Tough Love


In Christianity, both God’s love for us and the love we are to have for one another are linked to the Cross. In his discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus said: “There is no greater love than this, that a man lays his life down for his friends” (John 15:13). But at Gethsemane he prayed to be spared this, and was answered with silence. We pray, “Do not put us to the test,” and it is all right for us to ask not to be crucified. But there are times when the answer will be the one Jesus met at Gethsemane: an apparent silence, one that feels like abandonment. C. S. Lewis pointed out somewhere that of all the prayers in the New Testament, this was the only one that was denied.

I am less interested here in what biblical scholarship might have to say about this than I am in what amounts to the story of Jesus. Think of the fact that when Jesus was baptized there was a voice from heaven: “This is my beloved son.” When he was transfigured there was a voice from heaven: “This is my beloved son.” When Jesus asks the source of that voice for release from the suffering that awaits him, there is no voice from heaven, only silence.

Love in the Christian sense is not a warm feeling, and can even seem at times to be cold (although it never is). Our culture may have a harder time with this than some other cultures do. I read a recent report on the attitudes of young Hindus and Muslims toward arranged marriages. Those who defend such arrangements argue that when love is not based on emotion, it is more likely to be deep and enduring because one enters the union knowing that love is something that must be learned.

In this sense, those of us who are born into Christianity and must learn what it means are like people in arranged marriages. We have to learn, slowly and sometimes painfully, what love really means and how it is connected to the Cross. We sense this instinctively when it comes to love for our children, for example. We can imagine ourselves dying for them (though we would rather not). But to die for our enemies? That does not come naturally to us. Yet love for our enemies is commanded, because it is only love that goes that far that allows us to participate in the sort of love God has for us.

A man who was going through great pain during a difficult marriage stayed with it for as long as he could, against the grain, because his wife had suffered through a terrible childhood. He told me, “The words, ‘This is my body, broken for you,’ and ‘This is my blood, shed for you,’ aren’t only about the Eucharist.” Of course he was right. Or rather, the Eucharist is about not only Jesus’ presence with us now, but also the suffering that made his being fully with us possible.

The point that must be emphasized is that the suffering is not the end. It was acceptance of the Cross and obedience—the total obedience to the will of the Father, the self-emptying that made Jesus completely human and revealed his divinity at the same time—that led to resurrection, ascension, the gift of the Spirit, and Christ’s presence with us now. It is hard for us to accept the fact that we are really loved so completely that we are invited to enter fully into the life of God, first by accepting that love and then by allowing it to transform us into people who are capable of loving.

In my last column (“Outrageous Death,” September 26), I quoted Philip Larkin’s despairing poem “Aubade.” I promise not to make a habit of including a poem with every column, but feel obliged to offer this one, “Love,” by George Herbert (1593–1633). Simone Weil is one of many who have loved it, and I hope you will too.

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
     If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here.”
     Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.”
 Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     “Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
      Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
     “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
     So I did sit and eat.

Published in the 2008-11-21 issue: 

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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