The Greatest of These Is . . .

What had excited me initially about joining—I’ll call it “that community up there”—was, well, a few things. The centrality of the Bible there, certainly, but also a particular way of reading it that was both informed by scholarship and oriented toward the liberation of the oppressed. That, combined with an openness to charismatic experiences of the miraculous—healings, prophecies, exorcisms—led me to believe that I had “found” the “real deal”. These people have real faith! I thought. I was certain I had found the cutting edge of the Spirit’s blade.

Once we arrived, we found the community to be rife with gossip, division, confusion, power grabs, abuse of authority, cowardice, complicity, fear, hatred . . . every variety of failure to love that you could imagine. Oh sure, we believed in Jesus: our constant chatter about him and unending prayers to him and repeated invoking of him made that undeniable. Faith abounded up there, no doubt. We thought if we believed hard enough—if we just had enough faith!—we could move every mountain, cure every illness, and drive out every demon. We were constantly trying to conjure up more faith.

But we found it so difficult to do the one essential thing.

It took us eight months just to realize how bad it really was, and another six to realize we couldn’t fix it, so finally we left: confused, exhausted, demoralized right down to the marrow.

I can’t even share a breath with the charismatic stuff anymore: no glory clouds, no prophetic images, no deliverance prayers for me, thanks. It’s not that those things were bad or even not real. I think I saw miracles, exorcisms, and healings there, I really do. But there were problems that, I would bet, plague many charismatic communities: an attempt to manipulate the Holy Spirit through correct formulas and displays of emotion; a fixation on the miraculous as proof positive of one’s spiritual maturity; and most all, a confusion of what is peripheral with what is central.

St Therese of Lisieux

The last two mornings in a row, for St Margaret and St Elizabeth, the scripture reading has been the same. I never heard a single talk on it, or even a reference to it, at “that community up there”, and I’m baffled by that, since it speaks so directly to the problems we were experiencing. 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing [ . . . ]

If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.

So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

The year after we left I read about St Therese of Lisieux. Therese was a cloistered nun, and she was often sick. She dreamed of being a missionary, a martyr, a priest, something that stands out. She struggled with this feeling of both limitation and ambition before her great epiphany: that her vocation was to be the very heart of the church, which is—

Which is what? Faith in Jesus?

—not quite. Therese struggled with doubt and despair, and near the end of her short life she went through times where she wasn’t even sure of God’s existence. But the call of St Therese wasn’t faith. It was love. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

Love is the beating heart of the Church.

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

And what is love? I like another Therese’s—St Teresa Benedicta’s–definition: love is “goodness giving itself away”. That’s it! say I. That’s the heart of the matter right there.

And why should we love? Why should we be good, and give ourselves away with abandon? Because to love is to be what we are made to be, little likenesses of the God who is Love. Who was Jesus but the Son who reveals the Father, that is, Goodness Giving Himself Away? To love is to act in accordance with the truth, it is to go with the grain of the universe as it was made to be. We love because Love is the first and the last reality of the universe.

So if it isn’t said in love, if it isn’t done in love, then it comes to nothing.

How could we ever have made anything but love (whether it be faith, or social justice, or miracles) the center and goal of the Christian life? Without the heart, the other members of the body are unable to receive blood and so they die. In the same way, without love, all the other parts of Christian teaching are not properly nourished, and they become sick and begin to decay. Love isn’t all we need, sure; but we really do need it.

So now whenever I hear someone talking about God or Jesus or the Bible or what have you, however convincing they might be, however charismatic they might be, however scholarly or powerful or passionate they might be . . . if they have not love, I don’t listen. Love—not faith—is what authenticates our witness and shows us to be children of the Father.

Cardinal Cajetan, one of Luther’s great critics, was correct:

We are not saved by faith alone, but rather, by faith working through love.

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