A few years ago, I was watching a video by now-Bishop Robert Barron, when he said something that has stuck with me ever since. He was talking about love of neighbor, or agape in Greek. He said that this love has been classically defined as “actively willing the good of another, for the sake of the other.” He stressed this last part — “for the sake of the other” — in particular because, he said, this is often the most challenging part of love. Very often, when we think we are acting for the good of another, our own desires get mixed up in the matter. This leads us to persuade ourselves we are looking out for our neighbor when actually we are consciously or unconsciously working to meet our own needs. Instead of loving our neighbor, we are actually using them. They may not know it, and we may not know it, but somewhere deep down, our heart knows it.
When Jesus tells his dinner companions not to invite their relatives or friends or wealthy neighbors to dinner, but to invite those who cannot possibly repay their generosity, this is what he’s talking about. He’s talking about love, and he’s pointing to our tendency to warp it by looking out for ourselves under the guise of helping others. He’s challenging each of us to set aside our own desires when we are in a position to really serve others, even at a cost to ourselves. The dinner party, you see, is just a big metaphor for life. Do we spend our lives “loving” only when it serves us, in ways that fulfill our desires, or do we spend our lives learning how to love like God loves, wholeheartedly and unselfishly?
We all know this, of course. We’ve heard it many times. Nothing new here. And on our good days, the answer is easy: Of course, we want to be like God and love wholeheartedly and unselfishly! The problem is, when it comes down to it, even when we really do want to live our lives in imitation of Christ, we have trouble doing it. Still, loving a little, even with some selfishness mixed in, is better than not loving at all, right? Won’t that do?
Maybe…but in the words of Thérèse of Lisieux: “You cannot be half a saint. You must be a whole saint or no saint at all.”
So what do we do about it? How do we learn to live our lives like that dinner party Jesus wants us to throw? Several ways, but for the sake of space, here are two. First, we need grace, and so we pray for it…repeatedly. Second, we need practice, and here I’m talking about good, old-fashioned asceticism (hear me out, it’s not just for Lent!).
Pick any saints you know who are especially known for their love of others, saints like Marianne Cope or Damian of Moloka’i, Vincent de Paul or Teresa of Calcutta. These saints and many others are best known for their care for the sick and the poor. What they are less known for is what allowed them to be such marvelous lovers: they had very few needs and desires of their own. Through years of self-denial and detachment, they had made themselves, with the help of God’s grace, so free of what the rest of us consider “needs” that they were able to serve others without much thought for themselves, just as Christ called all of us to do. Without those habits of detachment and self-denial, they would only have been “half a saint” — which means “no saint at all.”
Whatever kind of saint God has made us to be, to get there will require, with God’s grace, some form of self-denial and detachment. We don’t have to aim for the big things, not yet anyway. The Little Flower herself emphasized the Little Way: small, deliberate acts of self-denial, voluntarily taken on, that train us and shape us into world-class lovers. Some form of asceticism helps us see that we don’t need as much as we think we do, that we can go without things much more easily than we thought, and it can wean us off the incessant search for comfort and pleasure that most of us have learned since we were little children.
This is the royal road of discipleship: to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus as he loves everyone he encounters. And it’s up to each one of us to examine our lives and see how we might begin, or begin again, to learn how to turn our lives into a dinner party where anyone is invited, especially those who cannot meet our needs, who cannot fulfill our desires, whom we cannot use under the guise of loving them.
I’ll end with some advice from another Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, who writes in his Ascent of Mount Carmel how to imitate Christ:
Endeavor to be inclined always:
not to the easiest, but to the most difficult;
not to the most delightful, but to the most distasteful;
not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant;
not to what means rest for you, but to hard work…
not to wanting something, but to wanting nothing.