Homily: On Perfect Love

We read in Saint Paul’s writings that “there now abideth faith, hope, love, these three things; but the greatest of these is love [1 Cor. 13:13].” Saint Chrysostom asks, “How then is love the greater? In that those pass on.” Saint Paul had perfect love for God in accordance with what he wrote. Love is the greatest gift in the Church and at the same time the most important of the Gospel commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” This is the first commandment. And the second is like this: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these [Mk. 12:30, 31].”

The first human failure, transgression of the commandment, was the making the choice not to love and obey God. Since all the commandments are summed up in these words: “If ye love Me, keep My commandments [Jn. 14:15].” And, “These things I command you, that ye be loving one another [Jn. 15:17].” Saint Chrysostom remarks, “We need everywhere both works and practises, not a mere show of words…God requires that love which is shown by works. For this cause He was saying to His disciples, ‘If ye love Me, ye will keep My commandments.’ For after He said to them, ‘If ye should ask anything in My name, I will do it,’ that they might not think it was so simply on the strength of asking, He added, ‘If ye love Me,’ ‘then,’ He says, ‘I will do it.’”

Therefore, love for God and neighbor are interdependent and mutually beneficial. Saint Maximos writes: “Love for every man must be preferred above all visible things. This is the sign of our love for God, as the Lord himself shows in the Gospels…Do you see that this love for one another makes firm the love for God, which is the fulfilling of every commandment of God?”

The wise person loves all people. He loves them with the same love as does God. “Our Lord said to love our enemies and to do good to them that hate you, and to pray for them that abuse you. Why did He command this? That He might free you from hate, grief, anger, and grudges. He did this that He might grant you the greatest of all possessions: perfect love. But this cannot be had except by the man who loves all men equally and who, like God, ‘willeth all men to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of the truth [1 Tim. 2:4].’” Now such a person is the revelation in the world of God’s hidden love, for “God, Who hides Himself, is revealed through the just.” Love for God and love for the world are not two different loves but two aspects of the one, indivisible love. Through this love, the total synthesis of mankind comes to be enclosed in a single identity, in which each individual exchanges his own being with the rest, and all with God. Unified in the love of Christ, Who is love and therefore unity, the members of His body are also one with each other, so much so that they come to know each other’s hearts and thoughts, that they find it impossible to be truly absent from each other, because they have permeated each other’s being in love. “There is hardly a letter of Maximos that does not begin or end with such thoughts.” He is ever calling to mind the love that binds him with the addressee in a unity that bridges all distance and is the continuing foundation on which they can exchange their thoughts. This deep consciousness of mutual presence has nothing to do with a mere memory or imagination of the absent friend. It is “the law of love, which God has planted in the hearts of all people,” and which has nothing to do with sensible feelings or desires. This last element, strong as it may be at times, is always in danger of turning into surfeit and boredom; those who love in a divine way, on the other hand – who bear within themselves the God Who is love – are elevated above an end of this  kind. “The tenderness that melts their hearts is a God-given capacity to love. …One who loves God cannot help loving also every man as oneself, even though the passions of those not yet purified disgust such a one. So then as one sees the conversion and betterment of others, one rejoices with a boundless and ineffable joy.” Love continues to grow so that it “makes its own anything and everything that is related to it by nature.” It is no longer the product of the emotional faculty alone, but rather it is more proper to say that in a deeper and more genuine way are the vigor and inner intensity of love communicated to the whole consciousness. And so we see in Saint Mary’s* life how she graduated from carnal love to spiritual love. “So, if the soul perfectly oriented toward God regards the world indifferently from now on, it is not out of contempt for earthly things, but because God is endlessly more beautiful than any of them. So one who loves God prefers knowledge of Him to all things made by Him; and by desire ceaselessly devotes oneself to it. One who has the mind fixed upon love for God scorns all visible things and even one’s body as something alien.”

Detachment allows the intellect to establish itself as the sole governing principle of the soul. In this restored state, the soul is not moved by irrational impulses. “Reason, instead of being ignorant, ought to move through knowledge to seek solely after God; and through the desiring power, pure of the passion of self-love, it ought to yearn for God alone; and through the incensive power, separated from tyranny, it ought to struggle to attain God alone. And from these [powers of soul] reason ought to create divine and blessed love for which they exist; love which unites a God-loving person to God manifests him to be God.” Therefore, “Love is a good disposition of the soul, according to which one prefers no creature to the knowledge of God.”

Saint Maximos: “For the sake of love, the saints all resist sin continually, finding no meaning in this present life, and they endure many forms of death, that they may be gathered from this world to themselves and to God, and unite in themselves the fractures of nature.” In the same letter, he writes about true Love: “These are the marks of love, which bind human beings to God and to one another… You, who have become blessed and most genuine lovers of this divine and blessed way, fight the good fight until you reach the end, clinging fast to those qualities that will assure your passage to love’s goal. I mean: love of humankind, brotherly and sisterly love, love of the poor, compassion, mercy, humility, meekness, gentleness, patience, freedom from anger, long-suffering, perseverance, kindness, forbearance, goodwill, peace toward all. Out of these and through these the grace of love is fashioned, which leads one to God Who divinizes the human being that He Himself fashioned.” The commandment of love is for the reunification of humanity. “He who is perfect in love and has attained the summit of detachment knows no difference between ‘mine and thine,’ between faithful and unfaithful, between slave and freeman, or indeed male and female. Having risen above the tyranny of the passions and looking to nature, one in all men, he considers all equally and is disposed equally toward all. For in him there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female, neither slave nor freeman, but everything and in all things Christ’s.”

Saint Mark the Ascetic: “Christ’s words ‘But many who are first shall be last, and the last first [Mt. 19:30]’ refer to those who participate in the virtues and those who participate in love. For love is the last of the virtues to be born in the heart, but it is the first in value, so that those born before it turn out to be ‘the last.’”

*Saint Mary of Egypt

Source: The Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church, Triodion. Holy Apostles Convent, Buena Vista, Colorado.

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