White Robed Monks of St. Benedict
Loving God and Neighbor
by Archbishop James of Novgorod
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. (Matt. 22:37-39)
These two commandments, as stated by the Lord Himself, express the very essence of God's law. On another occasion, He said to one of the lawyers: Do this, and thou shalt live (Luke 10:28). Each of us must realize that it is imperative for us to fulfill these commandments, and that therefore we should give all our attention, all our energy and prayer to this endeavor. These commandments are linked so tightly that if we neglect to fulfill one, we will not fulfill the other.
Are there many among us who, in all good conscience, could say that they love God? Is it not true that most of us are in fact cold towards God? This is not to say that anyone would refuse to acquire love for God. What am I saying-refuse? I am certain that every one of us desires to have this love-a sweet and holy feeling essential to our soul's salvation-but we simply do not find it within ourselves. What are we to do? Remain cold towards God? No! This would spell perdition. It is better for us to search for ways to kindle this love for God. They are within reach and, with the help of God's grace, we will not find them difficult.
The first means which can contribute to kindling love for God is the turning of our minds to God. We can always force our mind to think about God, even when other thoughts-about worldly matters and matters unrelated to God-are vying for our attention. By compelling our mind to reflect upon God more and more often, we will succeed, with the cooperation of grace, in chasing out the coldness towards God, dwelling in our hearts, and fan at least a small spark of love for our Creator. By means of such reflection, our minds will gradually come to realize that there is nothing in the world better, more perfect or more desirable than God. There are many good things in the world, things which attract us, but their attraction fades when we examine them more closely, when we really know them. One cannot say this about God. On the contrary, the better we know Him, the more we see in Him perfection. As the mind becomes persuaded of the perfection of the Divinity, the heart is no longer able to remain indifferent or unfeeling towards God. The mind directs the heart. Where the mind discerns that which is of real value, truly attractive, there the heart also turns with its love. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matt. 6:21), said Jesus Christ. For this reason, we believe and we declare of a certainty that frequent and reverent contemplation of God can greatly assist the kindling within us of love for God.
Another, no less effective means, of stimulating our love for God is prayer. Prayer attracts the grace of the All-Holy Spirit, and the All-Holy Spirit kindles within us and sets aflame love in our hearts. Where there is the Spirit of God, there is love. Just as warmth is an inherent property of the sun, similarly, love is a necessary operation of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit of love (Gal. 5:22), says the Apostle Paul. Prayer, which is like a conversation with God, besides bringing us closer to God and enabling us thereby to experience the sweetness of the Divine essence, awakens naturally within us love for God. Many saints felt within themselves the fire of divine love, especially during prayer.
Love for our neighbor is another powerful means of enkindling our love for God. Love for our neighbor fans the spark of love for God. It is unheard of that one who loves his neighbor with a holy love does not at the same time feel love for God. Therefore, whoever does not feel in himself love for God should make every effort to love his neighbor. A good turn rendered to our neighbor in the name of God, condescension to another's weakness, forgiveness of offenses, yielding our will to another's, courteousness, friendliness-even if we must force these from ourselves-are capable, little by little, of developing in us love for our neighbor, and from this love can give birth to love of God. This occurs because God Himself loves love for neighbor, and He takes up his abode and dwells in hearts where there is love for neighbor. God is love, says St. John the Theologian, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him (I John 4:16). And whoever has God within him cannot possibly not love God. Where there is love, God, by His grace, grants that person to powerfully experience the ineffable sweetness of the Divinity, and whoever has experienced this sweetness, this blessedness, this goodness, cannot but love God.
But the best means by far of kindling love for God is frequent and conscious reception of the Holy Mysteries-the Body and Blood of Christ. Just as iron gets hot and becomes malleable when heated in fire, so, too, from the grace-giving fire of the Holy Mysteries the heart changes, it softens, becomes inflamed and burns with divine love. This occurs because, through the reception of the Holy Mysteries, God enters into the most intimate relationship with a person, He breathes into him His grace, He grants him to experience intensely the sweetness of His Divinity, and, one might say, transforms that person into love. This is why a person, after partaking reverently of the Holy Mysteries, feels himself to be kinder and more inclined towards love.
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ! What can we do to ignite our hearts with love for our neighbor?
Today's Gospel reading commands us to love our neighbor as our own selves. Regrettably, we seldom love our neighbor to any degree, and still less frequently do we love him as our own selves. Meanwhile, without love for our neighbor, God's creation, we cannot love God either. Without love towards our neighbor-which ought to manifest itself in our compassion towards their misfortunes, in our actively helping them through some form of charity, whether spiritual or corporeal-we cannot expect God to be merciful towards us and to grant us the heavenly kingdom.
For this reason it is vital to discuss ways in which we can ignite within our hearts love for our neighbor, a love that is soul-saving and so indispensable.
The first way in which this can be done is by forcing ourselves. Suppose that you cannot coax heartfelt love in your heart for someone. Nevertheless, you can be courteous towards him, you can talk with him amicably, be concerned with his needs, listen patiently to his troubles, offer him advice; at the very least you can wish him well. Begin in this way the important art of loving your neighbor. Force yourself to be magnanimous towards those whom you do not love, and, little by little, you will experience a change of heart, a softening; instead of coldness and aversion, you will feel perhaps not love but at least a disposition towards love. Further actions may awaken in you higher, blissful feelings, and, energized by such impressions which are so pleasing to our nature, you can become compassionate, affectionate, genial, in a word-loving toward your neighbor. Your experience will show you that you are in fact capable of fulfilling God's command to love your neighbor as yourself.
If forcing yourself in the way we have described turns out to be insufficient to kindle love for your neighbor, we can benefit from another means. This is the more frequent reading of lives of people whose love for their neighbor was particularly exemplary. Examples act powerfully upon our souls. In reading or hearing about the lives of people who are remembered for their love for neighbor, perhaps we will come to appreciate the value of that love, to sense the sweetness of that goodness which comes from love for one's fellow man, and thereby be inspired to emulate those distinguished by their exceptional love for neighbor.
For the same reason, it is beneficial to have contact with people who stand out (are outstanding?) in their love for man, in their compassion, kindness-in a word, in their love for neighbor. A living example has more impact (is more forceful) than one far away or dead. Unconsciously, we can become like the people with whom we asssociate. It has been observed that frequently the children of parents who have love for their neighbor also possess this love. And one can expect the same of someone who is close to those who love their fellow men. This, too, can kindle within our hearts love for our neighbor.
If neither forcing ourselves nor good examples are able to arouse in us love for neighbor, then we must turn to prayer. This is the most effecutal means of kindling in our hearts love for our neighbor. Ask, and it shall be given unto you (Matt. 7:7), says Jesus Christ. Therefore, if you have no love, ask for it, and it will be given to you. God enjoins us to have love for our neighbor, and therefore He will certainly give love to him who asks, inasmuch as this agrees with His holy will. Of course, it is possible that God, in His ineffable wisdom, will not send us what we desire straightway, in order that we not boast of the power of our prayer and fall into pride. But if, with patience and humility, we knock at the door of God's mercy, entreating the gift of love, then sooner or later, without fail, the words of the Gospel will come true for us: seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you (Matt. 7:7).
In sum, there can be no true love for God without love for one's neighbor; nor, conversely, can there be true love for one's neighbor wihtout love for God. Love for God and love for neighbor are indissolubly linked. Therefore, love God above all, but also love your neighbor as yourself. Amen.
Based on the Sermons and Homilies of Archbishop James of Novgorod and published in Propovednicheskaya Khrestomatija, compiled by Archimandrite Panteleimon; Jordanville 1963, Vol. I.
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