Living to Love, Loving to Live
I’m not quite sure what it was that moved me to recall this quote from St. Paul while taking a walk along the wooded cliffs that impose on the banks of the Merrimac River, but let’s just call it grace: “Faith. Hope. Love. These three. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13) Perhaps it was that same grace that led me take up and read a selection of short essays from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that were resting on the in-table table at my hermitage. These essays would become the catalyst for my contemplation. Surely, it was grace that led me to Emery House in the first place, an historic residence that sits on over 100 acres of beautifully kept land that is owned by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, a monastic order of the Episcopal Church.
This past weekend, I did what I have needed to do – and haven’t done – for over two years. I made a retreat. No Facebook. No Twitter. No Instagram. No iPhone. No iPod. No television. Just me, the wilderness, and a few generous monks who made sure I was fed three meals a day (monks eat really, really well!) and included in the ritual of four daily prayers (monks pray really, really often!).
After six years in the city, I had forgotten what chirping birds sound like and what it is like to hear the breeze rustle through the few dried leaves that still cling to the bare trees at winter. And the only running water I hear these days is the water that runs from the tap. So, when I saw a blue jay at Boston College this past summer it was a revelation for me. Honestly, I had forgotten that blue jays even existed! When you live in the city, it’s easy to get swallowed up in your little urban bubble of hustle and bustle. And when there are no fresh roses growing anywhere, it’s hard to stop and smell them.
Highlights of this weekend retreat included: getting clucked at by chickens and honked at by geese; watching birds flap their wings playfully as they balanced on birdfeeders; several hour long strolls through the woods and fields that mark the property of Emery House; and fresh, baked breads at every meal. It was a rare chance for me to step back and encounter nature. To be reassured that the wind’s whisper can be still be heard through the trees that still stand tall, to understand that rivers still flow, and to be reoriented to the revelation that the world still goes on apart from the city. Like the snow that wiped away the mud clinging to my shoes, the grace of this retreat had a restorative and purifying effect on my body, mind, and spirit.
And so, in my post-retreat buzz, I have this brief meditation on social justice to offer, caffeinated by the mocha latte that I am currently enjoying at Fuel America:
To live is to love and to love is to live. The day that we stop loving is the day we should cease to live. If I could boil down the entire biblical message into one word, it would be: love. I’ve said this time and time again. To be Christian is, first and foremost, about a way of loving in the world. It’s not about how much theology you have read, nor is it about whether or not you can recite scripture when the time is right or on a moment’s notice. To quote St. Paul again, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1) To be a Christian is to love. To be a human is to love. At the end of the day, ethics is all about discerning who, how, and what we love. Social justice is about realizing that love in the here and the now.
Back to St. Paul’s letter. Sure, faith is important; beliefs are action guiding. But would the world be a better place if everyone had faith? People of faith do bad things. Yes, hope is necessary; without it, we would not be able to persist in the face of life’s greatest challenges and struggles. But would the world be a better place if everyone had hope? Hope is future oriented and real transformation and structural change is needed in the here and now. Certainly, what it all comes down to, for all of us, is love. When St. Paul wrote about love, he meant a love that takes on the cross. Love is not easy, it is one of the hardest things a person can do. But think of how better our world would be if everyone loved one another.
Love, if you are Muslim. Love, if you are Buddhist. Love, if you are a secular humanist. Love, if you do not believe that God exists. At the end of the day, this is the one life we have each been given and we are all on different journeys headed to same destination, anyway.
So, with thanksgiving for this weekend and for the brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist who have shepherded me on this part of my spiritual journey, I close with this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who perhaps knew more than most ever will of the heights, depths and complexities of what it means to live out the kind of love that I’m writing about:
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others – and especially to our weaker [brothers and sisters] – is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God did not despise humanity, but became [human] for [humanity’s] sake.” (From “After Ten Years,” a reckoning made at New Year 1943)