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The day I graduated from seminary to become a Protestant pastor, I was in a foul mood. But my mood changed when I witnessed real love in action.
It was mid-morning. My parents had taken me out to brunch at a local hotel and, like I said, I was miserable. I was grousing because I didn’t know what the future held. Seminary had been a tough—spiritually challenging—time for me, and I had no idea where God was going to have me serve.
But I was liberated from my pouting when I noticed an elderly couple a table away from us. The man was silver-haired and in good shape, sharply dressed in well-pressed trousers and a tweed jacket. The woman was another story. While she wore a pretty lavender dress and her hair was neatly styled, she hunched over as she ate. She chewed with her mouth wide open. And her eyes were glazed over.
She was clearly in the advanced stages of dementia.
As I took note of the contrast between the two, the man spoke.
“The sausage is delicious,” he said. “Isn’t it? It’s a good source of protein. Have some more. You’ll love it.”
The woman continued shoveling food into her mouth, drooling as she ate, oblivious to the world.
But the old man took a napkin, wiped her mouth, and kept talking to her, his voice lilting with warmth and gentleness.
“Here,” he said. “Have some grapes. They’re your favorite!”
I watched as he carefully popped a little piece of fruit into her mouth and smiled.
Then, all of a sudden, the woman stopped eating. She cocked her head, turned to look at him, and her mouth spread out into a huge, beaming smile. What the man said at that moment moves me to this day.
“Well, there they are,” he said. “There are the blue eyes I fell in love with!”
At that point, my heart melted. And my attitude was radically transformed.
I had spent the last four years studying God’s love—as an attribute of his character, as the spiritual reality undergirding all of life, and as something our lives are supposed to exemplify. But my study was academic, intellectual, abstract. And, for this reason, I was largely unmoved.
But there was something about seeing real love lived out before my eyes, at that moment, that taught me more than 120 hours of graduate-level theology. And it didn’t just teach me–it convicted me, changed me, and inspired me.
When Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, he understood the power that love has when it is authentically expressed in real life. This is, in part, why he opens his letter to them in this way: “and this is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more” (1:9).
But Paul doesn’t just pray for love to abound; he prays for a specific kind of love.
First, our love is to be informed and intelligent. Paul writes, “this is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more, in knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent” (1:9b-10).
When I was barely five years old, I used to go into a garden, cut down some roses from a rosebush, and take them to my mom. That’s sweet, you say? Yeah. Except that it was our neighbor’s rosebush! I had great love; but my actions weren’t appropriate.
In the same way, many Catholics have a passion for Jesus, but no common sense in expressing it. They are all heart and no head. They wear t-shirts and bracelets proclaiming their love for the Jesus and the Church, have their cars all decked out in bumper stickers, and are members of all the relevant Facebook groups. But there is a danger there: Too much sugary sentimentalism, the kind that doesn’t challenge or change you, can leave you shallow as a birdbath. They don’t understand what the contours of a real relationship with Jesus looks like, what it demands, and what principles should guide it.
To counter this, Paul asks God to give the Philippians “wisdom and all discernment,” so that they “may approve what is excellent.” He asks that they would be able to love wisely and insightfully.
The man that I saw in the hotel that day knew how to love his wife. He had spent many years with her, understood the dynamics of their relationship, and had insight into how best to serve her, how to love her wisely.
Second, our love is meant to express itself in Christ-like character and good works. We Catholics are always in danger of having strong religious feelings that never put their boots on the ground. So many of us have a 1980s-power-ballad-kind-of-love for Jesus. We think that if we talk like God is our girlfriend, how he means so much to us, and how we could never live without him, that’s real love.
Hardly. Real love results in being “blameless and pure” and is meant to be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Philippians 1:10-11). It is no use debating whether “fruit” here means character or works, because it would be wrong to sever the two. Christ-like character always issues forth in Christ-like works. And what Paul’s prayer means is that love that is truly “abounding” breaks out of the realm of invisible and intangible emotion and theory and lands squarely in the concrete world of time and space.
In other words, love doesn’t just feel. Love does.
I’m sure the old man felt a lot of emotion for his wife—his best friend and soul mate. But I’m also sure that there were days he grew tired, worn out from serving her. And really, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that his love acted. He fed her. He pushed her around in her wheelchair. He probably bathed and dressed her, too. And that is why it meant infinitely more when he said, “those are the blue eyes I fell in love with!”
Love is not easy. It is profoundly difficult. In fact, it is impossible apart from the grace of God working through us. That is why we need to pray for one another. For when real love begins to take shape in our lives, it is as beautiful and moving and compelling as an old man honoring his marital covenant long after his wife’s mind has left her body.
If we Catholics really want to impact individual people and whole cultures, we should ask God to give us the grace to rise above shallow sentimentalism and meaningless emotion. We should ask him to convert our abstract, theoretical understanding of love into concrete practice—into wise and insightful love that expresses itself in Christ-like character and good works.
That’s the kind of love that is wonderful and powerful and life-changing. That’s the kind of love that will convert others and advance the New Evangelization.
Above all, that’s the kind of love that will truly bring glory to Jesus Christ.