Want to be lovable? Then love!
Several years ago Madeline Nugent sent me a book she had co-authored with Julian Stead, OSB, entitled Love-Ability. The book was published in 2007 by the New City Press, which is the North American publishing house of the highly-regarded Focolare Movement. The Movement’s charism is rooted in Christ’s desire “that all may be one”. It situates itself in complete union with the Church, and its books seek to demonstrate how relationships can be improved and rebuilt by “modeling them on the life of the Trinity.”
The reason I delayed so long in reviewing the book is because its spirituality is so pragmatic and down-to-earth that it is presented very much as a self-help book, which just happens to be a genre I heartily dislike. Whether because self-help books are typically relatively simple intellectually, or because their advice always seems more or less obvious, or because I just feel I don’t need no stinkin’ suggestions, the self-help category has never ranked high on my reading list. Nonetheless, there was something about the book that led me to hang on to it, and I finally took a serious look at it yesterday.
On closer examination, it becomes rapidly clear that Love-Ability has a great deal to offer to anyone who wants a step-by-step guide to what love is, and what it means to love others, in every aspect of their lives, day by day. The subtitle is “becoming lovable by caring for yourself and others”, and students of the self-help genre might immediately fear the book will resolve itself into some shallow ten-point plan to happiness and success. But in reality, the authors begin with a serious yet simple exposition of what love really is, and then proceed to explain how love ought to lead us to behave in everything from personal manners and emotional control to stewardship, serious service and evangelization.
For example, there is this from Chapter 2, “What Is Love?”:
It begins with the Divine Lover, progresses with his grace, and ultimately has him as its goal. It is, indeed, the stairway climbed, the vocation lived, the way followed to salvation, the relationship that blossoms, the quality that divides good from evil. Hubert van Zeller put it this way: “If you live Christ’s life you love with Christ’s love. His life is all love; his spirit is all love. It is not so much that his love ‘rubs off’ on us but that it actually animates us and ‘informs’ our every activity. We…love with his love…we cannot fashion charity as we can fashion a rose garden or an omelette. The most we can do is direct it from him within us to him outside us.”
A simpler way of explaining this is to say that Love is maximum movement toward the Good.
With this in mind, Love-Ability opens with the God question and then covers such “how to love” topics as compassion, honesty, promises, good sportsmanship, thoughtfulness, courtesy, putting others first, respect, stewardship, and patience. Each chapter is divided into a dozen or more subtitles signaling practical points which must be understood and implemented in our own lives and in our relationships with others. There is never any confusion between being “nice” and truly loving someone; there is never any accommodation with objective evil.
In the chapter on respect, for example, we find not only the question of whether we “stereotype people according to race, social standing, education…or any other factor” but also the question of whether we “think that abortion is sometimes justified.” The book transcends cultural presuppositions about “acceptable behavior” because it is rooted in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Not uncommonly the authors offer practical exercises which the reader can perform in order to understand himself better (for self-knowledge is essential in learning to love), or to form a good habit, or to become less preoccupied with self and more attentive to others. Indeed, practical steps are the hallmark of the book, which offers concrete guidance on everything from table manners to jokes to thinking before we speak, and which explains everything from the need to listen to the importance of confronting capital sins.
For me the chief value of the book was as a sort of checklist. It covers so many personality traits, behavior patterns and daily opportunities that it provides a good reminder of areas in which I fall short. For somebody who is more attuned to the self-help genre, the book really can serve as a kind of rule of life—a way to systematically transform yourself by following a series of practical steps day by day. However, to introduce an intellectual note, the books is by no means Pelagian. It does not assume that we can lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It is spiritually rooted, but the authors know too that we need constant exercise in virtue.
By being attentive to small matters, we often find ourselves capable of handling greater things. At least this is how God himself deals with us (see Mt 25:20-23). So if you know someone who is looking desperately for a way to get his or her life in order, or somebody who really needs a personality transplant, I can recommend this book. But use it to whittle down the log in your own eye first, before passing it on!
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