It was difficult to believe that is was still February with the beautiful spring like weather. The trails through the woods were slushy with the quickly melting ice. The quiet sunshine that had revealed dust and cobwebs indoors, now illuminated the still, grey branches of barren trees. The blueness of the sky and white puffy clouds had given the illusion of warmth and I had not put on enough layers for these cold woods. It was the sunlight that had enticed me outdoors for a tease of spring. I heard birds singing and even saw some daffodils beginning to push up through the sodden earth. The blue, cerulean skies gave the empty branches lines of etching against the palette of blue.
Talking with a good friend earlier in the day, left me musing over my comment to her. I had meant it as a compliment, but I was now uneasy, realizing I had lost the conviction of what I was saying as I said it. It had come across as self-serving and I hadn’t convinced myself when I said, “I love you unconditionally.” It was not a comment that usually comes up in conversation, but I wanted to believe I was capable of it so I had said it. Now, I was wondering. Saints and holy people perhaps love unconditionally, most of us cannot.
The conversation, oddly enough, had been about dogs. My friend had gotten another dog. I was quite surprised by the first dog, because during the two decades we had known one another and while her kids were growing up, there were no pets. It was all unexpected, at least to me it was. She was talking about her dogs and added that her dogs give her such ‘joy’ and ‘unconditional love.’ Perhaps sensing my surprise, she further explained by adding, “I think I have just had so many deep hurts and losses in my family; my childhood, my parents’ divorce, my divorce, not hearing from my grown children…” her voice trailed off and she almost seemed embarrassed to admit, “these dogs mean everything to me, they love me unconditionally and no one ever has.”
There was a long pause after that, and then I had added, “I love you unconditionally.” I knew her well and I think I wanted to give her that. The conversation wound down and we hung up, but I kept thinking about what her dogs meant to her and then my comment. I was uneasy with the “unconditional” part and it was this I was still ruminating about on my walk. “Unconditional” means without conditions on the other person and is associated with altruistic love. The words are easier than actually loving someone with no conditions. I wanted to love unconditionally, but did I? I didn’t think so.
Father Robert Barron describes love, “to will the good of the other.” St. Paul describes love as the greatest of the theological virtues, “But now these three things abide: faith, hope, love: but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corin. 13:13). And the often read Scripture of weddings, describing the virtues of love is 2 Corinthians 13…”patient, kind, not irritable…” Each time I hear the passage read I fail as soon as they say “patient” and I wonder again, “Is kind of love possible?”
Father Robert Barron talks of Mother Teresa’s love, she is soon to be canonized, a living saint during our lifetime. He describes Mother Teresa’s love; seen in her smile, her radiance and joy, and this was seen while she lived in absolute and abject poverty in one of the worst slums in the world. It was through the impossibility of love, particularly in such circumstances, that Mother Teresa is now to become Saint Teresa. Through this radical love of Christ she became holy. She surrendered to Christ, allowing Him to keep chiseling away at her life until He had created a masterpiece of beauty in her life. Mother Teresa conformed to the greatest of virtues-love. Her life became a witness to the kind of love Christ exemplified in His life, most particularly on the Cross.
How did she do this? How did she love unconditionally and totally? Where did she find this kind of love? Must we move to Calcutta or do something so radically difficult and absolute? No—we don’t have to, we may be called to live a life of love right where we are in something as simple and difficult as loving our spouse, a friend, a child, a stranger.
Perhaps it was the explanation of Mother Teresa, or my earlier conversation, but Father Barron said something that resonated with me, “You can will many of the virtues; making yourself more courageous, have more temperance, more justice, but love is the one virtue that cannot be overdone. And it is the one virtue, the highest of theological virtues, that you cannot make yourself become—you cannot will yourself to be more loving. This makes prayer an essential component of love. You can only beg, ask and plead to be more loving and this is what Mother Teresa did.” *
I realized with astonishment that I had been trying to will myself to be more loving, hoping for overwhelming feelings of love. But love is not a noun, it is a verb and we learn to love, perhaps even learn to love unconditionally, only as much as we are willing to surrender to God in prayer. Once we surrender though, there is no limit to God’s love, but we must plead in prayer for the gift of love. Everyone wants love—if there was a simple way to ‘attain or will it’ we would buy, sell, will ourselves to love. But if we humbly surrender to it—it is limitless and unconditional, infusing our hearts as God hears our prayers.
Mother Teresa became a saint of love, exemplified love among the poorest of the poor. She did so by spending hours and hours in prayer, begging God (even during the times when she no longer felt the presence of God) for love. She emptied herself out so that God could fill her with his love and now she is an example of holiness, a lifetime of prayerful begging.
Yes all this sounds like too much, but thankfully Mother Teresa is already taken, so God will give you each of us a different path towards love. Begin by caring for, perhaps a beloved pet. I do not believe that one who acts kindly towards animals can be an uncaring person. If you have been hurt deeply, you may have to patiently beg in prayer for small opportunities for love. Grasp such moments. It may be a pet that opens your heart, a new friend, an act of mercy for past hurts. It is now my grandson who is unexpectedly giving me profound, new opportunities of love.
May we be transformed by our Lenten practices and pray for love each day, surrendering ourselves in these coming weeks to God. To become holy is to allow God to live His life in your life. Live your life with an attentiveness for the opportunities “to will the good of other.” Allow Him to invade your life in such a way that you are a humble beggar of a holy life.
*Father Robert Barron. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5xkIWUT3CM
written by Debra Classen