Two things happened to me this summer in England. I was ordained and I fell in love—more or less at the same time. Such is God’s comic timing! At just the moment I am reaffirming a public commitment to a celibate life my heart is soaring in an altogether different direction.
“You shall love the Lord your God all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Those “all’s” don’t seem to leave much room for manoeuvre! But alongside them is the command, “love your neighbour as your self,” which Jesus says is “like” the first. Work that out in practice! And I’ll tell you, I tried.
But not for too long, because my doubly soaring spirit quickly took a nosedive when it became clear that my love was unrequited—to use an antique word. I discovered myself as one who loves more than he is loved—at least in this instance. And for a while that discovery was devastating. Painful, hurtful, horrible. To have been surprised by love and by rejection in one swift movement.
And of course, poor God bore the brunt of my anger, or at least felt the cold of my shoulder. Loving God with my whole heart was out of the question. For a time, even the homage of a divided heart was doubtful.
But, insofar as I paid attention to God, I discovered—am discovering—two things. One is that the love of God and the love of neighbour are inseparable. They are one. I believed that before—but now I know it. … Jesus has been saying to me, over and over, this enigmatic phrase, “your priesthood begins here.” And its true. I cannot think of any better way to begin this ministry, though I can think of quite a few I’d prefer.
The second thing I’m discovering is this. Not only have I come to know myself as one who loves more than he is loved. But I am coming to know myself as one who loves less than he’s loved. I am realising that God loves me far more than I love God—far more—and that God feels the pain of that as keenly as I have felt my own. It is a humiliating thing to discover.
But, as I stay with it, it is also liberating. Liberating because God, maker of the universe, creator of worlds, knows the pain of unrequited love, knows what it is like to love more than love is returned. God knows that experience—which is my experience and maybe yours—God knows that experience from the inside. … God, for reasons beyond me, has set aside power, and control, and invulnerability to know what it is like to love me more than I love God. That is compassion—com-passion, feeling with, suffering with—and it amazes me.
I think we all stand in this relationship with God—you and me—each of us loved by God with a love we can scarcely begin to know how to return. It’s this love which lies at the heart of the first reading today. God’s compassion for the stranger, the poor, the widow, the orphan, is exactly that—com-passion. God knows how they feel. And when they suffer, God suffers. When they cry out, God listens, because God’s heart is broken with theirs. The whole of the law and the prophets is built on compassion, on a love glides lower than death and the dark. The whole of the law is a challenge: can we be as vulnerable as God; can we let the pain of the poor be our pain—the loneliness of the stranger, the grief of the widow, the insecurity of the orphan—can we let the compassion of God be our compassion? Can we? Our priesthood—which we all share in baptism—begins here. Here is our ministry laid out. And here is God aching to love us and aching to love the world through us: in our love, in our service, in our vote, in our lives.