Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Greatest Commandment

And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ This is the greatest and foremost commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matt. 22:35-40

I remember laying our Fr. Wiley’s garments for the Mass. I handled them as though they were the garments of Christ Himself. I remember the first Mass I served, my soprano second grade voice mumbling and stumbling through the Latin. I still feel a shiver of awe that I had at the altar, being so close to the sacrament.

I remember I decided to become a priest in that same year. I never fulfilled that desire within the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Along my way I exchanged the majestic ritual and awe of the Latin high Mass for the simplicity and literalness of a protestant “Bible Church” tradition. I have since returned to the majesty of the liturgy in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but I am not here to defend or condemn any of these, but to merely bear witness to the love of God.

The common thread in my change of beliefs and traditions was my desire to obey the command of Christ. Along the way from Catholicism to Protestantism, somewhere, some how, the commandments themselves became gods, wooden exactness became the criteria for my salvation. There was no mystery, all was knowledge, reverence became fear, and humility became spiritual arrogance. In all of this there was a gnawing hollowness. While I was convinced in my mind I was accomplishing something good, there was something of great importance missing.

Somewhere, somehow, I discovered mystery and awe again. I found in my life things of inexplicable grace and power. I became a child again, I ceased to figure out how the rabbit got into the hat and reveled in the joy of the magic. I ceased to try to understand how we can conjure up love from hearts battered and hurt by life, and just loved people. It was then that I understood God. It was then that I discovered peace.

Jesus said there are really only two commandments. All the other commandments are corollary or commentary. The two greatest commandments: fall in love…joyfully, passionately, head over heels, wonderfully in love with the Lord your God, and have compassion and mercy, forgiveness and grace for your neighbor.

I hear the simplicity of the commandment and my heart fails within me. How can it be?

How can I be commanded to love? How can I bring forth on command the joyful, consuming passion of love? I know I can act as though I love someone. There have been times moral expediency or guilt or fear or lust have commanded me to act as though I was in love. Sometimes the act fooled those for whom I was acting, sometimes not. In the acting though, there was no consuming passion, no tears of joyful wonder, no sacrifice of my life beyond the expectation of something of equal or greater value in return, nothing to surprise myself at the depth of love and desire I had for my beloved.

And how can I be commanded to look at someone suffering and feel my stomach wrench in compassion for him? I know I can be coerced by guilt or the desire for praise into giving or acting like I am moved by suffering. Despite the act, my heart can still remain cold, unmoved and selfishly motivated.

In the simplicity of the commandment is the root of my distress. I know I cannot be commanded to do the very thing I am commanded to do. The love I know I ought to have for God and my neighbor I cannot bring forth on demand. Even if the demand is from God Himself.

I intuitively understand in other aspects of life I cannot be commanded even to appreciate something, much less to love someone. I cannot be told to appreciate Picasso, Debussey, T.S. Elliot, heavy metal hair bands, French food or jazz. I cannot be told to worship the ground someone walks on. I cannot be commanded to adore someone. I know these things about myself and yet I have blindly accepted the notion that God thinks He can command me to appreciate Him, love Him unconditionally and passionately and care deeply and sacrificially about His creations.

The problem with accepting the notion that God has actually commanded or even issued a strong suggestion that we had better love Him and our neighbor (whether the suggestion is for our own good or not is irrelevant here) is that other notions come with the package, much like fleas on a dog. The flea on this dog is that I am supposed to be capable of loving on command. I know full well I cannot. Even if it is for my own good. And so I struggle with the command and I struggle with my inability to obey fully and love as deeply as God tells me I ought.

But here are some things I have come to understand. These things have opened to me the mystery of the command:

There are things of wonder and beauty that move me deeply and incomprehensibly to feelings that I cannot control. I am commanded, in a sense, and I am powerless to disobey. I understand these things: To see my best friend for the first time in many years is a command to smile and be glad. To say goodbye to one I love, to embrace for the last time in this life is a command to look deeply and wordlessly at one another and feel a deep emptiness fill with tears. To hear “You are forgiven” after grievously hurting someone I love is a command to be humbled and grateful and at peace within. To see a child hollow eyed and reduced to skin over bones by hunger is a command to feel compassion. When I hear a certain piece of music it is a command to remember that friend, that love, that time when….., and to feel just as I did all those years ago. The smell of roses, a “greasy spoon” on a certain street corner, a photograph, a name alone is a command to rejoice, to be misty eyed, to smile, to feel melancholy or to laugh. These things command me, not with words, but with wonder and majesty and beauty that reaches into the depths of my most secret needs and desires and my most sacred memories and deepest hungers.

Perhaps then, it is not that God commands me or tells me that I MUST fall in love with Him, as in “YOU WILL EAT THOSE PEAS, YOUNG MAN!!”, but it is that he simply places Himself before me in all of His loveliness, beauty, awesome majesty and gracious mercy. Perhaps He commands me, He draws from my heart and soul all the love and devotion and adoration I harbor within me by His very presence. He does not seek to coerce love from me by directive, but He goes to any length to compel me to adoration and to elicit my love from me. For God to reveal Himself to me is in itself the command to love Him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. To be forgiven by Him is the command to have peace. To know His mercy is the command to walk humbly with Him in gratitude. To see His heart’s desire for my heart is the command to rejoice. To find His love unending and infinite is the command to worship and adore.

Thus the greatest commandment is not so much a dictate but more the deepest desire of God’s heart being expressed to me. “Fall in love with me” is the command of His presence, the compelling message of the Cross.

The second greatest commandment is like the first- to love your neighbor as yourself. It is like the first because it is impossible to fulfill by sheer will. It is like the first because it is an overflowing of the first, a command that is rooted in the passion we have for our Beloved God. This I have come to understand too.

Being in love commands me to see the world through new eyes. Where there was once nothing of interest now there is delirious beauty. I now see irises and strawberries in a way I have never seen them before. Love commands me to hear music and the wind in the trees like I’ve never heard it before. I feel the temperature of the morning air like I’ve never felt it before. My love commands me to be touched by certain words, by thunder, artichokes, concrete park benches, hot dogs and blue in ways that I have never known because they are now shared with my beloved.

So, you see, I have fallen in love with God. I now see the world as through new eyes. Being in love with God is the command to see my neighbor in a new way. To see someone in need, or hurting or sorrowful or doubting or in pain, this is the command to my heart to be compassionate, forgiving, kind, gracious and merciful. It is simply what happens because of my heart’s deepest love and longing for its Beloved, God. I cannot help it, it all happens inexplicably and overwhelmingly. The presence of the world before me is itself a command to love it and serve it because of the love I have for its Creator.

Jesus said, “If I be lifted up upon the cross, I will draw all men unto myself.” From His cross He draws from within me all that I am and all that I have. All is new, I am my Beloved’s and He is mine. In His consuming passion He has done what all the finest and best lovers in stories and in history have always done. He gave His life to possess me, to win my eternal devotion and love.

Yes, the Cross is like the old song, the smell of a summer’s new mown grass, the distant rumble of a freight train in the humid night, the sound of an old familiar voice, a friend walking through the door unannounced, that draws from somewhere deep within me a remembrance of what once was, and rekindles the fierce desire to know Him, a passion for His presence, my love, peace, and sometimes a tear of grief and yes, even a weeping for joy.


helaineking said...

You really touched my heart with this. It put into words the confusion that I have so often felt by these two great commandements. Especially the second commandment, which I so fail at on a daily basis. So then the trick is to allow the love to happen when we are confronted with the incredible beauty of this world, the unbelievable and boundless grace He gives to us, instead of resisting it. That is far easier however, than allowing that same love to happen when confronted with the reality of all who are our neighbors.

Fr. Christian Mathis said...

Beautiful words Steve. Thanks for the reminder of God's pursuit for all of us.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Great post. I, too, have felt that shiver of awe near the altar. (For that reason, I generally sit near the rear of the church; the shiver can be overwhelming.)

As for God's love for us, your post reminds me of the Hound of Heaven. To think that God would care that much, to keep chasing us as we skip away until He reaches down and grabs us, is something that, at least for me, evokes great love in return -- and readiness to do whatever He asks no matter how hard (and hope that He overlooks how lousy I am at some of His taskings).