The 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
St Benedict was a master of the spiritual life, and he knew how to put first things first. In writing his Rule, he devoted all of chapter 4 to what he called “the tools for good works”. Chapter 4 begins with a quotation from this morning’s Gospel: “First of all, love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself”.
The first tool for good works is an instrument with two edges, the love of God and the love of neighbor, and Jesus himself says that “the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments”. We were made to use this tool, to love God and our neighbor, and we learn to use it from our life experiences.
As with any tool, there’s a right way and a wrong way to use it, and most of us begin by using it the wrong way. Before we know how to love, we want too much to be loved, and before we’ve learned to love ourselves in the right way, we want to get our neighbor to love us. That doesn’t work, because it’s using the tool in the wrong way.
The right way is to consult the user’s manual, written by the Designer of the tool. In the user-friendly book of Genesis, it says that God created us in his own image and likeness. Since God is love, our love for our neighbor should be in the image and likeness of our love for God. The tool will work properly if we put God first, and then love those who are made in the image and likeness of God.
Why should we love God at all? St Bernard had the best answer: God himself is the reason we love him; we love God because he is goodness itself, without limits. The right reason for loving ourselves is because we recognize that we are the image and likeness of God. And since every other human being has the very same dignity, we love them as ourselves, as living images of the Godhead.
So the right way to use this tool is to work with both edges at the same time, so that the same charity produces together acts of the love of God and of our neighbor, and that is an art that can only be learned from experience. The whole of life is itself a learning experience, a “school of charity” as Cistercian tradition calls it.
One of the Cistercian Fathers who spoke from his own experience in the school of charity was Blessed Guerric of Igny. In a sermon for the feast of St Benedict, he wrote: “I am not saying that between the love of God and the love of neighbor, there must be any order of time, although there must be an order of intensity. From the very beginning, it is necessary to pay attention to the one and not to neglect the other. But if the heart is right, a person cannot be unaware which of these two loves should be the stronger, which of them should determine the form and expression the other should take, and the limits that should be put on it”.
What Guerric is saying is that the right way to love our neighbor is to cherish God alone for his own sake, and everyone else for love of him. That is why divine love repeatedly commands us to love our neighbor because that is what life is all about, even if we get tired of hearing it. There’s a story from the old Cistercian Night Office that sums it all up. For the feast of St John the Evangelist, there was a reading from St Jerome’s commentary on Galatians. It goes like this:
“In his old age at Ephesus blessed John the Evangelist could barely be supported into church on the arms of his disciples, nor could he say more than a few words when he got there. At each service, he would only repeat, ‘My little children, love one another’. Finally, the disciples who were present, wearied by such constant repetition, said to him, ‘Master, why do you always say the same thing?’ The reply was worthy of John: ‘Because it is the Lord’s command, and if you do only this, it is enough’”.