Shortly after I was ordained in 1988 I officiated at a wedding. At the reception afterwards I overheard the mother of the bride say about my homily, ‘He’s a young celibate priest! What would he know about love?’ Faced with the task of preaching on the two great commandments of love this morning, I fear that good lady may have been right after all. Years later, in a family conversation after a few drinks, the discussion turned philosophical and got onto the question of love. I can’t remember what nonsense we may have been talking, but I do remember that my elderly uncle basically stopped the conversation when he said, ‘I think the only one who knows anything about love is God.’ It is at this point that I should now stop speaking and sit down, because maybe there isn’t much for me to say.
But I think I am on very firm ground when I point to the altar in this church and say, ‘There’s one place where there is true love.’ Absolute love, infinite love from God, a life poured out for us. Love that invites us to receive. God loving us with all God’s heart, all God’s soul, all God’s mind. Not just thoughts about love, but love put into our hands and our mouths, and for those watching on webcam God will have his own special way of doing this for each person. So we need to pay as much attention as possible to what is happening there. It’s the school of love. I will add two other ideas which may be of help, one from monastic tradition, and the other from the Bible.
‘Love the Lord your God with all your hear, and all your soul and all your mind’ In other words, nothing is supposed to come between us and God. Teaching from early monasticism speaks of the power of the mind to really make this happen, to set the process going. The monastic tradition has very helpful things to say about the mind. I don’t mean so much thinking about God, trying to ‘work God out’ in our head, making logical deductions, ‘A plus B plus C, therefore D’. I mean something much simpler, easier and far more beautiful. When you look at a beautiful sunset, you don’t set about measuring the amount of light, listing the colours, measuring the shapes of the silhouettes and then deducing that it is beautiful. You just notice the beauty. Similarly the mind can turn very simply towards God the way a sunflower turns towards the light, or the way you might glance at a friend.
We use our mind for all sorts of good and important things, counting money, sending emails, planning work or holidays, getting the right ingredients for a cake. But monastic authors tell us there is something else which the human mind really specialises in, something really easy for the human mind, and that is turning in love towards God. When the mind turns towards God it finds its natural homeland. It’s like a fish in water. It’s easy. It’s restful. It’s natural.
So one way of helping love to enter our whole self, heart and soul, is that at every waking moment, our mind can be gently focussed towards God, or else on something which we are doing for God or which we know is pleasing to God. Blessed Laurence of the resurrection once spoke of picking a piece of straw off the ground for the love of God. Even in the middle of tasks that are accomplished for God we can pause and mentally glance heavenwards, like a driver who keeps has to keep his eyes on the road but still manages to look regularly at the speedometer and the rear-view mirror. When our mind is turned towards God, the heart finds its natural resting place. When our mind turns towards God, with a glance that is open to love, it’s like opening the curtains of our our soul so that God’s sunlight can reach every part of who we are. And when the mind turns to God, it finds itself at rest.
The second thing is that our first reading today hints at particular forms of love of neighbour that are critical in our world right now. Look out for the stranger. The Irish know what it was like to emigrate – to the USA, to Britain, to Australia. What about the people who arrive among us? Sorting out exactly what the State should do may not be easy, but at least when we hear a voice or see a face that seems a bit different, we can go out of our way to let the other person know we are glad they are there. Every person on the planet has a need to feel accepted – that they have a right to be there, that somebody is happy to see them around. And there is the stranger who arrives into the family by engagement or marriage. The new person at work whose style is really not what we are used to. The new neighbour. The widow and the orphan, in the time of the Book of Exodus: these were the people who had little or no social support. Don’t be harsh on people who are struggling. Financial dealings: the book of Exodus is saying, make a living by all means, but in your financial dealings don’t lock other people into poverty or leave them destitute.
Scientific experiments have proven that an act of kindness reduces the stress, not just of the recipient, but also the giver. Love of neighbour will take the edge off our cravings and our rantings. What I want and what annoys me become less important, and my mind turns more easily back to its natural focus on God. It begins and ends with God’s love, in our heart, our soul, our mind. As we prepare to move towards the altar, let’s get ready to taste and see that the Lord is good!