“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  “Feed my lambs.”

John 21: 15

For most of my life, I have read this passage from John 21 in a certain way.  I have taken the first of Jesus’ three questions to Peter to mean, “Do you love me more than these others do?” I suppose I interpreted the question in this way because it seemed that in the entire context Peter was being given a singular role and so the “superiority” of his love had to be confirmed. Good capitalist that I am, I saw office being bestowed on what we like to term a “merit” basis, thus turning even love into a commodity.

Yet, recently I’ve come to see that in all likelihood Jesus is not asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than the others do, but rather does he love Jesus more than he loves the others. That is, does he truly “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and soul and strength” (Deut. 6: 5). This is a much more difficult question for me, because it is not based on the supposition of how much others love, but only on my own love for Jesus.

If there is a connection between this affirmation of Peter’s undivided love of Jesus and the responsibilities that Jesus then gives him, we who are called to serve in Jesus’ name must reckon with its implications. I must ask myself whether or not I love Jesus more than I love “the others.” This has nothing to do with lessening my love for others, but it has much to do with the way in which I love them. And this touches on the great struggle of life.

Up to the present, I continue to live with the desire to be somebody for somebody. Anything I do carries with it, to varying degrees, the desire to be liked, approved of, or at least seen in a good light by those I am being with or serving. These infantile residues I suspect will remain as residue in me all my days. In reality, however, to truly serve requires that we be willing, as we see in the stories from Acts that St. Paul was willing, to serve whether we are liked, approved of, or seen as good and helpful or not.

To be “always and everywhere” in formation means, in this light, to be ready to learn from those experiences where our attempts to serve and to care are not met with appreciation and gratitude, but even with anger and hatred.  To love Jesus more than the others is to do what one is called to do with and for others out of that love of Jesus and to rely only on Jesus’ love as our support. It means whether we are met with approval or disapproval, with appreciation or disgust that we remain undeterred in our attempt to do what is asked of us, what the reality of the situation requires.

As I reflect over my life in general, I would say that far more than my works deserve I have met with a measure of “success,” if success means the approval and appreciation of others. The result of this is that my expectations of being accepted in this way remain quite fully intact. In recent times, however, I have had powerful experiences of quite the opposite. In a way that is new for me, I have had my motives questioned and my modes of working challenged. My reaction to this has resulted in an experience of disorientation. I have had to face Jesus, as did Peter, and have realized that I could not in all truth say to him “”Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” I have learned in my frustration and anger at those who have rejected me that I love their acceptance and approval more than I love Jesus.

In taking a vow of celibate chastity, we publicly proclaim that we love Jesus more than anyone or anything else. I first did that at the age of 20, when I really didn’t know much about loving anyone. Even at the time of perpetual profession, the challenge of orienting my whole life and my whole capacity for love in one direction was not highly apparent to me. All these years later, I am more aware than ever that the work of learning purity of heart is far from finished in me.

Now this is not merely a “spiritual” question. To whatever degree we are seeking appreciation, approval, gratitude, and love from others, to that degree our love, care, and service will have within it elements of manipulation. The reason that Jesus asks Peter if he loves him more than he loves any of the others is that it is only this single-hearted love that can serve exclusively the good of the other. For most of us, our “loves” and even our “service” is a mixture of motives. We measure out and qualify what we give and how we give it in order to maximize the possibility of “pleasing” the other, meaning evoking their pleasure in us. So, how we serve the world is most usually out of mixed motives, divided loves.

A teacher of ours used to speak of how it was necessary for the surgeon to be single-minded in his or her desire to serve the health of the patient. For, it was required that the surgeon inflict trauma and pain on the body in order to heal it. This is something of a metaphor for our call to love and serve. We must so love Jesus and his Father’s will that we do what must be done regardless of the reactions to us that it evokes. Peter can only be charged with feeding the lambs and the sheep when he can declare to Jesus who knows him through and through that he loves Jesus and God’s will more than anything or anyone else. This is especially true of himself. He must love Jesus more than his own desires and needs to be accepted, approved of, and loved.

Much of human life is lived in lack. When my life confronts me with my own reactions and discloses to me my own motives, I experience living in the lack of the love to which I so long ago committed myself. Yet, this need not lead to discouragement or despair because, as Pope Francis so often reminds us, the very heart of God is mercy and forgiveness. I greatly loved the former English translation of the second eucharistic prayer. In particular the very simple sentence, “Make us grow in love.” To try to live out and practice love is to learn at every moment how imperfect our love is. That lack of love is something that we suffer. Yet, if we suffer it in the way of discipleship and obedience, we shall grow in love, day by day, year by year, decade after decade. I am forever learning that “love” is different from what I’ve taken it to be. So, Jesus truly must understand how our own declarations of love are always so tentative and partial. As disciples, we are learners on the way, being formed “in the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life” all our days. 

So we find it extremely hard to pay attention because of our intentions. As soon as our intentions take over, the question no longer is, “Who is he?” but “What can I get from him?”—and then we no longer listen to what he is saying but to what we can do with what he is saying. Then the fulfillment of our own unrecognized need for sympathy, friendship, popularity, success, understanding, money, or a career becomes our concern, and instead of paying attention to others we impose ourselves upon them with intrusive curiosity.

Those who want to pay attention without intention have to be at home in their own house—that is, they have to discover the center of their lives in their own hearts. Concentration, which leads to meditation and contemplation, is therefore the necessary precondition for true hospitality. When our souls are restless, when we are driven by thousands of different and often conflicting stimuli, when we are always “over there” between people, ideas, and the worries of this world, how can we possibly create the room and space where others can enter freely without feeling themselves unlawful intruders?

Paradoxically, by withdrawing into ourselves, not out of self-pity but out of humility, we create the space for others to be themselves and to come to us on their own terms.

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, pp. 96-7


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