Faith calls us to love

  • January 25, 2008

Trudging along the slushy sidewalk, I kept my left hand in my pocket, eyes alert, watching for panhandlers. In the pocketed hand was a wad of fresh crisp bills.   

Now, I need not open my purse, but could hand over the bills easily.  That was my assignment for the morning, to give $90 to a beggar on the street. The reason for this assignment is another story, which I may tell one day.

Soon enough I saw a young man sitting by the sidewalk with his cap out. Instantly through my mind flashed the thought: “Too young — could be out working — someone else needs it more.” But the assignment didn’t say to decide who was deserving; it said to give cash to a stranger. 

My shoulders lightened, relieved of the burden of judgment, and I held out my wad-filled hand to the young man, saying, “Here’s something for you.”  His automatic “Thank you” was cut short by a heartfelt “O my God” as he saw what was in his hand. 

I was looking at him over my shoulder; he looked up and caught my eye. For a moment, the veil was torn back, and we really looked at each other. The gift of the morning, of the strange assignment and all that led up to it, was that genuine, unprotected look between another human being and me.

How rare and difficult it is for us humans to look one another in the eye. Harder, sometimes, with those we know well than with acquaintances. A reputable marriage therapist encourages couples to open their eyes. He finds that many couples kiss each other with their eyes closed, and are repelled by the idea of kissing with their eyes open. For him, intimate relations and intimacy go together, but often in the most intimate physical moments, people want to hide from one another. 

It’s harder (though certainly not impossible) to hide when you’re looking someone directly in the eye. Look at the person you’re kissing, he suggests, and show something of yourself in turn. Perhaps you’ll make a connection, and discover that body and soul don’t have to be in two different places, isolated from each other and slowly dying.

Whether in romantic relationships, or in any human encounter, it’s a risky business. Much safer to relate on the outside, and keep to oneself on the inside. Can we have any faith in love, the real love St. Paul describes as patient, kind, ever-hopeful, ever-enduring? Can such love exist within marriage — or in friendship — in real life, where our bodies are? Love is the key ingredient of the Christian faith, yet we have trouble believing it can come into our own lives.

During the first two weeks of February, in our culture, a flurry of expectation leads up to Valentine’s Day, Feb.14, the day when people express their love for each other. Or, the day when the price of roses reaches a peak high of some four times its normal amount. Or, the day when some feel they must buy something expensive for a partner, and some feel they must be worthless because they don’t have a partner. 

Like many cultural festivities, it’s a practice that highlights our inner loneliness and lostness. For it calls out our heart’s desire, the desire to experience love in our lives, but provides nothing big enough to answer that desire.

Valentine’s Day does call us to the heart. Problem is, do we really know what our heart is? “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be”: and because the human heart is a treasure, a glorious dwelling-place created by God, it never will be satisfied with less than its true worth. 

The day has a tenuous link to a church feast day. There are several St. Valentines, all early church martyrs. Likely it’s cultural in origin, stemming from medieval images of romantic love, linked to St. Valentine in an attempt to bring romantic love into some kind of relationship with Christian love. It’s never been easy to bring the two together.   

Yet our faith calls us to claim love, to demand it in our lives, not to resign ourselves to substitutes. It tells us we can learn to love. This may mean opening your eyes to see a street beggar as a person; or opening them to see your spouse as he or she really is; or even, opening them so that another can begin to see you. 

It’s a dangerous practice. It may initiate change. Nor will we become loving all at once. Very likely, we’ll fall and need to get up again, and again, and again. Our advantage as Christians is that we have already received the gift of love in our lives: “This is love, not that we love God, but that God loves us.” When human love fails, His does not, but returns to us in infinite patience and kindness.