Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Among the most difficult of the teachings of Jesus to assimilate is his call to love him above all others. This is in part so difficult because it has been used at times as an excuse for narcissism, for the refusal to love others at all. St. Theresa of Avila puts the question quite directly: “Do you think that such persons (who have come to care not if they are loved by others or not) will love none and delight in none save God?” Her answer to. her own question is a resounding “No!” She says that in fact, those who love God above all, and so do not require, much less demand, that they be loved in return will love others with a more genuine love and with greater passion.
Adrian van Kaam says that bioeros is transformed into transeros through the experience of disappointment. One of the greatest sources of disappointment in life is our desire to be loved and to receive affection in the manner that we hope for, that we are convinced that we need. Every new experience of infatuation is a rekindling of the hope that this will be the person who will satisfy all that I want from another. Since our capacity for love can be displaced in multiple ways, we can also replace “person” above with accomplishment, or recognition, or success. Yet, given time we shall inevitably experience that no one nor anything can fill the insatiable need and desire that we are.
From the perspective of spirit, and so of the teaching of Jesus, real love is not possible for us until we come to reckon with the reality that what we have taken to be our need for affection is not our deepest need at all. We actually learn the way of love through the experience of disappointment. Some years ago, I began to reflect on what felt to me like the insistent precariousness of my life of friendship and affection. I felt as if whenever I really became close to someone, I would inevitably begin to feel as if I were walking on eggshells with them. In due course, I would always do something wrong or fail the person in one way or another. And, at that moment, it would seem as if the rather fragile bond between us was likely to disintegrate. As I reflected more and more over time on this experience, I began to realize that what I was thinking of as love was merely a contract. As I saw it, the relationship or friendship was dependent on each of us keeping up our end of the bargain, and as long as we did, our relationship would continue. If we didn’t, then the rather evanescent experience I thought of as love would fade into nothingness.
I don’t recall what evoked the thought in me, but at some point I realized that nothing anyone else does can keep me from loving them. Yes, I will inevitably always fail the other, and they will eventually fail to respond in the way I want, but that does not have to determine my love for and towards them. It is I who choose to break the relationship and to end the friendship because it is not satisfying me in the way that I demand, and it is I who can choose to love the other through any circumstance.
This is what Jesus is teaching in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The father never ceases loving his son and painfully awaiting his return, even though his son had rejected and fled from him. When Jesus says we are not to love anyone or anything more than him, he is not saying we should love others less. He is rather saying that we should truly love the other in his or her true identity in Him.
When we really love another, we love them in their deepest truth, which is also their deepest possibility. To love another is to will their becoming the image of God that they are called to be. So, our desire becomes more and more to offer a presence that serves the other’s formation, reformation, and transformation. It is never static but rather consistently dynamic; it is a constant summons to be more the person that that God is calling them to be. To truly love another, to quote van Kaam, is to be “faithful to whom she is called to be.”
St. Teresa says that such a love is marked by being much fonder of giving than receiving. The transformation of our affections and of our life of love is marked by a shift from a preference for receiving to that of giving. This is learned and practiced, of course, as an act of the will. But in time it becomes more than a matter of will. It becomes the experience of knowing greater joy, and peace, and love in giving than in receiving. We come to know the experience of being cared for by caring for another. We come to know the depth of God’s love by loving another. We come to realize the depth of our own call, and this is the greatest mystery, in serving the unfolding call of another.
To love Jesus and God above all means to learn to love “in truth.” When we put anyone or anything in God’s place, we are actually giving them a place in our lives that is an illusion. We are asking them to be a god for us. We are “loving” them with a hope and even an expectation of a return. We are not loving them into being but rather loving them in service of our own needs. This love will always be limited by its very purpose. As long as we are demanding reciprocity, what we call love is more of a contract. When we are loving and serving God, the results of our love are not our business. This allows all we have to offer to flow freely and without inhibition. In this way, nothing inside or outside of us can keep us from loving.
Of course, however pure our affection may be, it is quite natural for us to wish it to be returned. But, when we come to evaluate the return of affection, we realize that it is insubstantial, like a thing of straw, as light as air and easily carried away by the wind. For, however dearly we have been loved, what is there that remains to us? Such persons, then, except for the advantage that the affection may bring to their souls (because they realize that our nature is such that we soon tire of life without love), care nothing whether they are loved or not. Do you think that such persons will love none and delight in none save God? No; they will love others much more than they did, with a more genuine love, with greater passion and with a love which brings more profit; that, in a word, is what love really is. And such souls are always much fonder of giving than of receiving, even in their relations with the Creator Himself. This [holy affection], I say, merits the name of love, which name has been usurped from it by those other base affections.
St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chapter 6