Revolutionaries of Agape

            Today, the word "love" has become synonymous with "like." For example, we say we love pizza, or we loved the last episode of Stranger Things. Yet, we also say that we love our family, or our significant other. But, surely, we do not feel the same way toward food or images on a TV as we do toward a living human being who we care about and who cares about us.

“Like” comes from the Old English word for “to please, be pleasing, be sufficient.” The meaning of “love” is a bit more ambiguous because its origins are varied. The word itself comes from Old English, meaning, “to feel love for, cherish, show love to; delight in, approve.” The complex part comes when you trace the word “love” back to the Latin “caritatem” and the Greek “agape,” meaning “brotherly love, charity,” or “the love of God for man and man for God.” When the Gospels were translated from Greek to Latin, “caritatem” became the replacement for “agape.” Then, when the Bible was translated into English, “caritatem” was translated to either “charity” or “love.” For the most part, we now limit the definition of “love” to the self-pleasing emotion, and disregard the connotation of charitable affection because the emotional type is more instantly gratifying to us. And, if you know a little psychology, you may understand how when something is pleasing, we tend to form a habit of it. Unfortunately, this limited understanding of love has permeated throughout society.

            The linguistic ambiguity of "love" does not only affect how we speak; it also influences how we understand what love really is. St. Thomas Aquinas described love as, “to will the good of the other." You can also see the true definition of love when Christ says, "no one has greater love [agape] than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (John 15:13). It is in giving that we truly love. Ironically, by emptying ourselves, we become devoid of our selfish, mundane desires, and are able to be filled with others, their thoughts, desires, and feelings. We were made for this union with others, not for isolated self-seeking.

            However, our society and our language tell us that love is all about me. Love has been reduced to self-pleasure, instead of an encounter with another. Since the sexual revolution in the 50s and 60s, we have seen a regression from chaste, wholesome relationships to a hurting culture that settles for short, improperly-ordered hook ups. We take the pleasures and emotions of a relationship to be the meaning of love. We try to hold on to the euphoric feelings that come with companionship and romance. But, when times are tough in a relationship, we often want to give up and move on. However, St. Paul clearly lays out that,

“love [agape] is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love [agape] never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

His words reveal that love is totally other-centered. He does not define love as being pleasurable. He does not say that love becomes easily-irritated or that it quits. Rather, he characterizes this greatest of all virtues as not seeking its own interests, not being quick-tempered, and never failing. Of course, we are human and struggle with living out this noble ideal. But, it should be our aim; we should not settle for a lesser love. For, Christ tells us, “be [perfected], just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Also, Pope Francis beckons us “to be revolutionaries, . . . to swim against the tide; . . . to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love.” We must be revolutionaries of this true love - revolutionaries of agape.

            A harsh example of how much our society has tainted our perception of love is the anti-life culture. Society has gone so far as to warp our perception of what constitutes an “other,” so that we cannot even identify who we should love. We have turned so much inward toward ourselves, that we have taken defining personhood into our own hands. A person is only valuable as long as they suit our desires, or as long as they do not make us feel uncomfortable. When a new life us “unintentionally” formed, it is acceptable to kill it because otherwise it will mess up the plans we have for our life, or we assume that the baby will not live a valuable life under non-ideal circumstances. If a person on life-support is costing a hospital too much money, it is okay to let them prematurely die, under the euphemistic guise of organ donation, so that the hospital can have an empty bed and so that they can receive compensation for the organs. If someone is struggling with a terminal illness, doctors are encouraged to assist their patient in suicide, instead of entering into their patient’s hurt, and helping them find palliative care and support to deal with their illness. These horrific cultural norms are canaries in a coal mine, revealing the destructive path down which we have moved, straying from true meaning and fulfillment. We have given so much power to our passions that our will and intellect have atrophied. Our desire for pleasure drowns out our ability to stop and ponder the consequences and alternatives of our narcissistic actions.

            Now, I don't mean to be all gloom and doom. Rather, I belabored this topic because it can be so easy to become blinded by the many deceitful societal lies that vie for our attention and distract us from who we were really made to be. But, St. Paul tells us, “do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Thankfully, Christ offers another alternative to our misguided path. He tells us, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). We love ourselves so much that this great commandment highlights how much Christ wants us to love others. He says, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Christ exemplified his own words throughout the Gospels. In his meetings with the sick, the shunned, and the sinful, he entered into their life, their pain; he encountered them where they were, no matter how unpleasant it was, or how much it injured his reputation. He lived this way so fiercely that he became “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

A majority of us will not have to suffer the unfathomable amount of pain that Christ suffered on the cross. But, we can participate in his suffering, uniting our daily mortifications to his cross. We can seek out others, those nearby us, in our families, at work, at school, and in our community. Those Christ has placed in our lives are images of Him whom we should serve and love charitably. “These least brothers” can be a friend who lost a family member, a coworker dealing with depression, or a sibling who has a debilitating disease. Walking beside them in their time of struggle is being Christ to them. Also, strangers are others who we can serve; think if the parable of the Good Samaritan. Smiling at the people you pass by, thanking the service men and women that you meet, and encountering and talking with the homeless, instead of just passing them by or throwing them some change, are all ways to serve the least among us. If we see the other as they truly are, and not as the stereotype with which society has labeled them, we can move closer to encountering people as Christ does. By focusing our relationships less on our selfish desires and expectations, and more on knowing and experiencing the other, the more we are drawn out of ourselves to live the revolution of agape. When we make our relationships, and our lives, centered more on the other, we become more Christlike; and, we can repeat with John the Baptist, “he must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

How an Infatuation with Evangelism Led Me Away From God.

This past Christmas season at a young adult event, I made the sly move of “stealing” a C.S. Lewis book during the white elephant gift exchange. The rules had been set, after two steals the gift was locked and could no longer be stolen. At first, I found myself with slight guilt for having secured the second steal from the young adult minster, but my conscience quickly moved on. The C.S. Lewis book was The Great Divorce, one of several C.S. Lewis books I had been wanting to read.  

Sometime after the first of the New Year, I found time to sit down with the book. Surprised the book was only slightly over 100 pages, I anticipated a short read. At first, the reading was brisk as a majority of the story seemed anecdotal - void of any “ah ha” moments. In all fairness, there may have been “ah ha” moments but my heart was too guarded to be receptive. However, around page 70 my heart of stone came to life. Unsure if I was encountering a moment of grace or an onset of sheer terror, my reading stopped. I saw myself in the story. I was caught between the touches of grace and the blunders of hell.

Without ruining too much of the book, The Great Divorce is a theological fiction in which C.S. Lewis writes about a bus traveling between heaven and hell. Citizens of hell can choose to travel to the valleys of heaven to “test the waters”. Spirits in heaven try to convince the citizens of hell to stay. While intrigued, most citizens of hell freely choose to return to hell having convinced themselves out of eternal joy.

In one such instance, a famous painter is on the verge of committing to heaven, but quickly turns back upon learning he is no longer famous on earth. He chooses to abandon heaven in order to work towards his own gain. The narrative between the painter and the Spirit of Heaven goes as follows, starting with the Spirit of Heaven.

“’Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.’

‘But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country.’

‘No. You’re forgetting’, said the Spirit. ‘That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

‘Oh, that’s ages ago.’ said the Ghost. ‘One grows out of that, of course, you haven’t seen my later works. One becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.’

‘One does, indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower – become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.’”

A chord in me was struck and I sat reflecting on my own soul. For me to explain further, I need to share some background.

Several years ago, I found myself the sponsor of a close friend who had transitioned, first from an atheist to a Protestant, and eventually a Catholic. In becoming Catholic he secured my own conversion to Catholicism. While raised in the faith, I never took the time to learn what we believed. Once I began learning, my thirst for theology, Catholicism, and Christ became palpable and unrestrained. I started leading prayer groups and speaking on the nature of Christ and Catholicism. This enthusiasm was born of a genuine love for Christ.

Over the course of the next several years I dove deeper into what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Sharing the Good News took root in my heart. I started a faith based blog and erected a routine prayer life. Eventually I was led to entertain the idea of the priesthood and left a good paying job to discern God’s will. As a precursor to seminary, I committed to doing a year of service at the same ministry where I sponsored my friend. The year of service started by attending an incredible retreat immersed in the mission of evangelization. It was life changing and I anticipated the remainder of my year of service to be just as enthralling. Long story short, it wasn’t. It was actually quite the opposite.

Upon returning from the retreat, I expected the idea of evangelism to be widely accepted and understood within my ministry. It wasn’t that the idea of evangelism wasn’t widely accepted, evangelism just looked a lot different in the ministry I was serving than it did on my retreat. I refused to accept that evangelism could look different to others than the way I experienced it. Armed with the right way to evangelize, I began a crusade to ensure hearts changed. A few months in to my year of service I grew tired and overwhelmed. Looking back, there were great people who loved Christ in the ministry and they had given the idea of a new way to evangelize much consideration. My heart was just expecting something different than what I got. I began to grow bitter, bitterness in the form of self-righteousness. “If only x, y and z happened… Catholicism would finally thrive”, became a popular narrative in my mind, heart, and prayer life.

It wasn’t long before I began to hurt those I loved and served. And even sooner, I fell into old habits of sin. This spiral continued until the end of my year of service. While a lot of good came out of this year and I saw hearts transformed by Christ, I could have composed myself more gracefully. My year of service ended but the bitter spiral in my heart did not.

No longer considering a vocation to the priesthood I headed to graduate school. Transplanted into a new community, I was no longer “the guy who is probably called to be a priest” or “the guy who knows theology”. I was just another guy in the pews - I preferred it this way. I wanted time to sort through my dissonance. Expecting my faith to heal without the formal responsibility of serving others, I was surprised when my faith actually suffered. It appeared I had fallen from grace and some of my choices were evidence of this. I felt I was hanging by a thread, but on the rare occasion I stopped to pray, I could see God holding me - refusing to let me fall. No matter how unfaithful I was to God, He was always faithful to me. Even knowing this reality, I still felt empty and my faith was dry. I could not figure out why.

Upon reading the quote I shared from C.S Lewis’s book The Great Divorce, I understood the reason my faith was faltering. I had become infatuated with the “paint” instead of the “light I was painting”. I was infatuated with the details of evangelism, rather than the God who was behind it all. So much of my faith depended on “being the guy who is probably called to be a priest” or “the guy with the theological answers”.  In the words of C.S. Lewis, I had become… “drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him”.

While doing all the evangelizing I failed to realize I too need to be evangelized. While evangelization may be the act of sharing the Good News, it is sustained by entering into relationship. Relationship with each other and relationship with God. Without this relationship, the Good News becomes empty air, something to be said rather than lived. Pope Francis recently shared this sentiment saying, “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”

It is cleaner and easier to serve ideas. Ideas are void of the emotions they evoke in people. Though not true, I tend to believe my ideas have never betrayed me, only the people I have shared them with. I may not like it, but those people hold the key to my salvation. For they instructed my heart more about faith, hope and love, than my ideas ever did. For my ideas were just a pallet and some paint, but those people were showered in reality and light. People give me the opportunity to act like a Christian and not just think like one. Lord lead me back to your love. Lord lead me back to you.