Bishop Scharfenberger
Bishop Scharfenberger
Love is a funny word. It is commonly assumed that it is quite easy to “fall” in love with someone — the difficulty is getting loved in return. When I was in college, a popular book floating around, entitled “The Art of Loving” by German psychologist Erich Fromm, made a remarkable assertion. Real love was not about being “in love” but giving love: learning how TO love was the secret to loving well. Indeed, that would be an art that one had to learn and practice.

I do not know how Fromm discovered self-giving as the key. Perhaps it was from personal experience. Although born of Orthodox Jewish parents, he was reportedly an atheist, describing his position, if you will, as “nontheistic mysticism.” I guess that would have made him at home with some today who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” 

One of the most highly regarded moral theologians during the Second Vatican Council era, whom I was most privileged to have known in my seminary years, was Bernhard Häring. During an oral exam at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome — I had taken several classes with him — we were discussing Fromm’s work. Father Häring said mischievously at one point, “you know Erich Fromm cannot believe in God, because he is afraid he will see his grandfather on the throne!” He went on to explain that, as a child, Fromm had been traumatized by his grandfather, apparently a very stern taskmaster. This colored his view of God as a tyrannical patriarch, a view that, unfortunately, has been shared by others throughout history.

This is a far cry from the God that Jesus reveals to us, the one in whom St. Francis of Assisi, for example, came to know and love, who was full of tenderness, especially for those who were poor and suffering. In last Sunday’s Gospel from St. John, Jesus says he is giving us a new commandment: to love one another. In what sense is this new? The command to love neighbor as self already appears in the Old Testament (cf. Lev. 19:18). Jesus adds another phrase, however: to love one another “as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). And how has Jesus loved us?

We know the depths to which Jesus descended to bear the suffering of sinful humanity, not only in the physical pain which he endured, but the unfathomable psychological and spiritual torment he must have borne, aware as he was of all the evil things that humans had done and would do to one another in the course of time. His awareness of the suffering of innocent victims of abuse must have torn his heart apart as he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, reminiscent of another garden in which humanity had gone astray, tempted by the Evil One.

As I have reflected in an earlier column, the notion of God the Father as a cruel taskmaster taking out his wrath on his Son is difficult to reconcile with the prayer of Jesus who speaks of his relationship as one of love, pleading for sinners who do terrible things, opening his heart so that it pours out divine mercy and not angry judgment on the world. In fact, if there is any divine judgment it is that the world should be saved, not condemned (cf. Jn 3:16-17). Jesus reveals a God who wants to lose no one and wants everyone to be saved!

Now if this is how Jesus loves and is inviting us to love as he loves, then the question for each of us is: Do I have the heart of Christ? Do I wish, as Jesus does, that every human being be saved, that is, forgiven and redeemed?

It is, admittedly, very difficult to imagine some people as redeemable. Recall that Jesus was crucified between two criminals. One repented, one did not. One might infer from this that not everyone will be saved, but this is not because of God’s desire, but a personal choice. One way that I have practiced forgiving people who I find difficult to like personally is to imagine them as rehabilitated or restored.

Father Häring was a very pastoral theologian. I remember that he discussed with us the dilemma of a confessor advising a penitent who just could not find it in his or her heart to forgive another who had wounded them deeply. This is certainly something very understandable if the abuse has gone very deep. How is it possible, especially if the offender is deceased? If I recall correctly, he suggested that the penitent imagine that person, who had done something so wrong, kneeling before God and begging for forgiveness, perhaps with bitter tears. Would it be possible to imagine putting a hand on that person’s shoulder and commending the sinner to God?

In some cases, this might take radical, almost heroic love — no, not that this person could be likeable, but a bold, God-like act of the will to accept the possibility that God would receive this person, like the repentant thief. Not everyone might be able to do this and Father Häring suggested that, in that case, the penitent might simply pray to God for himself or herself for forgiveness for not being able to forgive. Why? Because Jesus wishes each of us to have his heart and mind and if we are not there yet, he still wants us to try so that we do not give up on ourselves or others. Ever. The incredible inclusiveness of God’s love for all!

I think what we are seeing here is a God who is incredibly patient. Patience comes from the Latin word, “patior,” which means, literally, “I suffer.” It is the same word that is at the root of the word “compassion.” It may well be that the true mark of love, divine love and the human love that is modeled upon it, is patience: give up on no one.

We have all heard of the so-called “patience of a saint.” I seem to recall my mother remarking how raising me required her to have “the patience of a saint” at times. I take some consolation that in some perverse way I may have helped her to reach that goal of sainthood. In doing so, I am not suggesting that making others suffer for us is something we should set about doing, but is it not possible that some who have tried our patience severely, may have become — or may yet become — an occasion of grace for us? Is it too far-fetched to think temptations and even sins, both our own and those of others, are surrounded by God’s constant offer of love, to lift us out of the depths to which we have fallen or been cast in spiritual quicksand? Instead of resisting and digging ourselves deeper into the mire, could we not better learn to let go and let God, to plead for God’s mercy on ourselves and those who have offended and to hear the sentence of Jesus on the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34)? And for whom are those words spoken — if not for every sinner, and maybe me included?

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