the hymn to love

Wednesday, 24th Week of Ordinary Time

Br. David Steindl-Rast told us a story about attending the Parliament of World Religions in 1993. He of course was one of the representatives of Christianity, and if I got the story right, at the last minute the organizers asked that the representatives of each of the religions would come up with a reading from their tradition to proclaim to the entire assembly. David was scrambling to think of something quickly and he came up with the reading we heard today, from the 13th chapter of Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, his great hymn to love. I guess I have heard this reading so many hundreds of times that it’s easy to lose its significance and beauty. But imagine if you had never heard it read before, or didn’t know anything about Christianity, and heard this for the first time as a representation of what Christianity is about. Br. David said there were gasps as he read it, and when he finished the assembly broke into applause. The veracity of this text is self-evident; and it’s universal appeal as well.

To really understand what St. Paul is pointing out, we have to remember the context of this particular passage, beautiful as it is. As we heard at the end of chapter 12 of the letter (remembering that these chapter divisions are arbitrary––Paul didn’t write in chapters), Paul was writing about the various gifts of the Body of Christ: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, assistance, leadership, and various kinds of tongues. Now my Jesuit spiritual director always insists that there is a hierarchy embedded there––the lowest being tongues, leadership and healing, the highest being apostles, prophets, teachers. And then Paul says, “And I will show you a more excellent way . . . ” He’s continuing the hierarchy. This is more excellent (I’m not sure that is good English) than even apostleship, deeds of power, teaching, healing or tongues––love.

There is an old adage of St. Augustine, from his Homily on 1 John––“Love and do what you will.” This has to be taken with the same caveat as “Follow your bliss.” What we think is our bliss at 16 or 25 or even 40 years old may not actually be bliss at all. It usually takes a whole lot of purification to find what real happiness is, the makarios of the Beatitudes––poverty of spirit, mourning, peacemaking, etc. In the same way, what we think of as love when we’re 16 or 25 or even 40, may not actually have been love at all, but something more like attraction and desire. In the same way, the love that a young couple has for each other when they have this reading read at their wedding may not be the kind of love that they are going to be called upon to have after the honeymoon unless it matures into something else. Because the love we are talking about is tough love.

The same thing applies to “tough love” however as to Paul’s speaking the truth in love.[1] On the one hand, if it’s not true, it’s not really loving. But, if it’s not loving, it’s not really true. And the same with tough love: sometimes love has gotta be tough, but just being tough just ain’t enough. The toughness has really got to truly be an expression of love. The example I heard once was being tough is telling someone, “You’re a drunk––or an addict, etc.––and you better clean your life up or you’re on your own!” That’s tough, and bravo! That’s a noble truth telling. Tough love says, “You’re a drunk––or you got a real drug problem––, and I’ll go to AA meetings with you.” Tough says, “You’re a jerk and I’m gonna cut you off.” Good for you! Stand up for yourself. That’s tough. Tough love on the other hand says, “Hey, you’re being a jerk and I wish we could find a way to stop hurting each other.” Sometimes those approaches don’t work––I know all too well––but we still have to try that first. There’s a real vulnerability and investment to tough love.

These qualifiers that St. Paul adds are––one of my favorite themes––not a list of feelings; these are actions. This is not tenderness and romance, and this is not just “being nice.” What does it mean to love according the Paul? Listen to these qualifiers. It means being patient; being kind; not being envious or boastful, not being arrogant or rude. It means not insisting on one’s own way; it means not being irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. These are not feelings; these are actions. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. This is the very definition of authentic tough love.

This also again sounds like Chapter 73 of the Rule, on the good zeal of monks, or the end of the steps of humility, Chapter 7 of the Rule, how we ascend by descending in humble service. These actions of love are the only way to arrive at the perfect love that casts out all fear. And St. Benedict says that at that point:

All that we once performed with dread

we will now begin to observe without effort,

as though naturally, from habit,

no longer out of a fear of hell,

but out of love for Christ, good habit and a delight in virtue.

May God grant us good zeal, tough love, patience, kindness and endurance.

[1] Eph 4:15.

Share Button

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *