On the Love of Neighbor
by: Jaime Corera, CM
(This article first appeared in Anales, Volume 119, #5 – September-October 2011 and has been translated and made available on this web site with the permission of the editors).
You shall love your neighbor as yourself
When the children of Israel learned from their elders that they should love their neighbor as themselves, they also learned that this was God’s commandment. Both ideas are joined together as one in the book of Leviticus: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:18). They also learned that this command had been given to Moses by God so that he might transmit this commandment to the chosen people as something that was properly and uniquely theirs (Leviticus 19:1-2).
Throughout the years most children in almost every part of the world have learned the same lesson from their elders. This same commandment is found is in almost all the religions that existed prior to, contiguous with, and after the time of the establishment of the religion of Israel and is also found in the writings of various philosophers. This basic principle of moral behavior, known as the Golden Rule, appears in the various religions and is frequently expressed in a negative manner, but it always makes the same demand: we ought to treat our neighbor in the way that we would want our neighbor to treat us.
Let us look at some examples that are taken from The Golden Rule, written by Jeffrey Wattles (Oxford University Press, New York 1966):
---from an ancient Egyptian papyrus (around the fifth century before the Common Era): do not do to others what you would not like done to you. ---Hinduism: do not do to others what you would consider harmful to yourself. ---from Crito by Plato: do not do evil by acting out of vengeance and do not mistreat anyone because they have mistreated you. ---Sextus (a Pythagorean philosopher): do not do to anyone that which you would not want done to you. ---Confucius: do not impose on others that which you would find displeasing. ---Islam (proclaimed by Mohammed in his farewell sermon that was proclaimed seventy-two days before his death): Do not harm anyone so that no one harms you. No one of you will be a true believer until you do not wish for your brother or sisters that which you would not wish for yourself.
The broad acceptance of the Golden Rule as the common ethical-religious patrimony of humankind is seen in the 1993 statement of the Parliament of World Religions, Toward a Global Ethic … the Golden Rule was formulated as the fundamental principle of ethical-moral behavior, as a principle that was seen as valid for all humanity: we ought to treat others in the same way that we would want them to treat us. This statement was signed by 143 religious leaders from every part of the world.
Perhaps one could object and say that the positive formulation in Leviticus is more demanding than the other different formulations which we have cited here … almost all of which are stated negatively. Here we mention the fact that Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, also formulated the command of Leviticus in a negative manner and added that this command summed up everything that the Lord desires of his people: Having asked Hillel to briefly sum up the Torah (the law of Moses), he said: “Do not do to your neighbor that which you would hate to have done to you.” There you have the whole Torah. Everything else is commentary (Talmud, Shabbat, 31a). Saint Paul, whom Renan believes might have been a disciple of Hillel, provides us with both a negative and a positive formulation and places them together as if they were one: The one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, [namely] “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor (Romans 13:8-10).
Down through the centuries there has been continuity in Jewish thought with regard to the importance of the Golden Rule as a summary and a basis for ethical behavior and this applies to both the negative and positive formulation. As privileged witnesses of this continuity we simply mention Maimonides from the twelfth century (“Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh, 206” Book of Precepts, a book that attempts to synthesize the 613 precepts of the Talmud) and more recently, AhadHa’Am.
In the New Testament we find a positive formulation of the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12, Romans 13:8-10 and James 2:8. Like Hillel, these three authors inform us that in said command we find of summary of all that the law and the prophets ask of us. Luke 6:31 presents the command in the context of a series of sayings that are Christian by their very nature.
In order to better understand what we will discuss further on in this presentation, we must be mindful of the fact that the phrase the Law and the prophets is a stereotypical expression that always refers to the content of the Old Testament and never the New Testament. The same can be said with regard to the more succinct phrase, the law. In the New Testament unless the phrase, the law, is followed by the words of Christ or some similar words, then there is no doubt that the Old Law is being referred to: for example, while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). The letter to the Romans is for all practical purposes structured as a reflection on the contrast between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ. Paul, referring to Psalm 143:2, states: no human being will be justified in his sight by observing the law (Romans 3:20) and we (Christians) are released from the law (Romans 7:6). We can see, then, that the book of Leviticus is one of the basic foundations for the Law.
Who is my neighbor?
The Law of Moses also taught the children who was their neighbor who ought to be loved. The neighbor was, first of all, the person who was nearby and close at hand, the children of your people, that is, the children of the people of Israel. We see this expressed in the words of the complete formulation of the commandment to love the neighbor: Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:18).
The concept of neighbor is broadened in later verses and is applied to the alien who resides with you. You shall treat him no different than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself (Leviticus 19:34).
Despite the various universal prescriptions that appear in multiple places in the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham himself (Genesis 12:3 – all the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you; see also Genesis 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, 28:4; Psalms 72:27; Sirach 44:21; Isaiah 49:6, 60:3-6; Jeremiah 3:17), nevertheless we see a restrictive formulation of the commandment to love the neighbor who is a member of the same country (as it appears it the book of Leviticus) together with the other typical Jewish prescriptions that deal with circumcision, the Sabbath, food and ritual purity. Throughout the centuries all of this has had a profound impact on the ethnocentric sociology of many individuals from among the chosen people and has influenced their relationships with the goyim, those persons who are not members of the Jewish race. Judaism after the time of the exile viewed the world as divided into two large groups of people: Jews and non-Jews or pagans (the goyim) and the people of Israel. The distinction is first of all religious and therefore pagans are viewed as foreigners or enemies of Israel … Israel finds its strength through a strict separation from these people (Edward Schillebeeckx, Cristo y los Cristianos [Christ and the Christians], Ed. Cristiandad, Madrid, 1982, p. 120). Even today it is easy to observe remnants of this ancient attitude in many Jewish areas.
Jesus’ teaching marks a radical departure from the strict meaning of the word neighbor as seen in the book of Leviticus. In the gospels this word is given a universal meaning, thus tearing down all ethnic and religious barriers. From the various teachings that are implied in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the primary one is the response to the teacher of the law who provoked the parable: who is my neighbor (Luke 10:29). The Samaritan is not a member of the Jewish people, and therefore according to the Law is not a neighbor to the man who fell victim to robbers (and vice-versa).
But the Law of Moses is not the law of Jesus. Jesus’ law breaks down national and religious barriers (Ephesians 2:14-18) and constitutes every human person as neighbor, especially those individuals wounded and in need.
Love God and love the neighbor
The only place in the Old Testament where we find the solemn formulation of the great commandment to love God is found in the book of Deuteronomy: you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:5).
Distinct from what occurs in the New Testament, we do not find in the Old Testament a formulation which joins the two commandments together, that is, the love of God and the love of neighbor. We do, however, find in many places a clear expression of the idea that worship of God as an expression of one’s faithfulness and love of God has no value and is rejected by the Lord unless one also practices justice and mercy with regard to the neighbor, especially the neighbor who is poor. Well known examples of this idea are found in Ezekiel 18:7-9 and Isaiah 58:6-7. The Lord does not accept the love and worship that is due to him unless it is also accompanied with love for the neighbor.
In what we have just stated we find an anticipation and a preparation for the joint identification of these commandments in the New Testament: The pious Jew prayed daily the words of the Book of Deuteronomy which expressed the heart of his existence: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might”. Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbor found in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Benedict XVI: Deus caritas est, #1).
As stated in the encyclical and as admitted by the majority of exegetes when referring to the concurrent testimony of the three synoptic evangelists (Matthew 22:38-40; Mark 12:33; Luke 10:27) there is no doubt that the joining together of both commandments proceeds from Jesus himself. As stated above with regard to the commandment to love the neighbor so with greater reason it can be said that the twofold commandment of love encompasses the whole law and the prophets (Matthew 22:40). We find other similar phrases: you are not far from the Kingdom of God if you fulfill this commandment (Mark 12:34); do this and you will live (Luke 10:28).
What is the meaning of the words you will love your neighbor as yourself. The obvious meaning of this expression appears to be that the manner in which one loves one’s self ought to be the measure for loving one’s neighbor. This precept ought to lead one to fulfill that which the Golden Rule expresses in either a positive or negative manner: do unto others the good that you desire others to do to you; avoid doing the evil that you would not like done to you.
As a sound basis for both formulations it would seem to be logical to establish the principle that love of self is the foundation and the measuring rod of one’s love for others. Therefore, we must begin by verifying one’s love of self before examining how one loves others. Furthermore, in case of a conflict, the love of self takes precedence over love of neighbor. See for example the curious parable that is found in the Talmud that illustrates this abstract principle in a practical manner: Two men are walking across the desert. Only one of them is carrying a receptacle that contains a limited quantity of water. There is not enough water for the both of them and so if they share the water both of them will die. If only one of them drinks the water, that one will survive and the other will die. What should the man do who is carrying the water? Rabbi Akiva (known in the Talmud as “the greatest of all wise men” and at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century known as one of the founders of rabbinical Judaism that prevails today) taught that the man who is carrying the water ought to drink the water himself. Since the both of them cannot survive it is more just and more in accord with God’s justice that the man carrying the water should save himself before saving his neighbor (which action implies losing his own life).
In modern times AhadHa’am (a pseudonym for Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927, a Jewish biblical scholar and one who was well versed in the Talmud) agreed with the opinion of Akiva and pointed out that that opinion was a practical application that was in complete harmony with the fundamental principle of moral Judaism.
Perhaps this can be said of moral Judaism but the same principle cannot be applied to Christianity: Jewish morality says that in general one should not think that the concerns of one’s neighbor are, in the eyes of God, more important than one’s own concerns. Judaism certainly approves the laying down of one’s life in order to fulfill a religious ideal (sanctify the name of God) but condemns those who sacrifice their own life for the sake of their neighbor. On the other hand, Christianity teaches that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). AhadHa’am maintains that this is the fundamental difference between Jewish ethics and Christianity and also believes that Jewish ethics is superior to Christianity because it gives preference to the absolute norm of justice rather than the illogical Christian doctrine of self-sacrifice and renunciation (The Jew and Christianity, Herbert Danby [a canon of the Anglican cathedral, Saint George, in Jerusalem] The Sheldon Press, London 1927, pp. 83-84).
What a Jewish expert in the Torah and the Talmud sees as the illogical Christian doctrine of self-sacrifice is the very heart of the Christian doctrine of human redemption: When he came into the world, he said: … “Behold, I come to do your will, O God” … By this “will”, we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all (Hebrews 10:5-10). Saul, a Pharisee zealous for the glory of God, saw the sacrifice on the cross as illogical, scandalous and absurd (1Corinthians 1:23). He had to experience a radical conversion in order to be able to see that his previous understanding was rubbish, an understanding that was based on fidelity to the law. After his conversion, however, all his glory is found in the cross of Christ (Philippians 3:4-8; Galatians 6:14).
Thus to say that charity begins with one’s self and not with self-sacrifice, or to say that we have to begin with loving ourselves in order to love in the same way our neighbor … all of this is an evident acceptance of the pre-Christian, Jewish vision of the Law. The Law of Leviticus is not the Law of Christ. As with so many other themes of the Old Testament, the law of Leviticus is a pedagogical preparation for the fullness of Christ’s law.
If this is true then it appears as incredible that one would think, and even put in writing, a statement that the commandment to love the neighbor as formulated in Leviticus was exactly what Vincent de Paul needed in order to understand the gospel. It appears as incredible that some years ago, in this same journal (May-June, 1997), the following was written: If Saint Vincent had been able to see himself as the first neighbor … he would not have introduced this suicidal form of humility … this love of self-humiliation. Love of self would have more easily found the path of love of others (the poor) and love of God. It is the wisdom of Leviticus: love your neighbor as yourself (p. 230). The author continued and applied his “discovery” to his own life as a follower of Saint Vincent: I remembered the phrase from Leviticus to love the other in the same way that one loves him/herself and I discovered that only when I love myself am I able to love the poor (p. 231). What can we say about this discovery especially as we reflect on Jesus’ words: those who love their life, will lose it (John 12:25)?
If Vincent had remained faithful to Leviticus until his death and if he continued to love himself in the same way that he did for the first thirty-seven years of his life, if he had not experienced a radical change that enabled him to forget himself and live the demands of the new commandment, he would never have become Saint Vincent, he would never have founded any Association, Company or Congregation, this journal would not exist and the author whom we have just referred to would never have considered writing such psychological curiosities about Saint Vincent since he would never have heard anyone speak about him.
With regard to Saint Vincent’s love of self-humiliation that the author finds unacceptable (calling it a suicidal form of humility), is it not possible that Vincent might have been inspired by the self-emptying of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:7) or by Saint Augustine who wrote that the city of God cannot be built on love of self but only on the love of God, even to the contempt of self (The City of God, 14,28,1) or by the Lord’s teaching: those who wish to come after me must deny themselves (Matthew 16:24-25)?
Let us look at how Vincent de Paul understood Christ’s love, love which ought to serve as a model for all Christian love. Let us see if Vincent reflects the command that is found in the book of Leviticus or some other formulation of the Golden Rule: Let’s look at the Son of God; what a heart of charity He had; what a fire of love! Please tell us, Jesus, who pulled You away from heaven to come to endure the curse of earth and the many persecutions and torments You suffered? O Savior! Source of love humbled even to our level and to a vile agony, who showed, in that, greater love for the neighbor than You yourself did? You came to lay yourself open to all misfortunes, to take the form of a sinner, to lead a life of suffering and to undergo a shameful death for us; is there any love like that? … and why? To establish among us, by His word and example, love of the neighbor. This is the love that crucified Him and brought about that admirable work of our redemption (CCD:XII:216).
From what we know through the Acts of the Apostles and tradition, it can be said that all the early witnesses whom the Lord entrusted with the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel, and not only them, but also many other disciples of Christ (first generation disciples) … their love for life did not deter them from death (Revelation 12:11). Among these disciples we name here Saint Paul who not only laid down his life for love of his neighbor but, as he wrote in his letter to the Christians in Rome, was also willing to be separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers and sisters, my kin according to the flesh (Romans 9:3). He could show no greater love for the people who closed their ears to the message of Jesus. He placed their salvation before his own. A similar sentiment is expressed in the exclamation of Vincent de Paul: It is not enough for me to love God, if my neighbor does not love Him (CCD:XII:215). In these two situations where do we find the “wisdom” of Leviticus?
In pre-Christian Judaism people were seen as just if they loved their fellow countrymen/women and if they loved them in the same way as they loved themselves. But when these individuals became Christian they could no longer define the neighbor in the same narrow, restrictive, nationalistic sense of Leviticus nor was it enough to love the neighbor as oneself. If they wanted to be true disciples of Jesus Christ who were freed from slavery to the Law, then they had to learn to love every person as Jesus loved them.
Once Jesus taught people the measure of true love all other measures, including that which is found in the book of Leviticus and all other formulations of the Golden Rule, should be viewed as useful norms that guide moral behavior, but norms that are insufficient and imperfect. All these formulations can lead us to a type of moral uncertainty and even a form of selfishness if we view them as definitive formulations of true love.
As enacted by the Parliament of World Religions, the Golden Rule can be established as a principle that guides behavior. If put into practice, this would help a radically selfish humanity and nations who are concerned about their own well-being (often at the cost of other nations, especially those that are weaker) live together in greater harmony and mutual understanding. This would also lead to better relationships among people who are in very different situations. Thus it is not a bad idea to propose this principle as a practical guide for the daily behavior of individual men and women.
We should not, however, make the mistake of proposing the Golden Rule in a way that makes it appear to be Jesus’ teaching with regard to the redemption of humankind. At the same time it should not be put forth as if it were the definitive teaching of Jesus, a teaching to be followed by those who believe in Jesus and those who want to make the life of Jesus the norm for their own life.
I give you a new commandment
The Lord Jesus declares that He is giving His disciples a new commandment, that they should love one another. A new commandment, He says, I give unto you, that you love one another. But was not this already commanded in the ancient law of God, where it is written, You shall love your neighbor as yourself? Leviticus 19:18 Why, then, is it called a new one by the Lord, when it is proved to be so old? Is it on this account a new commandment, because He has divested us of the old, and clothed us with the new man? For it is not indeed every kind of love that renews him that listens to it, or rather yields it obedience, but that love regarding which the Lord, in order to distinguish it from all carnal affection, added, as I have loved you … This is the love that renews us, making us new men, heirs of the New Testament (Saint Augustine, Sermons on the Gospel of Saint John, Tract 65, 1-3; http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701065.htm).
Jesus Christ expressed the fundamental commandment of love in a new way that, because of its fullness, moves beyond the formulation of Leviticus and the formulation of all other religions and pagan philosophies: the source of true love is to be willing, like Jesus, to lay down one’s life for the neighbor … the way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16).
We would be mistaken if we thought that this new commandment was being presented to us as an evangelical counsel that we could decide to follow or ignore … or if we thought that this new commandment was meant for a few heroic individuals. Here we are dealing with a new commandment that is placed before all those who take serious their life as Christians … this is a commandment of the new law based on the example of the one who proclaimed: as I have loved you, so you also should love one another (John 13:24-35).
Like the Lord, we refer to this as a commandment even though we know that one cannot be commanded to love. Imitating the Lord, we can present love as a lived experience or the universal path of salvation for all people. The love that truly saves is the love that the Lord presents to us through the example of his life and death. With the love that Leviticus places before us it is impossible to escape the narrow limits of the Law and it is also impossible to free ourselves from the pitfalls of love. Selfishness, or perhaps it is better to use the word self-centeredness, is an effect of self-love and it is impossible to avoid this as long as one continues to believe that one has to begin with self-love before loving others. In a given situation of conflict what love should be preferred: love of self or love of neighbor? Remember the parable from the Talmud about the men crossing the desert.
In summary: the definition of the love of neighbor in the Old Testament has been superseded and therefore we should be attentive to the commandment that Jesus gives us. As we have pointed out, the whole Old Testament is a pedagogical preparation for that which would be revealed to us in the New Testament (cf., Dei Verbum, 15). Therefore, when the Old Testament proposes some teaching, it must be presented as it is, namely, a preparation for the definitive revelation of the will of God who alone gives us the fullness of life in the life, ministry and teachings of Jesus Christ: the books of the Old Testament … show forth their full meaning in the New Testament and, in their turn, shed light on it and explain it (Dei Verbum, 16).
We must always be careful not to adhere to teachings of the Old Testament as if they were teachings of Jesus Christ. When the gospel affirms that in loving the neighbor as oneself one finds a summary of the whole law and the prophets (or similar expressions), we must understand the following: such phrases are a summary of the teachings of the Old Law and the prophets. The commandment to love the neighbor, as formulated in Leviticus, can certainly serve as a practical guide for daily life. What Jesus taught, however, as the new commandment to give a Christian meaning to life … this was formulated in a very different manner.
It is understood that through the process of catechesis the eyes of children are opened to the world of faith and even though they might be concerned with their own survival or carving out a place for themselves in the world (an attitude that is correctly classified as infantile self-centeredness) it is understood (so we say) that they are taught that they have to love others at least in the way that they love themselves. The same could be said about those individuals who because of some psychological disorder experience feelings of low self-esteem or even some form of self-hatred or some form of inferiority complex. As these individuals engage in a healing process perhaps it would be better in those cases to focus on the idea of self-esteem and love of self before speaking with them about the higher ideal of sacrificing one’s self for others.
But once these individuals grow there must be a time when they are made aware of the true definition of the love of neighbor, the definition that has been given to us by Jesus and not the definition that we find in the book of Leviticus. Unless this is done the Church will be filled with people who are uninformed about their faith or unaware of the true gospel spirit and people will continue to live their lives and place their own well-being ahead of that of others and even worse, they might teach this to others as the true teaching of Christ.
The same can occur with regard to those individuals who do not live according to the New Commandment. Even though all those who have been baptized have been made aware of the demands of this new law, yet it is quite clear that it is not enough to have knowledge and/or an awareness of sound doctrine in order to be inspired to live a different form of life on a daily basis. This is especially true when referring to such a demanding doctrine as that of the New Commandment.
Thus what Jesus demands is not meant to be embraced by only a few well-spirited individuals … rather Jesus’ teaching is meant to be affirmed by all the faithful. From its very beginning the Church has presented us with innumerable examples of ordinary people of every age who have taken seriously the demands of the New Commandment … individuals who put aside their own well-being and who day in and day out dedicated themselves to work on behalf of the well-being of their sisters and brothers. Without much thought we could think of thousands of people who throughout the years have been inspired by Saint Vincent de Paul, generous people who do nothing out of selfishness or vainglory; rather humbly regard others as more important than themselves, and who allow themselves to be guided by the same attitude as Christ (Philippians 2:3-7). It should be noted that Paul directed these words not toward some religious elite who were specialists in following Christ, but rather his words were addressed to ordinary people who were recent converts from paganism.
... we cannot love God whom we have not seen
Even though, as noted above, the formulation of the two commandments, to love God and to love the neighbor, does not appear in the Old Testament united together as one commandment, nevertheless a similar idea is expressed when the theme of worship is spoken about. Thus we read in several places in the Old Testament that worship of God is meaningless unless it is accompanied by love of neighbor. In other words, the first and primary act of the worship of God is love of neighbor. This same idea is expressed in the gospel (Matthew 5:23-24). In the New Testament, however, a more explicit formulation of this idea is found in the first letter of John: whoever does not love a brother or a sister whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).
We must understand that when the New Testament speaks about love that it is not referring to some type of psychological emotion or sentiment such as is found in much current writing. We certainly know that Saint John does not speak in this way. For this disciple of the Lord, love is to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone who has worldly means sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to show compassion toward that individual, how can the love of God remain in him (1 John 3:16-17).
Saint John not only wants to say that the love of God and the love of neighbor are inseparable but also that Saint John's words should rather be interpreted to mean that love of neighbor is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 16). This is a very significant affirmation. Is he also saying (and therefore it would be right to say) that our journey toward God must begin with love of neighbor?
Centuries ago Saint Augustine wrote that even though in the order of excellence love of God is to be placed before love of neighbor, yet on a practical level the opposite is to be done: a person can only come to God through love of neighbor. Furthermore, if individuals truly love their neighbor, then they also love God in the same way. We read in Saint Augustine’s sermons: John was speaking just before of brotherly love, and said, He that loves not his brother whom he sees, how can he love God whom he sees not? But if you love your brother, haply you love your brother and lovest not Christ? How should that be, when you love members of Christ? When therefore you love members of Christ, you love Christ; when you love Christ, you love the Son of God; when you love the Son of God, you love also the Father. The love therefore cannot be separated into parts (Saint Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, homily 10, I John 5:1-3; http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/170210.htm).
Without any need to read Saint Augustine but no doubt inspired by the awareness and experience of the true spirit of Jesus Christ, Saint Teresa of Avila (Vincent said of her that since the time of the Apostles no one has rivaled her in prayer [CCD:IX:333-334]) wrote the following words in her mystical work: Our Lord asks but two things of us: love, for Him and for our neighbor … I think the most certain sign that we keep these two commandments is that we have a genuine love for others. We cannot know whether we love God although there may be strong reasons for thinking so, but there can be no doubt about whether we love our neighbor or no … Be sure that in proportion as you advance in fraternal charity, you are increasing in your love of God, for His Majesty bears so tender an affection for us that I cannot doubt He will repay our love for others by augmenting, in a thousand different ways, that which we bear for Him (Saint Teresa of Avila, The Mansions, the fifth mansions, chapter 3: cause of union; http://www.ccel.org/ccel/teresa/castle2.ix.iii.html).
From all of this we become aware of a fundamental consequence: love of neighbor is the path and the measure of our love of God. Even though Saint Teresa was aware of this, yet she did not mention the idea that underlies what is stated in the above paragraph, namely, all true love proceeds from God (1 John 4:7-9). She implied this, however, when she stated that if we love the neighbor God will increase in us our love for God.
All of these ideas are expressed by Benedict XVI in a condensed manner when he writes: Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me ... Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 18).
In summary: all true love that can be experienced in this sinful world has its origin in God. To seek God is the most profound instinct in every human being, even though one may not be aware of this … our hearts are restless until they rest in God. The way to achieve this source and origin of love is love the neighbor just as Jesus Christ commanded us (1 John 3:23). As long as we journey on this earth we cannot believe that we can enter into a direct relationship with God and thus forget about the neighbor … such thinking is absurd because no one has ever seen God (John 1:18, 6:46; 1 John 4:12). The situation, however, will be different after death, the time that we refer to as eternity, then we shall see him (and love him directly) as he is (1 John 3:1).
…turn the medal
In light of these ideas that have their origin in the gospel and that have been taken up by the patristic tradition, by the mystical tradition and by the teaching of the Catholic Church, the fundamental idea that the place to look for and find Christ, (and therefore God), is in those persons who are poor takes on special significance in Vincentian spirituality.
Thus it is good to be mindful of the poignant words of Saint Vincent: do not judge a poor peasant man or woman by their appearance …but turn the medal, and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, who willed to be poor, is represented to us by these poor people (CCD:XI:26), or these equally poignant words: in serving persons who are poor, we serve Jesus Christ (CCD:IX:199). These and other similar ideas, for example, leave God for God, highlight the same reality: Jesus Christ is found in the person of the poor and thus, there God is also found in the person of the poor. The poor are the path to discover God.
If this is true then are not Bremond’s words also true when he states: it was not the poor who led Vincent de Paul to God, but rather it was God who led him to the poor (Histoire littéraire …. Ed. 1967, vol. III, p. 219). Certainly from this theological perspective Bremond is correct. Indeed, God had to be the source of inspiration and grace that enabled Vincent, at the age of thirty-seven, to change the direction of his life and to dedicate himself to the spiritual and material redemption of those persons who were poor. Yes, as we previously pointed out and as Saint John reminds us (1 John 4:7-9, 19), God is the origin of all true love and therefore it could only have been God who inspired Saint Vincent with the idea that in order to live his baptismal faith in a radical manner he had to find in the poor the path that enabled him to discover God … and it was God who gave him the grace that was needed to act in that way. God led him to the poor.
This is something that Bremond is able to affirm because of the certainty that is given to him as a result of faith and theological reasoning based on faith. This is in accord with the affirmation of Thomas Aquinas who stated that even though the truths of faith cannot be seen or experienced as empirical data, nonetheless they are more certain than the truths of reason and that includes those truths of modern scientific investigation.
The truth that Bremond expressed is based on faith and not on the fact that he is able to find in the events that are recounted in Vincent’s biography some irrefutable proof with regard to the inspiration or the activity of divine grace. Furthermore, Bremond’s words are not based on Vincent’s testimony but rather are based on the visible effects. The inspirations of the spirit and grace are true realities but yet can never be proven with total certainty in specific cases.
In Saint Vincent’s life we find any number of these situations. For example, there was a time when Vincent doubted that the idea to establish the Congregation of the Mission, suggested by Madame de Gondi, was an inspiration and a grace from God and not perhaps some manifestation of his own ambition or some wile of the evil spirit (CCD:II:278). Remember also the words of Saint Teresa of Avila, a noted mystic, that refer to the precarious certainty when speaking about love of God. Her writings, as well as those of John of the Cross, are filled with calls to discernment … only through discernment can we acquire some degree of certainty that the inspirations and graces that we experience (including and especially those that are profoundly spiritual in nature) proceed from God and not from some other source far removed from God.
The information that we have obtained from the various biographies of Saint Vincent reveals to us the fact that Vincent’s discover in 1617 of the spiritual and material poverty of the poor in rural France was the beginning of a long journey in following Jesus Christ, one that was quite distinct from his previous journey. This new and definitive path led him, on September 27, 1660, to a face to face encounter with God. In other words, the fact that Vincent entered into this process and that we are able to reconstruct events with the information that is available to us … all of this enables us to also affirm that the poor led Vincent to God. In this way we once again see the fulfillment of that which is expressed in the New Testament, in the patristic and mystical traditions and the teaching of the Catholic Church: love of neighbor is the path to encounter God.
We speak about all these ideas because they have more than a theoretical significance for us. If the process of maturing in the faith and spirituality occurred as we have just described, then those who are inspired and animated by the Christian experience of Saint Vincent must become involved in a similar process. If we want to see God and become united in a definitive way to the love that is God (1 John 4:16-17), then we must begin by loving those men and women who are poor.
This idea has important practical consequences that are catechetical and pedagogical in nature. At this time we must ask the question: where does one begin if one wants to provide others with an adequate formation in the Christian spirit, and more specifically where does one begin if one wants to provide others with an adequate formation in the Vincentian spirit? In every healthy Christian and Vincentian formation program we cannot neglect the spiritual relationship (more or less direct) with God: prayer, liturgy … At the same time we must also make reference to the affective and effective love that we must show toward our brothers and sisters. In the practical order it is important to demonstrate the dialectical relationship between these elements. Therefore, everything that follows is based on the previous affirmation.
Leaving aside for the moment what we might refer to as the ordinary Christian life which by its very nature exhorts people to seek a closer relationship with God, we turn our attention to the fact that in order to cultivate an on-going desire to draw closer to God numerous monastic and religious institutions were created in the Catholic Church so that people could become involved in this process in a serious way. This process was begun by Saint Pachomius in the fourth century and has continued to the present day.
But our situation is different. If people desire to enter into a relationship with any of the Vincentian institutions, their fundamental motivation should be a desire to dedicate themselves to the material and spiritual redemption of those who are poor, understanding that when they act in this way they are taking a step forward in their journey toward God.
Therefore, all the other elements of a Vincentian lifestyle are based on the reality of dedication to those who are poor: prayer, moral life, family life, profession, work, social relationships, recreation … and in the case of the members of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity: community life, vows, priesthood, consecration … All of these distinct elements ought to lead us to greater love and service on behalf of those who are poor. We speak correctly when we refer to the poor of Jesus Christ because he himself assures us that what we do for the least of our brothers or sisters we do to him (Matthew 25:40). We must realize that as we dedicate ourselves to ministry with those who are poor, we are also deepening our personal relationship with God.
As we initiate any Vincentian Formation program we must provide individuals with a sound spirituality and with some form of direct contact with those who are poor. If this direct contact is missing then what we refer to as growth in the spiritual life (prayer life) would occur in a vacuum devoid of those specific activities that nourish the spiritual life. The result of such a process is almost always an inauthentic spiritual life, one that lacks concern and dedication for the spiritual and material redemption of those who are poor.
Epilogue for Vincentians --- looking back without anger
Years ago a companion who was fatigued from his pastoral ministry said to me: We do not know how to dedicate ourselves to ministry on behalf of those who are poor and we do not engage in this ministry in a serious manner because at no time during our formation did anyone ever teach us the theory or the practice of said ministry. As I listened to these words I felt myself reacting internally but did not express my thoughts verbally: Why did you not take the time as an adult to learn what you were not taught in your younger years? Yet if we want to be sincere about this we have to admit that his observations with regard to the formation of Vincentian priests and brothers (at least in this country, Spain) are correct especially when we look at formation during the 1940’s and 1950’s and even the formation of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
There is no doubt that it is possible to compensate later on in life for the gaps or deficiencies of one’s formation. Yet with some valiant exceptions the majority of individuals are influenced by and depend on their initial formation and base the rest of their life on said formation. Very rarely do we rethink or reconstruct basic fundamental and structures, analyzing their positive elements and their deficiencies.
Yes, our companion was correct in his observations. To be compassionate toward the poor and to provide them with occasional charitable assistance that alleviates to some degree their situation without endangering one’s own well-being and love of self … in that case it is enough to practice what one has learned from the book of Leviticus. But to dedicate one’s whole life to the poor, to risk one’s own well-being … in such a situation the book of Leviticus is not enough: one must rather internalize and put into practice the demands of the Lord’s new commandment, the demands as they apply to Christians in general and as they apply to Christian-Vincentians.
Translated by: Charles T. Plock, CM