Do you love me? It is also a question that Our Lord asks us? It is not sufficient to believe that the Jesus is the Son of God. That is a cerebral response. To love, really love is an emotional response– a heart matter. We need both of course but the more important I feel is the latter. We read many verses in Scripture about what God‘s love has done for us. Perhaps the most loved passage for Christians is John 3.16. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Actually that action is telling us how much God loves His people and is illustrated in what He has done and is doing. The Johannine Gospel indulges with constant reminders of “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” A few centuries later, St. Augustine tells us that God loves each one of us, as if there were just one of us.
We are exalted from both the Old and New Testaments to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and body (Deut.6.5). Our Lord reiterates this teaching as necessary for eternal life in his encounter with the young lawyer in Luke’s gospel (10.25-28). So when God says to each of us, “Do you love me? And we say “yes” what is it the kind of love I am giving Him? Is it what is summed up in the Shema? If so, what kind of love we express? Is it a son /daughter’s love for father/mother? Is it a servant’s love for his/her master? Is it a sweetheart’s love for his/her lover?
I think it is more like the last. It is the kind of love one experiences when one falls head and heels in love. Most of us have experienced that love at least once in our lives. When that happens no other person matters, let alone exists. That person becomes your whole world – you only want to be with that person. Donne, a sixteenth century priest-poet, described it so well in his sonnet
I WONDER by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den?
'Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown;
Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest,
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp North, without declining West?
Whatever dyes, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
This love is also the subject of the Song of Songs. In one of the loveliest and loving passages in Scripture is the following
My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.
Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.
My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.
Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether (2.7-11).
St. Bernard wrote extensively on the Song of Songs, believing that it showed the love between Our Lord and His bride the Church. That was a mediaeval teaching - that the church is the bride of Christ and this teaching did not change until Vatican II when the church was described as the people of God. So now we can substitute “people” where Bernard uses “church” Hence it illustrates the love between the Lord and His people. This particular canticle has always spoken to me personally and is one passage that has helped me to comprehend that my love for the Lord must be a passionate one. I must ardently desire Him as I would a lover.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux also wrote hymns on loving the Lord passionately. Some of his poems have been translated, and included in hymnals. One of my favourites from my teen years has been Jesu the very thought of Thee: to sing this hymn prayerfully and meaningfully allows one to reach out to our Lord very intimately.
Jesu, the very thought of thee
With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far thy face to see
And in thy presence rest.
Nor voice can sing, nor heart can frame,
Nor can the mem'ry find
A sweeter sound than thy blest name,
O Saviour of mankind!
O hope of ev'ry contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!
But what to those who find? Ah, this
nor tongue nor pen can show;
the love of Jesus, what it is,
none but his loved ones know.
Jesus, our only joy be thou,
As thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be thou our glory now,
And through eternity.
Mary's love turned to service. Isn’t that the way it is, when we truly love another we want to do things for the beloved. Sometimes we go to great lengths to do that, and sometimes costly. A very good example of this is in the life of St.
Paul. I think Paul fell in love with the Risen Lord that enabled him to suffer so many costly hardships as his Lord’s great missionary.
Let’s have a look of some of those hardships he lists in one of the letters in II Corinthians
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one--I am talking like a madman--with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches (11.22-28).
A passionate love for their Saviour and Lord was clearly the reason why so many Christians were martyred in the early church. What better examples to illustrate this than with Perpetua and Felicitas, both mothers nursing babes at the beginning of the third century. Not even motherly love proved to be stronger than their love for Jesus. In the arena even facing wild beasts they sang psalms, not afraid to die the cruel deaths awaiting, knowing in a short time they will be united with their dearest Lord.
It is seen in the many mystics too such as Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila and in this English mystic, Richard Rolle. Writing in the 15th C he exhorts:
Learn to love your King whose love will ever last;
Keep him in your musing, and fasten his love so fast That no worldly thinking by quibbling it outcast; Your song and your sweeting he will be at the last. … Love him well with all your might, while you are living here, And look well to your sight, to you be none else dear; Say to him with your King, in his love to feed; Lead me up to your light, your melody to hear.
Rolle also suggested that one way to love the Lord passionately was to love His name and to practise the Jesu prayer, that is, simply repeating slowly over and over again this blessed name. Writing to a woman desiring counsel, this mystic advised:
May [I] love your name Jesus, and meditate on it in my heart, so that I may never forget it wherever I am. I shall find great joy and strength in Your name, Lord Jesus, and because I love You so tenderly, and as such an intimate friend, You will fill me with grace on this earth.
Rolle urged her to:
Pray that you do desire to be God's lover, you do love His name Jesus, and ponder it in your heart, so that you do not forget it never, wheresoever you are. And truly I tell you that you will find much joy and comfort therein. And for the love wherewith you love Jesus, so tenderly and so specially, you will be filled full of grace on earth and be Christ's maiden and spouse in heaven.
An almost contemporary of Rolle was the nun we know as Julian of Norwich. Reflecting on her own mystical experiences on “what was our Lord’s meaning” in the fifteen revelations she had” on His Passion summed it up:
And so I saw fully that before ever God made us, he loved us. And this love was never quenched nor ever shall be. And in this love he has done all his works, and in this love he has made all things profitable to us, and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had beginning, but the love in which he made us was in him from the beginning, in which love we have our beginning. All this we shall see in God for ever.
In the light of God’s love she prayed:
God, our Lover, you desire the soul to adhere to you with all its power and you want us always to adhere to your goodness.
For of all things that the heart can think. This pleases you most and soonest profits the soul, so preciously loved.
So, with reverence, we ask from you, our Lover, all that we will, for our natural will is to possess you, God, and your good will is to possess us (Ch.6).
One feature of loving passionately is the longing and thirsting one has when not in the company of one’s lover.
Mother Julian tells us, "We shall never cease wanting and longing until we possess Him in fullness and joy." Once we have experienced this, "then we shall have no further wants.”
Rolle also expresses this longing beautifully:
No one can untie the knot
by which I bind your love to me, sweet Jesus. I am seeking the treasure I long for,
but all I can find is longing,
because I never stop thirsting for you!
Yet like the wind my sorrow vanishes,
for my reward is this melody inaudible to human ear.
My inner being is turned into a song wonderfully sweet,
and because of this love I want to die.
Whenever this occurs, and these things
take hold of me and refresh me,
then the size of your gifts dazzles and delights me,
and love’s approach tortures me with joy.
When will you come, Jesus my Joy, to save me from care, and give yourself to me, that I may see thee evermore?
Could I but come to thee, all my desires were fulfilled! I seek nothing but thou alone, who is all my desire.
Jesus my Saviour! Jesus my Comforter! Flower of all beauty!
My help and my succour! When may I see thee in your majesty?
Our bible also expresses this longing, especially in the psalms. In psalm 73, we read, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides you” (25). The psalmist so rightly expresses his heartfelt longing to desire nothing else but the Lord. No one else can ever satisfy this longing. Liked Augustine, hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.
Another psalm is 43:
As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night (1-3),
Meditating on the above psalm, Augustine further ponders:
O fountain of life, spring of living water,
where shall I leave the barren earth with neither parts nor water,
to come to the waters of your sweetness,
to see your power and your glory and quench my thirst with the waters of your mercy?
I am thirsty O Lord, fount of life satisfy me.
Psalms 63 opens in the same mould as the previous one. “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (1-2). For those who long to live with their Lord, rising early is their custom to seek the Lord in the freshness of a new day when all is silent and still. Without the humming of engines or cries of children, the soul is content to seek the beloved God. That seeking is like being thirsty for water when the lips are parched and the quenching becomes more demanding in a waterless land. That is how much the soul thirsts for God.
The prophet Isaiah describes this seeking too. “With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee early” (26.2). This desire is illustrated in his mystical vision of the Lord and the seraphim and cherubim as they sung, sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
This longing or as the fourth evangelist calls it thirsting, thirsting for God, is one of his great themes in the Johannine Gospel. For example, towards the end of the feast of Tabernacles, the evangelist has Jesus standing in the Temple precincts crying out, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink” 7.37). One of the highlights of this most joyful festival was the procession carrying water from the spring of Gihon in the valley below the city up to the Temple to be poured on the altar while prayers for rain were chanted.
One of the most powerful encounters in this last Gospel is that between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the ancient well in Samaria. The evangelist has both the woman and Jesus on centre stage alone as the disciples go off to buy food. Jesus gradually leads her to understand that the well water will only temporarily quench thirst. As He said to her "Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him/her shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life" (4. 13-14). She perceived as Jesus spoke to her that He could be the Promised One, especially as she found her heart warming towards Him. None had spoken to her as He had, especially when she was a Samaritan.
When Jesus leaves the Samaritan village after spending a couple of days with the woman and her community, we are left with the impression that that these villagers would never be thirsty again. The well would always be gushing, knowing that they were drinking the water of eternal life given to them by the One they came to love.
Indeed this was the experience of those who encountered the Saviour personally. I have already mentioned Mary Magdalene and her deep love for her Lord, but I am sure the Bethany family - Martha, Mary and Lazarus loved their Master almost as passionately. Perhaps for some of the time during Lent we can meditate on those people we know from the Gospels that truly loved Jesus and let their passion inspire us to love our dearest Lord and Saviour.
“Come to me.” “Rest in me.” Love me as I love the Father. “They who love me know my voice and I know their voice.” And so, we come back to the question in the Johannine Gospel asked by the risen Lord, “Do you love me?”
This question gives us food for thought during our Quiet Day and for the rest of Lent. It should make us reflect on what kind of Lent we are keeping. To-morrow is Laetare Sunday, the half way mark of the Lenten Journey. How do I love the Lord should be at the centre of our Lenten reflections?
Stir us up O Lord, inflame our hearts and fill us with delight; be to us both fire and sweetness; teach us to run to you in love. Amen.