The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council

"Chapter 12 - God is love"


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At the beginning of an earlier chapter1 we began to wonder why Vatican II places so much stress on the faith and obedience of Mary, why it spoke more of those virtues than it did of her love. We began to reply by examining, in the light of the Council, the importance of faith and obedience. But we still need to ask ourselves: granted that faith and obedience are basic, still, is not love the greatest of all virtues? Why not speak more of it?

To complete the answer, we need first to recall what love really is. Few ages have prated more of love than ours; yet few centuries have shown more confusion over its basic meaning. We often read or hear the expression "to make love" used to refer to sexual intercourse, as if that were love. And a prominent theologian showed an almost unbelievable confusion when he wrote that to explain the meaning of love, one has to describe some bodily activity. So, a difficulty arises, he says, when we speak of God as loving, since He has no body. As a result, he asserts, when we say God is loving, we take a word we understand in a bodily context, and extend it into a realm we do not understand. So really, we do not know what we mean when we say God is loving. We are just using words to try to mean something.2

St. John, the beloved disciple, wrote that "God is love." If a theologian does not know what that means, one wonders if he should call himself a theologian at all.

We can learn most easily what love is from the Beloved Disciple. In his Gospel, he quotes the Divine Teacher as saying:3 "God so loved the world that He gave His Only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life." And again:4 "By this has the love of God become known to us [namely] that God sent His Only-begotten into the world, that we might live through Him."

So, God showed His love by sending His Son to die to obtain eternal happiness for us. What then is the interior attitude, which leads to that exterior effect, His sending His Son to obtain happiness for us? Obviously, it must be this: He desires, wants our happiness. Not just a merely human, passing happiness, but an everlasting happiness, a divine sort of happiness. So then we can easily see what love is: It is a desire, a concern for the happiness and the well-being of another. Because God desires our happiness, He sent His Son.

How great is that love? We can as it were get a measure on love by seeing how great an obstacle it can surmount in its attempt to obtain happiness for the loved one. A small love will stop short when it meets a small obstacle, a great love can be blocked by a great obstacle. A limitless love will not hold back no matter what the cost. What was the cost of opening the way to eternal, divine happiness for us? It was the hard life, the dread passion and death of the Divine Son. The very difficulty of it is the measure of the love of both Father and Son for us.

How great was Mary's love for us? It too was measured by the suffering she had to go through to cooperate in obtaining eternal happiness for us. It meant, as Vatican II said that:5 "she stood, in accord with the divine plan, greatly grieved with her Only-begotten, and joined herself to His sacrifice with a Motherly heart, consenting to the immolation of the victim that had been born of her." How difficult was this for her? The pain of any Mother standing helplessly by as her son dies would be in proportion to two things: to the suffering she sees him going through, and the greatness of her love for him. The more she loves him, the greater the pain. Each new degree, as it were, of love, multiplies the suffering she feels from the extent of his pains. Her love is as it were a multiplier.

How great was her love for Him? Since love of God and holiness are, in practice, interchangeable expressions, we get a clue from the words that Pius IX wrote referring to her holiness at the time of her immaculate conception. Even then, at the start, it was so great that6 "none greater under God can be thought of, and no one but God can comprehend it." Now of course, her holiness or love grew after that start-we all must either grow or fall back. What then must it have been by the time of His sacrifice, if at the very start it was beyond the ability of any creature to understand, if only God Himself could comprehend it? Let that incomprehensible love be the multiplier of the suffering endured from seeing His terrible physical pain and most heartless rejection by the very men He was dying to save, and if we could begin to take in such a height or depth, we could begin to understand the immensity of the obstacle her love had to surmount in order to cooperate with Him in obtaining happiness, eternal joy, for us.

So her love for us is, quite literally, beyond the ability of any creature to measure.

But there is still a most difficult problem. We have seen that love is a desire or a concern for the happiness and well-being of another person. We want that person to receive what he needs in order to be well off and happy. Now of course there is no problem if we say that God wishes us to receive what we need for happiness, or if we wish such a thing to another human being. But: can we really, as it were, turn to God and say: "I hope you are well-off. I wish you all the things you need for happiness." Obviously, God cannot be other than infinitely well off. He needs nothing. We creatures can give Him nothing. We speak of "serving God." But really: does our "service" benefit Him? The Book of Job replies:7 "If you sin, what harm do you do Him? ... If you are morally righteous, what do you give Him, or what does He receive from your hand?"

In what sense, then, can we say at all that we love God? We must notice that often words are used to apply to two things in such a way that they apply somewhat differently in the two cases: there is something in common in the two uses, but also something different. Similarly, when we say we love God, we must use the word "love" in a sense that is partly the same, partly different. We can understand it this way: Scripture pictures God as pleased when we obey, displeased when we disobey. Now of course, He is not pleased in that He gains anything from our "service." We have already seen that. But yet He, like a good Father is pleased for two reasons. An earthly father wants his children to obey, first, because he loves what is right, and moral rightness does require that a child obey his parents; second, because he, the father, wants to give his love and favours to his child. But if the child is bad, the father really ought to punish instead. That he does not want. Similarly with our Father in heaven. He wants us to obey because He loves what is morally right: it is right that children obey their parents, creatures their Creator. But He too wants to give us happiness, to lavish His gifts upon us. If we disobey, He must punish instead. He does not want that. So He is, in this sense, pleased when we obey, not that He gains, but so that He may have the pleasure of giving.

When we obey, we make it possible for Him to give. That gives Him pleasure. So that is what it means to love Him: to obey Him, so we may be open to His gifts, so He may have the pleasure of giving to us. In this sense, we make Him happy.

We can now understand some otherwise puzzling lines in Scripture. Christ Himself said:8 "He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me." And again:9 "If you love me, keep my commandments." The second Epistle of St. John puts it even more concisely:10 "This is love [namely] that we walk according to His commands."

No wonder then, that Vatican II spoke more often of Mary's obedience than of her love, and that it said of her Son,11 "By His obedience, He brought about Redemption." Of course, there is a formal distinction between obedience and love. Yet in practice, they are almost indistinguishable, surely inseparable. We could put it well by saying: Obedience is love in action.

When is love perfect? We saw in chapter 11 that absolute perfection consists in totally aligning our will with the will of God, so that we actively will what He wills, wherever and to whatever extent His will is known to us and we wait in docile, pliable expectancy for His will to appear in other matters. Really, that is simply another description of love, for love of God, as we saw, consists in making ourselves totally open to Him by obedience to His will, so He may have the pleasure of lavishing His generosity on us. We saw too, that an important aspect in aligning our will with His lies in our working to mortify desires. For these can prevent us from seeing His will fully.

To put it another way, perfect love requires that we not only avoid all mortal sin. but even that we avoid all deliberate venial sin, and further, that we eradicate all attachments that are imperfect, to the extent that they could hinder our most fully seeing the will of God. For even an imperfection, that is, doing something less perfect than we could do, or omitting some good we could do can hinder our ascent, much like the thread holding the bird, of which we spoke in chapter 11. Now we do not mean, of course, that a man should, on the objective scale, always do that which is the most perfect thing he can conceive at the moment. No, considering normal human weakness, as found in this person at this moment, what is better in itself might not be the better thing for him at this point. In fact, we need to add that for most persons, a constant policy of trying to find even the best for themselves on this occasion requires an expenditure of energy that, if sustained over a long period, would probably be too much, would probably be contrary to prudence.

Of course, there will be many variations in what is prudent for this person according to his state in life, e.g., no husband should impose anything resembling a monastic regime on his family, nor is he personally called to live like a monk.

In practice, two measures are needed to help us &d our way, to achieve just the right measure and balance. First, we need mortification, chiefly mortification of desires, so that their gravitational force (recall chapter 11) may not be able to hinder the ascent of our minds, wills, hearts to God. This mortification itself too, of course, is equally and for the same reason, to be regulated by supernatural prudence, which must take into account the reservations and distinctions expressed in the last paragraph above. Really, if at all possible, one should have the help of a prudent spiritual director in setting policies on this matter, and in making periodical reviews of those policies. For no one can be objective about himself.

Secondly, we need the help and guidance that our spiritual Mother Mary can and will obtain for us. But even with that, we should not forget that we are not infallible, that we can, even without intending to do so, block the light she sends us because of desires that exert their pull on us subconsciously.

We can speak of varied degrees of perfection in love of God also according to the kind of motive we have. That is, we can love God because He is good in Himself, or because He is good to or for us. Objectively, of course, He is both, and we know that if we love Him as good in Himself, He will also reward us. But there can be a difference of emphasis, of the way one or the other aspect registers on us at a given moment. We should try to make the more generous aspect the more prominent. If we understand what was said earlier in this chapter about the generosity of God, about the fact that He wants us to "serve" Him not for any gain to Himself, which is impossible, but so He may give His favours to us, we will find that almost the more natural thing to do.

We should notice too that when we speak of love of God because He is good to or for us, we could have two different aspects in mind. That is, we could either desire Him in such a way that we think of union with Him as what we want, or that we think of the joy He gives as our goal. Again, both are inseparable in reality. It is a question of which aspect dominates in our thoughts at a given moment.

Some persons, aiming at the most refined love, have thought that fear of divine punishment is an unworthy motive, one to be avoided. It is true, fear is a much lower motive than love. But that does not mean it is a bad motive. Christ Himself often presented that motive to His disciples. In fact, the first clear revelation of hell in Scripture is not found in the Old Testament, but on the lips of Christ Himself. It would be far better if we could always be driven only by the purest motives of love. But, considering our weakness, and the blinding force of human emotions, there will be times when love does not register strongly on us, when we need the help of fear to keep from falling out of His love.

Some may be tempted to say at this point: But I did not enter a monastery or a religious order. I am not aiming at perfection. There are two things to be said in reply. First, everything said about mortification, perfection, love. and other things, must be adjusted to the special individual characteristics of each person, to his present stage of spiritual development, and to his particular state in life. What is proper for a monk or hermit will not always be proper for a married person. But, secondly, with these reservations, perfection definitely is not only open to all, but all are required to work towards it. The Divine Teacher Himself said:12 "Be you therefore perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect." Obviously, no creature can ever actually attain the perfection of the Father in Heaven. The result is that he can never say it is enough. He must always keep on the move, always grow.13


1 In chapter 8.
2 As a matter of charity, we omit his name. And of course, it is just possible he may have meant a sense somewhat different.
3 Jn. 3,16.
4 1 Jn. 4,9.
5 On the Church § 58.
6 Ineffabilis Deus, Dec. 8, 1854.
7 Job 35,6-7.
8 Jn. 14,21.
9 Jn. 14,15.
10 2 Jn. 6.
11 On the Church § 3.
12 Mt. 5, 48.
13 The obligation to work towards perfection is more stringent an religious than on lay persons, and still more so on priests.