Heaven and the love of neighbourDEACON DOUGLAS MCMANAMAN
This week the readings are about the love of neighbour.
This week, however, the readings are about the love of neighbour. Married love is an exclusive love, but it is the starting point to a more extensive love of others. Through a genuine love of one's spouse, the couple will conceive a desire to have that love expand beyond the two of them into a visible expression, that is, in children. A love that does not conceive such desire to bear fruit is not love. Genuine married love longs to expand into a family, because love is effusive, and the common good of the civil community rests upon the state of the family. If we love the common good of the whole community, we will honour the family; for it is the basic unit of society, and the health of a society directly corresponds to the health of the family.
It is in the family that a child learns the basic grammar of human love. But this too is ordered towards something larger and more extensive. The Church is a real family. The word Pope is from the Italian "papa", which means father, and we address priests as "father", nuns as "sister", and in Baptism we are incorporated into Christ's Mystical Body, and so we all have the same "blood" (life) running through our veins, Christ's blood. We are all blood relatives in the Person of Christ, and we all have the same Mother, for Christ received his flesh and blood from Mary, and so when we receive his Body in the Eucharist, we become what we receive, we become his body, and Mary becomes our Mother.
The spiritual life is about growing in charity, both intensively and extensively. It is about growing in the love of God and neighbour. The reason is that the happiness of heaven directly corresponds to the degree of our love of neighbour. God calls us to perfect happiness, and so He calls us to perfect charity: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect". The two (charity and happiness) are interrelated. A person who loves only himself cannot ever find happiness. The punishment of hell is that a person will have himself to feed on for all eternity; it is like having to forever look at oneself in a mirror. If that's all we've loved, that's all we will get; for we always get what we want in the end. These are the people who have spared themselves the sorrow that love of others inevitably begets. If you've ever loved another human being, you will have tasted the suffering that comes from having to witness their suffering. The reason for this is that when you love another, you become the other, in a manner of speaking. And so, what happens to the person you love, happens to you. That is why love is painful. The more we love, the more we will suffer, which is why no one has suffered more than Jesus and Mary.
But the egoist spares himself or herself this sorrow. Egoists have chosen to live for and love only themselves. The final result, however, is that they have spared themselves the unimaginable happiness that results from genuine love of others. If I truly love another, and if through love I become the other, then the happiness of that person becomes my own happiness. Just as we experience sorrow at the sight of the sufferings of the ones we love, so too we experience great joy when we see that they are filled with joy. The more intensive and extensive that love, the greater our happiness.
That is why the greater the saint, the greater will be the happiness he experiences in heaven. So many people misunderstand the happiness of heaven. They tend to regard it as an eternal Club Med vacation, or something similar. But the happiness of heaven is in the direct vision of God, who is the Supreme Good, Truth Itself, Beauty Itself, who is Absolute Love. And the more we love God, the more we love all that belongs to God – just as when you love someone deeply, you love what they hold dear. So too, the greater and more intense your love of God, the greater and more intense will be your love of other human beings, regardless of whether or not you know them personally. They were created by God, and they exist in the image and likeness of God; and you will see and love that image, and you will delight in their good fortune. If we love people only in reference to ourselves, only insofar as they are useful to us, we will not delight in their good fortune, but remain indifferent to it, or worse, become envious, and these are sure signs that we do not truly love God, but only ourselves.
The marvellous thing about heaven is that our happiness will be forever uncontainable. If you achieve the love of neighbour – and that's no easy task – , if you truly become awakened to other human beings, awakened to the love that God has for them, your happiness will be eternally multiplied in heaven. You will be unimaginably joyful in beholding God face to face in the Beatific Vision, but when you notice that the other, whom you love more than yourself, is also unimaginably joyful, his joy will become your own. But there is a third and fourth person as well, and her joy will become your own, and that other person's as well. And that will be multiplied as you behold the joy of each of the blessed in heaven. And as they behold your joy in God, their joy will increase. And as their joy increases in beholding your joy, your happiness at the increase in their happiness will for that reason increase as well. The joy of heaven is one that is forever overflowing.
A person who has not begun to experience this here will not understand what I'm talking about; what I have said will sound like nothing more than sentimental verse. And of course that's why narcissists will not find any place in heaven; for love is repulsive to them. They are much like brute animals who love only that which has a reference to themselves, and if you know a narcissist, you know that he has already begun to taste the emptiness and darkness of hell. But anyone who knows what it means to delight in the happiness of another will understand something of what I'm talking about, and to the extent that they've achieved a genuine love of neighbour, they've already begun to taste the fullness and radiance of heaven.
That is why the spiritual life is about growing in selflessness. It is about becoming more transparent, like crystal. The more transparent the medium, the more it radiates the light outside of it that passes through it. Charity is effusive and transparent; self-love is self-contained and transmits little or no light.
The secret to happiness is charity. The secret to happiness is the loss of self, the forgetting of self. There is a real paradox here, because happiness is the fulfillment of the self, but the fulfillment of the self occurs to the degree that a person empties himself, pours himself out, and gives himself over to God to be used according to His will. It seems rather counterintuitive, which is why the vast majority of people believe that the fulfillment of the self is achieved when one fills oneself up with goods of all sorts.
Christ, however, came to show us what it means to be man, and he came to give his life, to empty himself of his blood, and he perpetuates the gift of himself in the sacrifice of the Mass. By entering into him, we enter into the current of his self-giving. But our sinfulness places a limit on that self-giving. The point of the spiritual life is to gradually let go of those limits, to give ourselves completely to him, to live completely within his gift of self, and that means living completely outside of ourselves.
What inevitably happens is that the more we grow in a supernatural charity, the more we will experience our own limitations. That's what an exit of self does; it brings us into a sharper awareness of our own borders. We will desire more good for others than we can possibly bring about on our own, and that will be a frustrating experience for us, a holy frustration. It's like having a desire to feed five thousand people, but all we have are a few fish.
That's where Christ comes in. We just offer to him everything we've been able to produce, a few loaves of bread, as well as the love that feels its helplessness, and trust that he will work the miracle and multiply what we've given him. He will do what we cannot, he will feed those we love, and their joy will become our own.
Deacon Douglas McManaman. "Love of Neighbour." CERC (February 27, 2011).
Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.
Copyright © 2011 Douglas McManaman
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