Deus Caritas Est: The Mystical Power of Love

In the Second Reading of the Divine Office for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the excerpt is from a homily on the Gospels by Pope Saint Gregory the Great. It is a beautiful passage about love, coming to know Jesus Christ, and eschatological joy. The aim of this post is to focus primarily on Gregory’s emphasis on love as read in this selection from the Liturgy of the Hours.

The primary Gospel message that Gregory is preaching on is Christ the Good Shepherd (Jn 10). He is speaking to encourage the flock to truly be flock, and by that he means true followers of the Heavenly Shepherd: “Ask yourselves whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love”. To be a sheep of the Good Shepherd is if to, not surprisingly, follow Him—and this requires love.

Moreover, to arrive at this conclusion, Gregory first read and interpreted the following passage: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own – by which I mean, I love them – and my own know me. In plain words: those who love me are willing to follow me, for anyone who does not love the truth has not yet come to know it”. Gregory, here, is drawing upon the Biblical tradition of knowledge, namely, that it is something more than a mere acknowledgement of a fact, that it, instead, involves an interior transformation and even a certain relationship with the truth. Thus, when we come to know God, we thereby come to love the truth—which He is—and so enter into discipleship.

The question, then, seems to be, “How do I come to know God?”. Gregory answers this question by tracing the path that the Son took. It is through love that man comes in communication with God. For the flock of Jesus Christ is a flock inundated with love, and that is the mark of Christianity, of being Christian (cf. Jn 34-35). The whole persona of Jesus is love. He is God Incarnate, the personification of Love. He came “to serve and give his life as a ransom” (Mk 10:45). Therefore, to come to know God requires that we come to know the mediator of God, Christ Jesus. This, in turn, necessitates a conformation-in-being with Jesus. And how one comes to this is through love: serving and giving his life to others. Living for the other is the atom of the Christian compound, so to speak.

Gregory quotes from the First Letter of John to emphasize the importance of love in knowing God: “anyone who claims to know God without keeping his commandments is a liar” (1 Jn 2:4). In a later passage, John writes: “Whoever is without love does not know God” (1 Jn 4:8). Just as God came down into the human condition through love, so man comes to know God through love, of which God Himself is the source and fount.

Thus, love really is a mystical power. By entering into life, into the “sheepfold through me [Jesus] he [one] shall be saved; he shall go freely in and out and shall find good pasture. He will enter into a life of faith; from faith he will go out to vision, from belief to contemplation, and will graze in the good pastures of everlasting life”.

The God of Love calls us to a life of love. When we therefore live charitably, generously, and gratuitously, we begin to follow His incarnate Son—the Bridge into the Divine. Love is the ingredient of mysticism, of coming into contact with the Infinite, of experiencing the closeness of God’s presence face-to-face.

The Pope closes his homily with beautiful words of inspiration that, still today, should be a source of encouragement for Christians: “Let us stir up our hearts, rekindle our faith, and long eagerly for what heaven has in store for us. To love thus is to be already on our way. No matter what obstacles we encounter, we must not allow them to turn us aside from the joy of that heavenly feast.” The excerpt accordingly ends with a message of joy. There is a certain, unique joy of knowing Christ. It is a joy that liberates, a joy that conveys true life, and a joy that nourishes the divine source of the human person. It is a joy that only comes from God, and it is a joy that is accessible only through love.

Thus, just as Deus Caritas est, may we, in turn be love, and so be with God, and allow our souls to experience their primal wings and soar the heavens with the Divine, once again.

6 thoughts on “Deus Caritas Est: The Mystical Power of Love”

  1. Great mediation. Thanks for sharing. I’m still mulling over Gregory’s statement: “I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love.” It seems to me that from a certain vantage point this is correct. (I’ll have to try and read Gregory it in context to discern his meaning.) I will say that I would probably want to qualify that statement to guard certain truths.

    The relationship between faith and love is certainly not easy to parse. At the very least we must say that they are inextricably linked. And in a certain sense faith is logically prior to love. That is, it must come before it, not chronologically, but as a cause comes before the effect. In other words, it is only when we percieve the supreme redeeming love for us in Christ that we can find our hearts empowered to rise out of spiritual death and truly love God. As John puts it, “We love because he first loved us.”

    This order, I would contend, cannot be reversed. In other words, only those who are truly apprehend the grace of God and receive the gift of righteousness and sonship by faith can live in love. This, I think, is part of the deep logic of the gospel. We receive our status before God as a purely gratuitous gift by faith, but this necessarily results in love. As we see at the end of Luke 7, it was the womans faith that saved her, but the result was great love, for she had been forgiven much.

    Doubtless, though we are not saved because of our love or loving acts, love is the necessary fruit and perfecting of authentic faith. In this sense, as Paul clearly tells us, love is superior to faith, its consummation and fulfillment. And I think that Gregory is right that it is in this love that we truly know God and experience that for which faith strives – faith being the kind of hopeful reaching and love the possessing. Thanks again for the post and all of your other articles.

    1. Josh, I appreciate your comment. Sorry I have not been able to respond quicker. Still some traveling in Italy! Anyway…

      I am not sure if I agree with you, however. Perhaps it will help if you explain your position, namely, that faith comes before love. If not chronologically, as you propose, then how else? It seems to me that that position means: first you have faith, and then you love. That seems chronological? I do think that in Christ we love more completely, however. I am not seeing the difference between cause and effect, and chronologically: doesn’t the cause come chronologically before the effect? Perhaps this is what you mean, but if not, please explain so that I can understand what you intend.

      I think that it is altogether faulty to talk about faith and then love. You are correct that their relationship is ‘inextricably linked’. Moreover that love is fruit of growing closer into unity with God is certainly true. However, I do not think that it is some sort of reciprical relationship such as: i now have faith and so God gives me the ability to love. Instead, to live in love requires purification, internal renewal, intense prayer. It involves a daily transformation of self into Christ. It involves a lifelong journey into God. It does not happen overnight.

      This is why I think a proper understanding of faith is crucial. Faith is the very orientation of our life: specifically for the Christian, it is toward the Trinity. So, in that respect, the relationship between love and faith is even greater than what you suggest.

      Lastly, I would be interested in how you read the following:
      “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me”’ (Mt 25:34-36).

      1. Great questions! My advice is we begin by unlearning what we think we know and consider the Biblical assessment of fallen man. It is bleak and absolute – a being wholly enslaved, vanquished under the power of sin and spiritually dead. Not just feeble but dead. Paul says those in the flesh (i.e. who do not have the Spirit of Christ) cannot follow the law or please God. (Rom. 8) I don’t think this is hyperbole. Apart from the Spirit, man cannot obey at all. Indeed, in Adam, all our “virtues” are but glittering transgressions. Only in Christ are we alive to God.

        So, until believing the gospel we are united to Christ, we are void of any capacity to love God in truth. We may love Him in the very moment of redemption, but it’s because we are engrafted into Christ we can bear this holy fruit. Just as the light of a candle appears as soon as it is lit, but does not give rise to the flame.

        This entrance into a state of sonship and grace (the foundation of all subsequent good works) is by faith. Miss this and we eviscerate the gospel. And, we increase in holiness and love, not by trying to squeeze virtue out of our own nature, but by living by faith out of the ‘new man,’ who exists by union with Christ, and owns him as his only righteousness and strength. In other words, sanctification too, is by faith. We advance not by our own will-power and effort, but by living ever more fully out of the free and all-sufficient grace in Christ.

        You are right that growth in love involves union with God, renewal and purification. But understand this: You can’t do any of those things for yourself! These are the work of God! As soon as we understand this we can enter the narrow gate and take on the light yoke of Christ. I am not advocating passivity, but a living faith that works, not to gain righteousness as under the law, but out of an overflow of grace received freely.

      2. As for Matthew 25, ask yourself: What does the whole of scripture say? What is the best and most consistent way to understand the totality of its teachings? Are good works in some way the ground and cause of a man’s righteousness and status before God? Or are they a fruit that always, necessarily appears when someone has received by faith the grace and gift of righteousness held out in Christ? How you answer this question is of infinite importance.

        Here Christ as elsewhere is saying that you will know men by their fruits. On the last day it will be plain who was a real believer and who was not. I submit that this is the only way of reading this that can be made to accord with the rest of Matthew and the N.T.

        You must think very, very carefully about cause and effect, the reason for salvation and its evidences. There is something very mysterious and quite counterintuitive about the gospel. Listen to Paul in Romans 4: “What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

        But don’t miss this; if we follow Paul we find that it is only this man, the man who does not work to be justified, who can and will do true good works and show himself justified! Oh beautiful paradox!

        Got to run, but I leave you with this from Romans 5:
        “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
        Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.”

        Blessings, brother. Once again, enjoy Italy. (Have you made it to Venice yet?)

  2. Josh,

    There is definately some disagreements in our understandings of justification and the relationship between faith and works and grace and nature. Of course, we may find that the “disagreements” are more looking at things from a different perspective. The Joint Declaration on Justification Between Lutherans and Catholics comes to mind. As you might know, Catholics do not advocate for a faith alone position, nor do we believe in works alone. In no way do Catholics believe one can work their way to heaven.

    Anyway, instead of engaging in a discussion going back and forth, point by point regarding these issues I am hopeful that soon we will be able to do a series of posts on the Catholic understanding of justification. I think this will help our readers understand the Catholic teaching on it. What I think is interesting in this discussion is how our differences regarding justification affects our understanding of love and its relationship to faith. Also of interest is how perspectives on fallen nature may affect our views on ones capacity to love.

    Here is an interesting article regarding the justification of Abraham…

    More to come in upcoming posts!!!

    1. Looking forward to future posts. For now, a brief comment on the article. Suppose a man were listening to a lengthy conversation and heard the following statements at various points:

      Last year Jack graduated.
      Everyone who passes all their classes will graduate.
      Jill is graduating today.

      If this man treated the conversation the way Akin treats scripture he would say: “See, graduation is not an event but a continuous process. Look at the tenses. It’s clear, all graduates have graduated, are graduating and will graduate. ”

      This, I am afraid, is exactly what many RC apologists (Akin, Staples etc.) do. I don’t get it. Instead of following the actual argument of a book like Romans, they ignore context and jump around helter-skelter to make you think that it supports their paradigm. I guess it’s persuasive if you never read the verses and ask what the author is actually saying.

      Because almost none of the key components of the RC system appear in scripture, the best they can do is make it seem as if there is some latitude that makes their view allowable. Have you ever noticed that the Bible doesn’t really come out and say almost anything that a RC would need it to say for the system to be valid? It’s all the most whispy, paper-thin, maybe-just-maybe riddled stuff you can ever imagine. The best the RC apologist can do is try, through what looks like sophistry, to make you think that there is enough wiggle-room that the system might be compatible with the Bible. Sigh.

      Also, Genesis 15:6 is not necessarily to be understood as identifying the moment in which Abraham was justified. Many considerations (broader context, grammatical form etc.) indicate this. Rather, it is a kind of declaration characterizing Abraham enunciated at this climactic moment when God would inaugurate the covenant with him. Many commentators have noted this. Look it up.

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