The Contours of Christian Love
Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) · October 19, 2009
Can one call oneself a Christian without love? And what is the nature of the love we are called to show our neighbors? In this week's episode, Fr Matthew examines four patristic passages on love, and asks the question: What is it about Christian love that makes it unique in the world?
I would like today to focus on love and the fervent insistence of the holy Fathers of the Church that we obey Christ’s command to love one another as he has loved us, and I would like to begin by offering a quotation from a letter of St. Basil the Great, the 203rd in our collection of his epistles. St. Basil the Great, writing in the fourth century, says this:
I cannot persuade myself that without love to others and without as far as rests with me peaceableness towards all I can be called a worthy servant of Jesus Christ.
Let us pause for a moment at these remarkable, direct words. To St. Basil, the first sign of the authentic servant of Christ is love. “I cannot persuade myself,” he says, “that I can be a servant of Christ without love.” And this is, in St. Basil’s expression, not love as a generic idea, as a general feeling; it is specifically the love of other, the love of neighbor. And this love is tied at the same time to a deeply interior state, to peaceableness, as he says: “I must love others, and, as far as it rests with me, find peaceableness towards all.”
The love that St. Basil enjoins is active. It is interpersonal. It is shared. But it is also interior, quiet, gentle. These are the contours of Christian love, that it reaches beyond itself, even as the holy Persons of the Trinity are in eternal communion, one with another, and reach beyond themselves into the creation that they have fashioned. And yet, at the same time, Christian love also emanates from the heart and is centered in the heart. It is only when the heart is peaceable, gentle, calm that it is able, like the Trinity, to overflow, to outpour that love to all creation.
And this, this calm interior life which reaches out from that very center of peace to the whole world is the love that shows forth the true servants of Christ. Without this, says St. Basil, we cannot at all be his servants. This definition of Christian love—well, it is not so much a definition as it is a testimony to Christian love—resonates across the words of the Fathers in every generation, in every place, on the need for the Christian to love, but to love with a love that is particular.
Love in our modern world is defined in a thousand different ways: emotional satisfaction, self-gratification, a looking towards the other but not necessarily for genuine reasons of altruism or compassion. There is much selfish love in the world. There is permissive love, which under the guise of love allows the neighbor to do and be whatever he or she may want, but to allow the self whatever I may want, seemingly [takes] no account for the fact that our wants, our wishes, are deeply disfigured by our sin.
And so the Fathers define for us through their testimony, through their witness, authentic Christian love in its true contours. We are called to love as Christ loved. And this love is borne out of our experience of Christ, out of our genuine coming to know him and genuinely coming to live his life. It is not a love that we invent through our emotions, our feelings, our words, and this fact comes across in a quotation from St. John of the Ladder, St. John Climacus, writing in the sixth and seventh centuries from his famous Ladder of Paradise. In the sixth step of that Ladder, we find the following:
Do not search about (he writes) for the words to show people that you love them. Instead, ask God to show them your love without your having to talk about it. Otherwise you will never have enough time, enough both for loving gestures and for compunction.
Love is an active thing, as we saw already in St. Basil, but its being active does not necessarily mean that it must be verbal, an act of our words, of our rational thoughts, of our expression. Christian love is a way of life. It is a way we live, not simply the things that we say, the airs that we choose to give our thoughts and our words.
And our neighbor, says St. John, encounters our love most directly not when they hear us say, “I love you,” but when they are loved, when they experience our loving. It is in the experience of our lives, of the way we live and act and behave and are that they experience true love, a love that is experienced and known far more deeply than were we to say a thousand times, “I love you.”
Such an expression of love is not something that we simply choose to do in the way that I might choose to go to the shops in the morning or I might choose to read a specific text in the evening. True love, Christian love, the type of love we see in the Fathers, is not just an act that we choose; it is part of who we are and how we live. This is what lies behind St. John’s stress that a shallower sort of love, which is only given and shown in words, is not only less profound but also practically impossible. We would never have time to love our neighbors fully in this manner and also to tend to the interior work of our repentance.
And this impossibility—to love continually, wholly, and openly, as Christ commands, in this verbal, wordy way—must make us aware that true love resides far more deeply in the very same way that the impossibility of St. Paul’s command, “Pray without ceasing,” when we understand prayer to be verbal utterances towards the Lord. The impossibility of that idea shows us, if we are attentive, that true prayer, interior prayer, is something far deeper, far more intimate, far more continuous. And so it is with our loving.
True Christian love is not simply a superficial act, a superficial choice, a superficial set of words. It is an expression of our whole life lived in Christ, and because it is lived in Christ, outpoured, shared, in acts of love towards our neighbor.
But a further characteristic of Christian love is that it is an act of self-giving without expectation. Let us look at a text from Abba Dorotheus, writing in the sixth and early seventh centuries. This remarkable Abba said:
Do not require love from your neighbor, for he who requires it is troubled if he does not encounter it. Rather, it is better that you yourself show love toward your neighbor, and in this way bring your neighbor to love.
Christian love is a gift, and it is a gift given without any expectation. Christ, the example of love, does not force the world to love him. He loves it himself so completely, so selflessly, so wholly, that the experience of this love causes creation to respond in love. Love responds to love. This is the pattern of Christian redemption, not a forced response, but that we, the creatures of the Lord, experiencing the love that he has shown, naturally are brought to love him in return.
And this is to be, says Abba Dorotheus, our model of ministry, our model of love, amongst neighbor and amongst the whole world. Not to ask love of others, much less demand it or expect it, but simply to show true and Christian love to all, and by this, Abba Dorotheus says, to bring our neighbor to love. In this we are reminded, made aware, that Christian love is a mystery of participation in the divine life. When we love truly, not merely as an external, emotional, self-gratifying act, but when we truly love, after the model of that love shown to us by God himself, we are participating in the life of our God. We are drawn up into the love of the Lord so that we experience his love, so that we share his love with this world.
And this leads me into a fourth and for today final quotation, a brief saying attributed to St. John Chrysostom which gives us a remarkable image of that divine nature and power of authentic Christian love. St. John writes:
Love for one another makes us immaculate. There is not a single sin which the power of love, like fire, would not destroy. It is easier for feeble brushwood to withstand a powerful flame than for the nature of sin to withstand the power of love. Let us increase this love in our souls in order to stand with all the saints, for they, too, all pleased God well through their love of neighbor.
When I hear these words of St. John, I am reminded of St. Paul’s statement, that faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love. When he says that love is the greatest of these profound virtues, he is not diminishing the importance of the other two. Rather, he is identifying, sharing with us, that there is something unique, something wonderful, in the act of participating in God’s love.
This is the love that created the universe. This is the love that saved man from his sin. This is the love that ascended the Cross. Is it any wonder, then, that St. John Chrysostom would tell us that this love can make us immaculate, that it can conquer sin like flame devours tinder, that it can raise us to fellowship with all the saints? This is not by magic, not by some enchantment, but because love draws us into the life of the loving Lord.
When we see our neighbor, when we see friend, family, stranger, when we see those who love us and even more when we see those that hate us, our charge as Christians is to look into the eyes of this other, to see there the creation of God, to show them a love which is a true expression of our life, not an act that we put on to please them, to impress them, or to make us feel virtuous in ourselves—this is a superficial, wordy love—but to be to them authentically the icon of Christ that we have been created to be, to love them as Christ has loved us, as was his command to his disciples.
And in doing this, we are drawn up into the life of the One who loves us, who creates, redeems, and continually renews us, drawn into the life of God as brothers and sisters, redeemed by Jesus Christ. Through the prayers of all our saints, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.