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December 5, 2011

Love is, or should be, at the center of the Christian life. There are obvious reasons for this – 1 John 4:8 famously declares that God is love and the entire book seems to be working on that theme. John 3:16, perhaps the best-known biblical summation of Christ’s work, begins by stating that love impelled God to act. The greatest commandment is to love God and others.

There’s a lot we could say about the centrality of love. We could discuss how it’s not the virtue most non-Christians seem to associate with Christians these days. There’s a very interesting tangent discussing how one of our culture’s favorite idols, romantic love, relates to the kind of love that God has and how, in my opinion, many churches have taken the idolatry of romance and run with it, stamping new labels on it and pouring it into different external forms. I probably will return to that last one in one form or another, but this Advent I wish to address the virtues associated with Advent in the tradition I grew up with from the perspective of the inner life.

So love is central. Clear enough – it should be the blazing flame at the center of our hearts, the inner light of contemplation. We’re done here, right? Not really. There are several critical things about love that I see, dimly still, on the path towards transformation.

First, love is a rather necessary virtue once you begin to deal seriously with your own sin. You’re horrible, and if you grew up in a Christian environment you’ve probably heard that enough to either give you a complex or for it to cease to mean anything. Once you start digging up your own dirt and stumbling across the corpses you’ve been burying for years this starts to mean something again. I hope you don’t have a complex already because this can be a pretty horrible experience. I remember distinctly hearing a terrible story of pain and suffering inflicted by a single callous, selfish person who benefited from the pain he caused. While one part of my mind thought, “This man should be burned alive, slowly,” another part thought, “Wow, that’s clever.” And, with both thoughts together, I had pronounced my own sentence: I should be burned alive, slowly. Without love to come along and point out that actually neither of us should be burned alive slowly and that hate is a vice to be rooted out, where would I be? Where would everyone else be?

As you start to seriously consider your own evil you will, I suspect inevitably, begin to consider everyone else to be terrible people, too. After all, you’re trying quite hard not to be evil and yet you’re mere feet from it constantly, dipping your toes in every other minute. Most others don’t seem to be trying. Only convenience restrains them from committing true horror. If the system broke, the Evil One would surely rise ascendant in their blackened hearts, bringing about a reign of violent men, returning us to slavery or serfdom. It’s a bit cliché to have a supervillain who decides that everyone is so terrible that the world should be “cleansed” back to blackened rock but a path that starts in weak love and a desire to do good can easily reach these conclusions. What will restrain this? Love.

Love must be the cleansing flame that burns away these fresh growths of hate in our hearts. Without love at the center, our efforts to restrain our own sin will only breed more as our hatred of our sin becomes hatred of those who share it. We need love to save ourselves from ourselves, and to save everyone else from ourselves. Only love can diagnose our sin as deep sickness and propose healing instead of extermination for both ourselves and others. Only love can burn away the dross and leave the gold behind.

The second critical thing is this: the contemplative risks falling ever inward. Perhaps one grows out of this but there is a temptation to fold in on oneself, to spend so much time inside tweaking the machine to improve its operation that one never does anything with it. True communion with God requires knowing oneself well but the temptation becomes to become fascinated with oneself and not God. This sort of spiritual narcissism can, again, only be broken by love.

Because contemplation is an inward work so often, there is always a serious risk of it becoming self-focused. Especially as one begins to have small triumphs in changing oneself it becomes easy to consider oneself a different sort of person than the rest of humanity, more interesting, more excellent, and to use what began as communion with God to simply try to boost oneself. Eventually this path will crash and burn since the ship is now being steered by ripping chunks off the rudder but it can make it quite long enough under the right conditions. Love is the solution to this because love points outward. Are you proud that you have finally gone a week without blowing your lid, or gossiping, or fudging the truth to make others look bad? Good – we’re proud with you. But the thing that rises up and says, “I am proud,” is the very thing that needs erasing, the self that loves itself instead of God, that thinks of itself instead of God. Instead, turn to love. Use this freedom to love as Christ loves. In love we can find a restful busyness, a constant distraction from our prideful selves, interrupted only when our failure to love signals that we need to return to ourselves and make repairs. When we focus on ourselves love redirects us to focus on God and others.

We are not the source of goodness in the world or in our lives. Left to our own devices we may well wall ourselves in and suffocate in the stench of our own deadness. If the love of God, the love that loves God and the love that God has for us, illuminates our lives, then God’s goodness is constantly being poured into our hearts, breaking down these walls from the inside. Love is the central virtue, mother to all the rest. Let love live within us with all her children.

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