The Word Embodied

Love’s Labor

“Not something to be grasped at.” (Phil 2:6)

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky tells the tale of Madam Holakov’s confession to the monk Zossima. The old woman, doubting her destiny in the face of death, presumes her crisis is of faith. Father Zossima, however, sees the problem as one of love.

When he advises Holakov to labor at loving her neighbors as a way to dispel her worries, she realizes he has struck a nerve. There is no doubt, she thinks, that she loves humanity; but the actual doing of it, the living of it, gives her pause.

The old priest, concurring with her, recounts the story of a disillusioned doctor who had great dreams of universal love but bitter disappointments in dealing with the real thing. “I love humanity,” he said, “but the more I love humanity in general, the less I love people in particular.”

While his dreams portray visions of saving humankind, in his daily life the good doctor can’t stand the people around him.

“I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together … As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom.” The slightest irritation rattles the poor man’s nerves. He bristles at the way someone talks, sneers at the way someone walks or wheezes, and can barely tolerate the manner of someone’s dress or bearing. “In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men. … I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me.”

For most of us, God is not the problem. The problem is those humans that God created, especially the creeps who don’t deserve to exist, or at least those who bother us. When people draw near, they bring trouble. Anyone close to us sooner or later restricts our precious freedom.

St. Paul had a great sense of this paradox: the best indication of our highest reach for God is the person within arm’s reach. That is why relationship in community or family is so inextricably woven into our relationship with God. It is not just that the two “great commandments”—wholeheartedly loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves—are similar. It’s that our very relationships to each other embody our relationship to God.

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is well known for its great hymn to Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.” It was in Jesus’ serving others, in his “emptying” of himself, even in his acceptance of death on the cross, that he found fullness and the everlasting praise of history.

But this exalted hymn is the application of a way of life that Paul has recommended in our relationships to each other. The hymn exemplifies the “mind” of Christ that we must “put on” when we face each other. We will find joy and consolation only when we die to ourselves: an unwelcome prospect. 

The reason why people avoid parenting (not just making babies) is the cost. The reason we avoid community life is the challenge it makes to our narcissism. In authentic relationship, the love we dream about is tested and purified by the actualities of “this particular person at this particular time.”

The problem of Dostoevsky’s frightened old lady and cynical doctor is that they both want love, but not its cost. They know they are in trouble, but they do not have the will to labor at the solution. For love is more than logic, proofs, or rationality. It is a risk of the ego, an emptying of the self, a desire to serve rather than to be served. This risk is the crux of the Christian belief in the mystery of love: first, that God would love us; second, that we, graced by such bounty, might generously love others.

St. Paul is inescapably direct:

In the name of the encouragement you owe me in Christ, in the name of the solace that love can give, of fellowship in spirit, compassion, and pity, I beg you, make my joy complete by your unanimity, possessing the one love, united in spirit and ideals. Never act out of rivalries or conceit; rather let all parties think humbly of others as superior to themselves, each of you looking to others’ interests rather than his own. Your attitude must be Christ’s.

But that is the very attitude we resist. We live on rivalry, we cherish our conceits. Our rarest concern is the other’s good—unless it is hard won through arduous relationships of covenant and trust.

In the story Jesus told to the chief priests and elders, one son mouths the words but does not act; the other son resists at first but eventually labors in the vineyard. The second child actually does God’s will. Words are not enough. That is why converted tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom before those who merely talk of righteousness.

We jabber of love. But the living of it requires a great winnowing of our lives, a shaking down of our pretense. Love in dreams, Dostoevsky wrote, is easy; but the reality of it is a dreadful assault—not on our deepest longings, but on those tawdry delusions that pose as solutions to them.

John Kavanaugh, SJ

Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.


**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson