Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 37-39)
“In the evening of our life, we shall be judged by love” (St. John of the Cross)
Seeing the difficulty I was having in remembering the great commandment to love my neighbor, I once had the idea of getting a tattoo on my forearm, saying: DON’T FORGET TO LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR. I never got the tattoo, but the principle remains the same – it is very easy to forget our obligation to love our neighbor. And sometimes it even seems as if we are programmed to find fault with our neighbor.
As good as we may be our corrupt and fallen nature is quite capable of nurturing resentment and contempt (dare I even mention hatred) towards our neighbor. And yet one of the foremost ways our virtue is tested is through the way we treat and interact with other people. In this sense there are numerous occasions to act virtuously each day because most of us are constantly coming into contact with other people, and even with difficult characters who test our virtue to the max. It would be a mistake to think that in this world of many temptations the devil fails to tempt us against the love of neighbor. In other words, we need to be on our guard and recognize when we are being tempted against the love of neighbor. To not recognize these temptations is the occasion for many falls – even serious falls.
We may even say to ourselves during such a temptation: “Ah, I see my heart is being moved not to like this guy; I will have to greatly check this impulse to speak unkindly to him, and I will give my best effort to act charitably towards him. Jesus help me.”
This whole matter of combating temptations against the love of neighbor is quite important, for the GREAT SIGN that we love God is our love of neighbor. Father Garrigou-Lagrange explains this principle quite well, relying on Saint Thomas Aquinas.
St. Thomas [states]: “Primarily and essentially, the perfection of the Christian life consists in charity, principally as to the love of God, secondarily as to the love of our neighbor, both of which are the matter of the chief commandments of the divine law. . . . Secondarily and instrumentally, however, perfection consists in the observance of the counsels.” The great sign of the love of God is precisely love of one’s neighbor. Christ Himself says so, and we cannot insist too strongly on this point: “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:34-35). This love of our neighbor is the great sign of the progress of the love of God in our hearts, so much so that St. John adds: “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now” (1 John 2:9). “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. . . . Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:14-15). (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, p. 154).
According to Father Garrigou Lagrange, we may even be called to the heroic love of neighbor as we grow in the perfection of charity:
St. Thomas points out also that in the perfect, charity toward one’s neighbor, the great sign of our love of God, extends not only to all in general, but as soon as the occasion presents itself to each of those with whom the perfect have relations, not only to friends but to strangers and even to adversaries. Moreover, this fraternal charity is intense in them, reaching even to the sacrifice of exterior goods and of life itself for the salvation of souls, since Christ said: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). We see this charity in the apostles after Pentecost, when they were “rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus” (Acts 5:41). This is also what made St. Paul say: “But I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls” (2 Cor. 12:15). (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, p.160).
A great spiritual writer, Father Grou, reminds us of the difficulties we experience in loving our neighbor. He says: “Yes, the love of our neighbor, in a true sense, is much more painful to nature than the love of God, although it is also true that these two loves cannot be separated. Thus our neighbor is the cause of almost all the faults with which devout people have to reproach themselves, and how many of these kind of faults do they commit without perceiving them, without having any idea of having done so, and which they would have a difficulty in acknowledging” (Manual For Interior Souls, p. 145).
Father Grou also suggests the means to overcome this difficulty: “But to attain to this [love of neighbor] it is clearly to be seen that we must continually renounce ourselves, and keep ourselves always in a state of dependence upon God, always united to Him by prayer, always attentive and faithful to His inspirations. The exact observance of the two great precepts of the law of the Gospel is undoubtedly worth all the trouble we may have to take in subjecting ourselves for that end to those teachings of the interior life which may be hard and painful to human nature” (Manual For Interior Souls, p. 146).
The love of neighbor should be a special object of our prayers, of our daily examination of conscience, and of our sacramental life. Only God can give us the grace we need to truly carry out this commandment of brotherly love.
CONCLUSION: One of the greatest obligations we have here on planet earth is to love our neighbor. The devil knows this and tempts us to disparage and dislike our neighbor. These temptations, nevertheless, are the “raw material” out of which we grow in holiness – precisely because they provide us with the opportunity to act virtuously, overcoming our repugnances and dislikes, by choosing to act charitably towards our neighbor.
“For love is a flower that grows in any soil, works its sweet miracles undaunted by autum frost or winter snow, blooming fair and fragrant all the year, and blessing those who give and those who receive” (Louisa May Alcott).
Indeed, this love is so powerful that it will transcend the seasons of this life, lasting throughout eternity, never ending as the Apostle tells us (1 Corinthians 13: 8,13), but forged first here on our earthly pilgrimage during this time of testing.
Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.
References: The idea for this post came from Father Grou’s observation that we can sometimes experience even great temptations against the love of neighbor (see p. 177 of the Manual For Interior Souls). From this point of Father Grou I came to a much more profound realization that I need to be on guard against such temptations. It is Father Faber who points out that our temptations are the raw materials out of which we make acts of virtue.
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