Today I led a Celebration of Love service at the senior community where I work as a chaplain — a thanksgiving for love past and present. Here is my sermon.
Today we are celebrating all the love that we have in our lives. That includes the people we share our day with and also those who have gone before us, whose love endures and is still very much a part of our lives. Today is also about offering thanks to God for his love, which sustains us and helps us not only to love one another, but also to love ourselves.
Everything we need to know about love is encapsulated in the two greatest commandments: to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. And to love our neighbors as ourselves.
All three loves – love of God, love of others, and love of self – are interdependent, woven together in an intricate tapestry of our hearts. As our savvy flight attendants remind us, it’s difficult to secure the oxygen mask on our favorite kid if we are gasping for air ourselves. Love of self isn’t detached from love of others. And both love of self and love of other are possible because God loved us first – because we were created in love. If we remember this, if we are guided by love in our relationships with others and with ourselves, then we can’t be detoured by fear.
The Three Stages of Love
Much of what I know about love comes from my writing mentor, Mike Leach. Early in my career as a writer I compiled a book with Mike called I Like Being Catholic, which turned out to be a surprise bestseller. Naturally, the publisher wanted to do a sequel. That’s when our imaginations got the best of us. We were going to build an empire and retire off of this series. We liked everything. We liked being American. We liked golden retrievers. I didn’t have kids at the time, but I liked being a grandparent.
We decided the next book would be I Like Being Married. Its shelf life was shorter than some of the celebrity marriages featured on its pages. That was essentially the end of our empire and we went back to our day jobs.
Mike wrote a lot of poignant stuff about love in that book, but what was most impressionable to me was not found between the covers. It was modeled in his loving marriage to Vickie.
Around the time that we compiled the book, Vickie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. She was in her late fifties. He recalls with clarity the harrowing evening he knew this was not the forgetfulness of normal aging. It was Thanksgiving of 2000 and she stood in the kitchen frozen and said to him, “I don’t know what to do next.”
She lived with the disease for 22 years. For the last five she was non-verbal. But somehow he never looked at her any differently as the beautiful girl he fell in love with at a bar in New York City called Your Father’s Mustache. He became exasperated with her illness at times, as you would suspect, but he also saw it as a gift in that it taught him how to live in the moment. He genuinely enjoyed being with her and valued her as a person even as she couldn’t speak in the last season of their marriage.
Last November Vickie passed, and his tribute to her at her celebration of life was one of the most beautiful testimonies of love I have ever heard.
He described love in this way.
First we fall in love, and that’s the easy part.
Then we learn to love, and that’s the hard part.
Finally, we just love being loving, and that, by far, is the best part.
I believe Vickie’s Alzheimer’s was the catalyst that moved Mike to the third stage of love. I think it’s unusual to get to such a selfless kind of love without some kind of heartbreak, where, in the language of Richard Rohr, the containers that we built for ourselves in the first half of our life – like a successful career, good health, and a prospering family — are no longer strong enough to hold our identity. Some kind of tragedy or loss has threatened them, leaving us exposed and vulnerable. It is then that we have a choice. We can close up, in an act of self-preservation. Or we can choose to love more deeply. We can choose to love like God loves us.
I love so many things about my job as a chaplain here. But at the top of my list is witnessing this third stage of love in so many of the relationships here – especially when a spouse or partner has moved to assisted living, memory care, or the health center, or is dealing with a debilitating illness with home care in independent living. I see you love being loving, and nothing is more beautiful than that. It inspires me not only to love my husband with a purer heart, but to love everyone in my life with less agenda and more conviction.
One Friend Is Enough
We need not be prom queen to have love in our lives. When my nephew was getting ready to go off to college, I was nervous about him making friends. Throughout grade school and high school, he was extremely shy, and I knew finding a good group of friends might be a challenge. A mentor said to me, “All he needs is one friend. If he has one just friend, he will be okay.”
The pastor at my daughter’s high school baccalaureate mass reiterated the same message. He looked out to a congregation of 18-year-olds, some of which had been in school with each other since they were five.
“Those of you who have a very good friend—you are blessed,” he said. “Those of you with two very good friends – you are even more blessed. And to those of you with three – you are lying.”
Forget social media. Just one person to give our heart to is enough. How wonderful if it’s a spouse or partner. But it can also be a sister-in-law, a mentor, a friend, a co-worker, or a surrogate mother.
The Risk of Being Tamed
In the classic book, The Little Prince, a fox begs the little prince to tame him.
“If you tame me, we’ll need each other,” he explains. “You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.”
“What do I have to do?” asked the little prince.
The fox explains that the process of taming means showing up consistently, spending time with the thing that you are taming. “You have to be very patient,” he said.
So the little prince did this. He showed up at the same time every day and tamed the fox.
And when it was time for the little prince to leave, the fox began to weep. The little prince scolds him, saying he should have never tamed him if it’s going to result in tears, that it’s a waste of time … the fox doesn’t get anything out of it.
“I get something,” the fox said, “because of the color of the wheat.”
“Wheat fields say nothing to me. Which is sad. But you have hair the color of gold….The wheat, which is golden, will remind me of you.”
Upon saying good-bye to the little prince, the fox gives the boy a secret: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes. It’s the time you spent on your rose [whom the little prince had grown to love] that makes your rose so important.”
Surely there is risk in letting yourself be tamed.
In his insightful book Flying Lessons, John Snyder compares the anxiety of true intimacy to that of flying. He is uniquely qualified to do so as both a psychologist and a pilot. “The vulnerability and exposure we experience in being truly open to another can generate more anxiety than we find bearable,” he writes. “We need courage to leap into the abyss, rather than wander in circular patterns of distant and superficial relating.”
Love is, indeed, a dangerous enterprise, but if we are brave enough to fly, we will find that our lives are filled with meaning, like the color of the wheat.
Love Is Patient, Love is Kind
The fox is right. Taming or loving requires patience, as is laid out in our instructions on how to love in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. It also demands kindness, humility, selflessness, gentleness, and forgiveness. If you consider closely all the adjectives and verbs Paul uses to define love, you will find that its degree of difficulty is higher than swimming across the Chesapeake Bay without a wetsuit.
I, for one, am not as evolved as Mike. I am still very much learning to love. I find it challenging not to project my life experiences and any hurt I may be carrying unfairly unto innocent bystanders. It’s hard to suspend all judgements in my mind moment by moment so I can be perfectly present to the person in front of me. Harder still is to not be self-centered when you’re in pain – to push through those layers of unwarranted self-preservation to be other-focused – to love as fully as you can even when your love tank feels like its hovering somewhere near empty.
I don’t believe that God expects us to do this without his help. It is God that makes loving possible at every impasse – not only in the moments where compassion comes easily, but especially in the hours when loving seems as possible as a camel fitting through an eye of a needle. On my harder days, I utter a prayer like this: “Dear God, I don’t think I have it in me to be kind today, so I ask you to do all the talking for me. Better yet, let every person in my path see a reflection of you, not me, because my flesh is weak and you know I have a bad poker face.”
Our Vocation to Love
The thing that I find most refreshing about love is that we don’t have to be perfectly whole to pull it off. In fact, if we have the courage to love in our brokenness it is often more effective, because we can better connect with the brokenness in others.
I learned this truth at a vulnerable time in my life when some of my cognitive abilities were impaired from a health condition. As I confronted some painful intellectual and professional limitations, I stumbled upon a quote by Therese of Lisieux. She wrote, “I understood that love comprises all vocations – that love is everything and because it is eternal, embraces all times and places. My vocation is love. It is You, O my God, who has given it to me.”
I breathed a sigh of relief when I read that. My vocation didn’t require me to be completely proficient in my craft or compose articulate prose. I was merely to be an instrument of God’s love, a pencil in his hand, as Mother Teresa once said. All I had to do was keep an open heart and my work would flow from the source of all love to the world. My vocation would be fulfilled. To paraphrase Jacque Phillipe, no external circumstances, however tragic, can rob us of the invitation to love.
God’s Love: Our Foundation
Therese of Lisieux also said, “Nothing is sweeter than love;
Nothing stronger, nothing higher,
Nothing more generous, nothing more pleasant,
Nothing fuller or better in heaven or earth:
For love proceeds from God, and cannot rest but in God,
Above all things created.”
Her last line underscores the reason we separate the two greatest commandments and give priority to the first. It can become mightily frustrating to try to love others and to love ourselves without the proper foundation in the love of God.
We can attempt to fill in the gaps of our self-worth with exercises of self-esteem. A sense of purpose is critical, as is documented in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. But I’ve found that knowing that we are fundamentally loved by God, and that love is our core trumps even a sense of purpose, because it not dependent on fleeting things like energy or cognitive alertness. It is available to us always and everywhere, even in our most wretched condition. By clinging to that truth – that we are a loved child of God and precious in his eyes – we have what we need to persevere in any situation.
From a practical standpoint, knowing we are loved by God makes our lives easier. It can often smooth out some of our rough edges and give us a much-needed set of shock absorbers so that we can be calmer and less explosive when hit with what a family member recently labeled as “unpleasantries.” Because when we face rejection and separation – the risks that come with love – our Creator is holding us securely in his arms, protecting the vulnerable spots in our spirit, much like parents guard an infant’s fontanels, the soft parts of a baby’s head where the bone formations aren’t complete.
A wise mentor recently said to me, “One can become more loving and live without fear if one is attentive to the God who is love and who is more present to us than we are to ourselves. That love between you and God is meant to be mutual.”
In other words, God’s love can help us deal with the heartbreak that comes with love. We may not be able to prevent the pain, but the way we love can lessen our suffering. Mary Faustina Kowalska once wrote that “The purer our love becomes, the less there will be within us for the flames of suffering to feed upon, and the suffering will cease to be suffering for us. It will become a delight.” I suppose this is what Mike meant when you love being loving.
I’d like to close with my favorite passage about love by Christiane Singer, one that I have shared with several of you, about being created in God’s love and knowing love to be the foundation of our being – which, in turn, lets us love freely, without fear or trepidation.
Love is what remains when nothing remains. We all carry within us this memory when, beyond our failures, our separations, the words we survived, there arises from the depths of the night, like a song that is barely audible, the assurance that beyond the disasters in our lives, even beyond joy, suffering, birth, death, there exists a space where nothing threatens, that nothing has ever threatened and that runs no risk of destruction, an intact space, that of the love that was the foundation of our being.