Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Love Without Strings

By Colleen O’Sullivan

Brothers and sisters:  Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts.  But I shall show you a still more excellent way.  If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.  And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3)

Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.  (1 John 4:8)

In the verses preceding those in our first reading, St. Paul has been writing to the Christians at Corinth about spiritual gifts.  He seems to think they may have missed the forest for the trees.  They appear to have valued and desired certain spiritual gifts over others.

The apostle continues today by saying that we should all desire and pray for spiritual gifts, and we should also keep in mind that when our lives in this world come to an end, all these gifts fade away.  More important than any of these gifts, says Paul, is love.  It’s the only thing that lasts forever.  And if the gifts you’ve been given aren’t rooted in love, they’re useless anyway.

Paul is talking about a specific type of love, agape.  Agape is unconditional love.  It’s love that expects nothing in return.  It’s the desire for the well-being of others.  It’s extended to others independent of how “loveable” they are. Agape is the sort of love God has for all of creation and for you and me, in particular.  In fact, in 1 John 4:16, we are told that God is love, God is agape.

This summer I had the privilege of spending almost five weeks at a Jesuit retreat house making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Since I’ve been home, many people have wanted to know about the retreat.  It was such a rich, deep, multi-layered experience that I find myself at a loss to adequately describe it.  However, as I was reading St. Paul’s words to his friends in Corinth, it occurred to me that the long retreat could be summarized as a means to recall or discover, depending on where you are in your faith journey, how God is agape in your personal experience.  It is overwhelming to spend days seeing how, in spite of my sins, my weaknesses and failings, God has never stopped loving me!  The long retreat is also a chance to ask yourself what sort of response you should make to this unfailing stream of love. 

St. Paul suggests that one response is to be firmly rooted in love and to show this same type of love to others.  He describes love as patient and kind, neither jealous nor self-seeking.  It sounds like he’s describing the work of a lifetime.

It is very difficult at times to truly believe that God loves us unconditionally, because we know ourselves so well.  Yet God loves each and every one of us just as we are this very moment.  What is your response to this loving, merciful, gracious God?

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