Call it my inner poet shining through or call it a divine encounter and grace from God — in any case, it happened many years ago, soon after my conversion to the Catholic faith, at plain old Cub Foods in Duluth of all places.
|Deacon Kyle Eller
I was shopping for groceries, and suddenly my heart was flooded with wonder and joy and awe at the fact that God was holding every single person in that crowded store in existence at that very moment, that he created each one of them with full intention, that he knew each one of them more deeply and intimately than they knew themselves, that he loved them with a love so profound I could not even imagine it — the love that went all the way to the cross — and that his deep desire was to be in communion with each of them into eternity.
This was true for all of them, without exception, whether they had any inkling of this or not. His love for the hardest person to love in that whole building was infinitely deeper than my love for the people I loved most.
Of course, I “knew” this already, in an intellectual way. Any Christian does (or should). This is stuff from Christianity 101. It’s central to the entire Christian perspective on just about everything — why we're here, why Jesus came, why he sent the apostles and the church forth into the world.
Pope Benedict XVI frequently and beautifully alluded to this truth. In the Mass to begin his pontificate, when he received the fisherman’s ring, he said:
“Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”
In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), he describes an encounter with this divine love as the heart of Christian faith and central to our own lives and faith. Quoting St. John, he says:
“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.”
These things are easy to understand in the intellect but, I find, harder to grasp and keep firmly in the heart and soul. In fact, I think that’s why people so often treat these truths as empty platitudes and sometimes criticize preaching that focuses on it as a kind of cop-out, as a way of avoiding the challenging “hard teachings” of our faith. Of course it’s possible to turn them into empty platitudes, but if we truly grasp these truths in the heart and soul, if we truly understand their implications for ourselves and those around us, they are anything but empty platitudes. They are life-changing, life-giving realities that one feels can and should infuse our every encounter, and the very truths that undergird all the teachings of our faith, including the unpopular ones.
When I call to mind that moment in Cub Foods, I will often have an echo of that experience. But in day-to-day interactions, dealing with a difficult person, it can be so hard to remember the truth of it and live out its call in the way I treat them.
As I look out at the world and see the bitterness and anger and division, at the demonization and dismissiveness and eagerness to “excommunicate” each other I can't help thinking of how different it would be if every professed Christian held in his or her heart the truth of how much God loves those difficult people. When I look at the despair and nihilism that are afflicting so many people, with rising rates of depression and anxiety, I can’t help wondering if it would help for people to know in a deeper way that we’re loved, to “come to believe in God’s love” for us, and to be among people who recognize that “each of us is necessary.”
But how can we make that more of a reality?
Based on the principal that we cannot give what we do not have, I think the first thing is to come to believe in — and to personally encounter — the love God has for us personally, and to receive that love, which is pure gift, not something we could ever earn. This corresponds to the deepest desires of our hearts.
And it’s actually by this love of God in our own hearts that we can truly love our neighbors as we ought to, recognizing in each person a deliberate, loved creation of the most high God whose own hearts, whether they yet know it or not, are crying out for the peace, joy, and fullness of life that can only be found in the love of God.
Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].