The Word Encountered
Hankering after the “Old Faith”
“This is my commandment: love one another.” (Jn 15:12)
The two men who came to visit were immaculately dressed. There was a sweetness about their courtesy, even though you could sense they were stern. They came to present a large book to someone they thought would be sympathetic, someone who respected the pope and was unafraid to write about sin.
“I still believe in the old faith,” one of them said.
“The old faith? What faith?”
“I mean our faith before they started talking about love all the time. There was right and wrong and punishment. There was fear of God and the following of the law. Since Vatican II and the theology of love, everything has been watered down and made easy.”
My heart went out to the men. But it was with sadness. “Well, when do you think the love stuff started? Don’t you think Jesus talked about love?”
One of them said he knew there was a place for love, but in these days it had taken over everything and made a mess of the church. I felt depleted and tense after the meeting was over. It seemed that this good man had missed so much. Yet he was trying to reach for a truth that we all are somehow in touch with.
As for love, the Gospels and Epistles would fragment into a million pieces without it. Our saints would be incomprehensible, our heroes nonexistent. And Jesus would not be. “For God so loved the world that he sent. ...”
The following passage is from the First Letter of John, not the Second Vatican Council: “Love is of God. Everyone who loves is begotten of God and has knowledge of God. The person without love has known nothing of God, for God is love. Love, then, consists in this: not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us and has sent his Son as an offering for our sins.” How could we imagine a Christianity before love became its center?
The love that this letter describes is not primarily our love of God, but God’s love for us revealed in the offering of the Son for the forgiveness of our sins. It is the same love that Paul celebrates in the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians, the love from which, he writes in Romans, we can never be possibly separated.
Jesus, in the fourth Gospel, calls us to live in that love. How are we to do that? By keeping his commandments. Ah, finally the law, finally right and wrong. And what is his commandment? “Love one another as I have loved you.” There is no escape. Our faith in Jesus is haunted by the mystery of love.
Perhaps this mystery itself is what causes us disquiet. Love, after all, is not easily won, rarely found, and never really earned. It also leads to improbable situations like that of the prodigal son and the lost sheep and to forgiveness for dreadful sinners.
This is, of course, not the narcissistic and self-indulgent state of mind that passes for “love” in contemporary life. Nor is it the great tidal wave of emotion associated with “falling in love.” Rather it is, Paul reminds us, patience and kindness. It lets go of jealousy, conceit, and resentment. It delights in the truth. It trusts. It hopes. It endures. All of these qualities of love are attributes of God’s love for us. What is more, love’s greatest expression—to lay down one’s life for one’s friends—is what the Passion means.
None of this is new. And none of it is easy.
To have or not have rules can be easy. To keep or break commandments can be easy. We can set up our lives in such a manner that we allow no restraint or limit on our egos and desires. We can also legislate our lives so relentlessly that we delude ourselves into thinking that we have actually earned, produced, and now control the love that our scriptures speak of.
But the love revealed in Jesus, simple as it sounds, is terribly arduous. That is why the history of our faith so often reads like a history of our resistance to love.
Give us rules. Give us magic. Give us threats. Give us mighty victories in war or splendid successes in the marketplace to insure our worthiness. Give us Communion counts, converts, and the approval of the nations to guarantee our righteousness. But the mystery of love?
One of Dorothy Day’s favorite passages from world literature occurs in Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, where the old Father Zossima points out to Madame Hohlokov that her supposed crisis of faith is really a crisis of love: “For love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. ... But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps a complete science.”
No, love is not as easy as we may think. And its challenge to us is certainly nothing new.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University