I must confess something to you: I’ve always doubted, at least a little, John’s statement that we cannot love a God we do not see if we do not love a sister or brother we can see. It always seemed to me that an opposite principle would be truer, that loving what can be seen is far easier than loving what is not seen, and not loving the seen is also easier. I mean, I see the failings and suffer the injury of these seen brothers and sisters, don’t I? I also see their beauty and goodness at times. So then, how can my love of God be doubted by my lack of love for other people, especially when they can sometimes be seen as not very deserving of that love?
18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;
for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears
has not reached perfection in love.
19 We love because he first loved us.
20 Those who say, “I love God,”
and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars;
for those who do not love a brother or sister
whom they have seen, cannot love God
whom they have not seen.
21 The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
1 John 4:18-21
Have you ever read some of the old prayers of saints gone by, the prayers that are rich hymns of love for our unseen God? Those prayers have drawn me like a moth to the flame for years, and also left me a bit confounded. How do these prayers come into being? How do I love an unseen God that way, and not just be celebrating the ideas of that God which I’ve been taught?
Let us pray…
“I entreat thee, dearest Saviour,
come and reign over my heart.
Far from me for ever be all other loves but thine,
my Supreme Good.
Burn me with the fire of thy beauty,
O sovereign of my heart;
to thee I sacrifice all, even my inmost being.
Jesus, lord of my heart, mighty and strong, all hail!
O Saviour, reign absolutely over this heart of mine.
Oh! How happy I am to think
that thy reign can have no end.
Thousands of hearts have loved thee tenderly,
thousands of hearts will cherish thee in time to come.
Would that they were all united with mine
to love and cherish thee as thou deservest.
Would that I could make thee sought for and loved
by all the sons of Adam, Lord who art all lovable!
Triumph, my love, my beginning, and my all!
I want thee only, desire thee alone!
My joy, my great joy is that thou art God,
a God that is good, perfect, immeasurable,
infinte, just, wise, powerful.
I love thee for thy own sake, and I rejoice
in thy favours for the sole reason that they are thine!
I throw myself into thy arms, Jesus,
with all the fervour of my soul.
I sing for joy that all of the angels
and saints adore and praise thee.
Oh! That I could love thee in proportion as thou art lovable!
But since this is impossible for any creature,
let me at least love thee as much as I can and ought.
Fill my soul with thy love, my God,
so that I may die in its embrace,
wholly devoured and burnt up in its flame.
How much I repent having loved anything else but thee!
Oh! Would that I might have my life over again,
and drown it in thy love!
Sweet life of my soul, let my heart faint away in thee!
What else can I desire in heaven,
what else can I seek on earth,
I have asked of thee one favour alone,
and it is all that I shall seek, Lord, at thy hand:
to dwell in thy house all the days of my life.
May my last breath be a sigh of love.
May I die of thy love, my God.
May my life, if it did not begin with love,
at least end in it;
and let my last act be an act of love.”
from the Aspirations of Cardinal Bona
I have prayed these aspirations with the good Cardinal many times over the years, always caught and entranced by the deep poetry and power of the words. This morning as I was praying my own small daily aspiration “let me love, let me learn, let me serve” I was reminded of this prayer of love and I turned to love God with my whole self. I turned all my inner strength to focus on loving my God, my unseen God, my hope and center of faith. From that exercise of loving God, straining to love and embrace the unseen, I felt another door open, a door to a treasure room of strength to love the people around me.
I think now that John was actually saying something along these lines… that we can’t have truly given ourselves to the act of loving God, a God we do not see, if a greater love for those who are seen around us has not been manifested in our lives. He’s not essentially contrasting the ability to love what is seen versus what is unseen, but he’s teaching a principle: Turning our hearts to God in a deep stream of affection and love will automatically cause us to have a deeper affection and love for the people around us made in the image of God and so beloved by God. If I’m not loving people, and I find it so difficult to do so, then I need to turn back to applying myself to loving God, for that love is being lost.
In truth, in living the religious life, walking in faith for years, there are many pitfalls that can sneak in and replace my love of God: love of self, feelings of correctness, personal piety, personal giftedness, pride, anger, impatience, fatigue. Love takes effort. Remember how our scriptures tie the love of God and the love of other people together in several ways, from this passage in John’s letter to the famous summary of Law and prophets that Jesus gives in Matthew 22:34-40 that is repeated by Paul in his letters: 1) love the Lord your God and, 2) love your neighbor as your very self.
But somewhere past simply agreeing that those two commands constitute a summary of the Law, past agreeing that these are two important streams of love, there is a reality that John’s seems to hint at for us, that there is an intrinsic connection between those loves. Instead of getting caught up in arguing with John about ways to love those seen and unseen, I need to immerse myself in loving the unseen so that the tidal surge and burning sweep of that love may overflow to the people around me. May I love my God in such a giving of myself, such a visceral application of my strength and being, that when my eyes move to those around me my eyes still see only God. And then I not only am loving the people I see, but my cherished unseen God suddenly has a face as well.