Arts and Culture

The Communion of Interpersonal Love

Seventh in a series

IN DEVELOPING THE idea of God as a gift-giver, and our vocation to imitate God as gift-giver in our own interpersonal relationships, Michael Downey writes beautifully about both God and us in his book, “Altogether Gift: A Trinitarian Spirituality” (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, pp. 143, $12). Noting that it is not just the human person who is made in the image of God as relational, but also that all of creation bears vestiges of God, Who is a profoundly relational mystery, Downey writes the following:

“As this God is for us in the economy of salvation, so the human person exists by being ever more fully toward and for others through continually deepening participation in communion of persons, human and divine. The telos or end of human personhood is received as a gift to the encounter with all those who invite us into fuller participation in the one and mutual Love, a relationality within which is disclosed what it means to be human in its fullness by divine gift. This is our destiny. In this lies deification: to receive all as gift and thereby find and give the gift of self in the communion of interpersonal love, both human and divine.” (p. 77)

Downey’s articulation of the economy of salvation is marvelous. Everything starts with God’s initiative. God invites us into relationship. Our response to that invitation either works against our vocation or it helps us to imitate God in a profound way. If we reject God’s invitation and choose to center our lives on self and our own desires, our life will be a disaster. If we accept God’s invitation then we will find the greatest fulfillment in this world and an eternity of fulfillment in the next. Saying “yes” to God’s loving invitation is to accept salvation and redemption.

Downey’s comments remind me of St. John’s insight that if we say we love God, but do not love our neighbor, we are liars. Love of God and love of neighbor go together. The more we love God, the more capable we will be to love our neighbor. I think that the more we love our neighbor, the more capable we will be to love God.

As I write about loving, I am concerned that some readers may think that by love I am referring to some pleasant feeling and that all we need to do to grow closer to God is to have this kind of pleasant emotion. Recently, a friend told me that she found it difficult to believe that someone who spent his entire life sinning, for example, a gangster who killed several people, could be saved merely by saying, “I am sorry,” in the last seconds of his life.

I tried to point out that it is not the statement that saves. We can get a parakeet or a parrot to make that statement. It is being genuinely sorry that allows salvation to take place. The mercy of God flows from the almost incredible event that the Son of God died for us. The power of God’s love and mercy is beyond comprehension. The point I am making about the statement, “I am sorry,” I would also make about the statement, “I love you.” It is not the words but the self-gift that is so important and powerful because of God’s love for us.

Loving Is Not Easy

While many of us may be able to wax eloquently about how beautiful love is, we may need to remind ourselves that in our lives the call to love God and neighbor can be demanding. Dorothy Day, who spent her life loving and serving the poor, often referred to an insight from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Brothers Karamazov.” The insight is that in reality, love can be a harsh and dreadful thing. Love can call us to make great sacrifices. Though we benefit from loving, that does not necessarily make loving easy.

Perhaps one reason that some people think that emphasizing love in our understanding of faith is to distort our faith and make following Christ seem too easy is because the view of love often presented in our society is soft and shallow. Some can even try to justify seriously immoral acts in the name of love. To do that suggests that love has nothing to do with truth. What Downey does in his book, I think, is the opposite of separating love from truth. What he is stressing when he links love for God with love for neighbor is pointing out one of the most profound truths about human persons: We have been created to love. That is every person’s basic vocation.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).