our hearts to love God, who is the creator of all. St. Augustine teaches elsewhere, Quod minimum, minimum est. Sed in minimo fidelem esse, magnum est (De Doctrina Christiana, IV,35). (What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing. But to be faithful in a little thing is a great thing.) The lesser prepares us for the greater.
St. Augustine alludes to a text from Isaiah. Here it is in context:
Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, “Here I am” (Isaiah 58:7-9).
To this I would only add that today the corporal works of mercy are fairly well accepted as important, but we ought not to forget the spiritual works of mercy; we have to care for the spiritually poor of our times with similar intensity. We must instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish the sinner, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses, console the afflicted, and pray for the living and the dead.
Love has many aspects: physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual. May our love for one another grow in abundance and overflow in great love for God each day. Grant us the graces, Lord!