Through Shadows and Images...

A Blog by Tom Gourlay

Tag: Love

Love that Suffers Freedom

The current president of the Fraternity of the new ecclesial movement founded by Don Luigi Giussani is a man by the name of Fr Julian Carron. I have been fortunate enough to have spent some time reading his works over the last year or so and have particularly benefited from his recent book Disarming Beauty, which I would wholeheartedly recommend.

I have been reading and rereading sections from this book over the past few months and have been continually struck by one of the key themes offered in the book, that freedom is so essential to the human person. Carron proposes to the reader that the way to truth is through freedom, and that love must, in fact, suffer human freedom.

Carron’s words inspire much contemplation and prayer, but I have found that the truths which he hopes to introduce his readers to are perhaps more adequately communicated via the media of poetry and literature. His writing reminded me of the tale of Jayber Crow, so beautifully told by a favourite author of mine, Wendell Berry.

What follows is a quote from the novel, the internal monologue of the main protagonist as he experiences something of an epiphany. My hope is that if anyone reading this post has not yet read either of these books, Disarming Beauty, or Jayber Crow, that he or she would do so with immediacy.

Just as a good man would not coerce the love of his wife, God does not coerce the love of his human creatures, not for Himself or for the world or for one another. To allow that love to exist fully and freely, He must allow it not to exist at all. His love is suffering. It is our freedom and His sorrow. To love the world as much even as I could love it would be suffering also, for I would fail. And yet all the good I know is in this, that a man might so love this world that it would break his heart.

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 254

11 June – Sunday of the Most Holy Trinity (Year A), 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son”

The Gospel before us is a familiar one. It is almost too familiar such that its meaning is all too easily lost.

I am tempted to focus on the part of the reading that speaks of the promise of salvation to those who believe. We can take great confidence from these words, as they reassure us of the reality of eternal life., but there is perhaps a danger here, in that we can read this and think that eternal life is something easily granted – all it requires is believing in Him.

When we press deeper into this though, and couple this reading with a reflection on our own experience, we can see that the first part of this saying opens up to some profound truths about the reality of this love which motivated God to give his only Son.

God’s love for the world, fallen as it is, precedes and in fact precipitates his coming in the person of Jesus. When we consider also his knowledge of the reality of evil, of sin, suffering, and injustice, the fact of the Incarnation awakens us to the depth of the love that God has for us.

This love is a reality that it is much more than a mushy feeling – but it entails an order and a logic that includes vulnerability and inevitably suffering, even unto death, death on the Cross. The greater the love, the greater the suffering.

Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of human existence: We have this infinite desire to be loved, and to love, and yet we are so fearful of the suffering that true love entails. This means that we are often caught up in an interminable restlessness that sees us looking for an elusive risk-free love, that in reality does not exist.

The words of Jesus here portray something of the drama of love, in its most pure and cosmic form. The love with which God loves the world motivates his self-gift in the person of Jesus is one which enters into and experiences the depths of human suffering, only to rise again victorious in the Resurrection.

Point to Ponder

“All my life I had heard preachers quoting John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” They would preach on the second part of the verse, to show the easiness of being saved (“Only believe”). Where I hung now was the first part. If God loved the world even before the event at Bethlehem, that meant He loved it as it was, with all its faults. That would be Hell itself, in part. He would be like a father with a wayward child, whom he can’t help and he can’t forget. But it would be even worse than that, for he would also know the wayward child and the course of its waywardness and its suffering. That His love contains all the world does not show that the world does not matter, or that He and we do not suffer until death; it shows that the world is Hell only in part. But His love can contain it only by compassion and mercy, which, if not Hell entirely, would be at least a crucifixion.”

Wendell Berry, ‘Jayber Crow’


5 March – First Sunday of Lent (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 4:1-11

‘He was very hungry…’

Of course he was!

I get hungry pretty well every hour, on the hour. And if I don’t eat I get all sorts of ‘hangry’ (hunger + anger). Ok, perhaps that’s overstating it, but the idea of not having eaten for 40 days and nights seems to me to be a tremendous feat.

On one level, the inclusion of the detail, ‘he was very hungry’ seems comical, and yet, perhaps it points to something much more profound.

When we read the story that follows we are confronted with an episode which is fantastic – an out of this world tale, shrouded in mystery which we could otherwise dismiss as the work of a fanciful imagination.

But what if we take seriously this otherwise comedic detail. He had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and we are told that it is in this state of what would no doubt be enormous hunger and weakness that he is confronted with these temptations.

Had the author merely been trying to tell an imaginative or inspiring story, this detail would be better left out. Instead, however, its inclusion points to something far more extraordinary – the fact that the author here wants us to take this seriously.

This opens us up to something that should in fact give us tremendous hope. In the letter to the Hebrews we are told, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.” (4:15)

Despite his sufferings Jesus displayed tremendous strength and fortitude in the face of temptation. Not as an act of sheer will like some sort of stoic hero – but as an act of love. Love received and given.

Jesus did not refuse temptation out of fear of Divine retribution, but because of the relationship of love which he enjoyed with his Father, and with the Holy Spirit. This bond of love is what we are called to share in and to enter into more deeply in this Lenten season.

Point to Ponder

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’

– Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1

What are the concrete possibilities of man?

Theologian David L. Schindler, who I suppose features as the hero in the thesis I am currently composing, has some really challenging proposals for Catholics and Christians more broadly, as we engage in the new evangelisation in our modern-liberal culture.

My reading thus far sees Schindler is something of a confounding figure in contemporary Catholic theology. As editor of the English edition of the Commnio journal he is, in my humble opinion, certainly an influential thinker, and yet it seems that his own work does not find a huge audience of scholars outside of Communio circles who deeply engage with him. Outside of a number of engagements in the 1990s with certain scholars associated with the journal First Things, it seems that, within broader academia, Schindler’s voice, which I consider to be somewhat prophetic, has been deemed either uninteresting or unintelligible.

Schindler offers, in my reading at least, a radical critique of modern-liberal cutlure that asks a hell of a lot from Catholics and Christians who read him. In fact, what he asks is a fundamental re-think of how we engage with reality as a whole.
While his articles nowadays seem to be received simply with a stunned silence from those outside the Communio milieu, his critics in the 1990s offered little more than a series of variations of the question, ‘What then are we to do?’ being holy in the world
A good question I suppose, and one I am constantly asking as I wade through the pages of his essays.  Larry S. Chapp and Rodney Howsare, in an essay which they contributed to a festschrift for Schindler provide two of his favoured responses:

‘First, “Success is not a Gospel category”; and second, “Liberals give the impression that if Jesus had just been lucky enough to be born into a liberal society he could have avoided a rather ignominious end.”‘

Schindler is perhaps seen as little more than an idealist. His writing is rigourous and strong. He, in my reading at least, seems to work out the real-life implications of the Gospel and the admonition to ‘be perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect.’ (cf. Mt 5:48)

In the end, Schindler’s bold claim is nothing short of the universal call to holiness.

The stunned silence he meets is perhaps similar to what John Paul II received from certain Church-men-and-women who thought he was being unrealistic.

The young people of the world, however, did not receive his call in this way. In fact, as the World Youth Day phenomenon continued to show, that kind of ‘idealism’ was not only within our grasp as something that could be realised, but was, in fact, something that all are called to.

Rather than be off-put by the call to holiness/perfection as something out of reach for common persons, the young people of the world, buoyed by natural youthful exuberance and the reality of grace presented to them by the now Saint John Paul II, recognised the call and received it joyously. When they cried ‘JPII WE LOVE YOU!‘, what they meant was, ‘Let it be done according to your word,’ 

This papal saint from Poland knew too that the weight of the Gospel, when viewed through the eyes of one burdened by guilt or sin, or simply the eyes of a jaded personality might seem too much. And so he asks, “Are we to fear the severity of these words, or rather have confidence in their salvific content, in their power?” (Oct 8, 1980).

Or perhaps, as he writes in what is, in my opinion, his most astounding encyclical Veritatis Splendor 

It would be a very serious error to conclude… that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an “ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a “balancing of the goods in question”. But what are the “concrete possibilities of man” ? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act. God’s command is of course proportioned to man’s capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit (103)


31 July – Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Gospel Luke 12:13-21

“Watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind”

You are what you love.’ Such is the title and basic premise of a book I have been reading recently by the theologian James K.A. Smith.

What underpins such a bold and perhaps somewhat confusing assertion is an anthropological claim that humans are primarily lovers. This stands in stark contrast to the modern (Cartesian) notion of humans as ‘thinking things.’

What he means is that it is not just enough for us to simply hold to a belief, or set of propositions intellectually. How often do we find ourselves falling back into habits we have continually vowed to eschew! (cf. Rom 7:13-25). As the philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand was known to have said, ‘enthusiasm for a virtue is not the same thing as possessing it.’

In his rather demanding words about the evils of avarice or greed, Jesus is admonishing us to guard our heart – to be cautious about what becomes the object of our love. In this, Jesus emphasises a significant truth: that the human appetite is infinite.

St Augustine of Hippo would emphasise this reality in the opening pages of his autobiography ‘The Confessions.’ He writes, “You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” essentially pointing to the reality that the human person is created for eternal union with the Triune God, and nothing but this union will suffice.

The Confessions go on to describe a life of passionate but misplaced loves that consistently fail to satisfy poor Augustine until, that is, he finds rest, in not only the knowledge but the love of God.

What is it that I love? Have I allowed a love of fleeting things to consume me?

Point to Ponder

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

– St Augustine of Hippo – The Confessions Book X, Ch. 27

Love is a mighty thing…

Love seeks no cause nor end but itself. Its fruit is its activity. I love because I love, I love that I may love. Love is a mighty thing, if it so returns to its own principle and origin, if it flows back to its source and ever draws anew whence it may flow again. Love is the only one of all the senses, movements, and affections of the soul, by which the creature can answer to its creator and repay like with like.[1]

[1] Bernard, In Cantica, LXXXIII, cited in Christopher Dawson, Medieval Essays, The Works of Christopher Dawson. Edited by Don. J. Briel Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, p. 92

Balthasar on the mother’s smile

“After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child, and as the child awakens to love, it also awakens to knowledge: the initially empty-sense impressions gather meaningfully around the core of the Thou. Knowledge (with its whole complex of intuition and concept) comes into play, because the play of love has already begun beforehand, initiated by the mother, the transcendent. God interprets himself to man as love in the same way: he radiates love, which kindles the light of love in the heart of man, and it is precisely this light that allows man to perceive this, the absolute Love: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).”

– Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible, chapter 5, “Love Must Be Perceived.”

Mother's Smile

My daughter Anastasia and her beautiful mother, my wife Elizabeth

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