Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
– I John 4:8
By watching carefully our endless desire to love, we come to the growing awareness
that we can love because we have been loved first, and that we can offer intimacy
only because we are born out of the inner intimacy of God.
– Henri Nouwen
Despite having heard the Biblical phrase many times growing up, a new and strong awareness that “God is Love” came to me through two profound life experiences separated by about 10 years. It was during a retreat a short time after the second event that I received the time what I almost might consider an invitation to reflect deeply on their significance.
Without going into all the details of these two life experiences, I can share that the story begins with two young friends, one of whom becomes deeply wounded when the two become estranged. The reasons for their separation are something we have neither time nor need to delve into here. What is important, is that some ten years later, due to circumstances that could only be described as divinely inspired or wildly synchronistic, the two friends became reconciled.
I was the wounded, young friend in this scenario. The story does not end, however, with the reconciliation. In fact, as wonderful as that experience was, it was not nearly as profound as the transformation in faith that it spurred a few months later while I was on a weekend retreat with my mother. I had not been on a retreat in years, and went on this one mostly because I knew my mother wanted to go and she would not have gone if I had not agreed to go with her. She was looking for a retreat. I was looking for a quiet weekend away. I was in for a surprise.
The first evening of the retreat, as is my habit, I took a few minutes to browse through the books that were on the shelves in the community room of the retreat center. For some reason, I settled on one called, I Believe in Love. It is written by a French priest, Jean du Coeur de Jésus d’. Elbée, and is a self-guided retreat on the teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux.I took the book back to my private room, and proceeded to embark on a journey of insight that changed my whole life. The words I began to read stunned me. For the first time, words that I had read or mouthed since childhood without the remotest rational understanding became shockingly clear.
Love had always been something important to me. I was lucky enough to be raised by two very loving parents, whom I trusted to be fair and who trusted me to be honest. I was part of a very close family. The people I cared about always came first with me; and somehow, instinctively, I knew that it was more important to care than anything else. But, it was, as I said, “instinctive.” I never really knew intellectually why I felt that way.
I had grown up hearing the passage from the Christian Scriptures in which St. John declares that, “God is Love.” I had heard it many, many times. But, as I sat reading about love on that retreat, for the first time an understanding of what those words really mean opened up for me.
“God is Love.” d’Elbée quotes this same passage from St. John’s first letter. He also quotes several of the great Catholic saints speaking about love. Like St. Augustine, who in his own autobiography, Confessions, says it this way: “Love, and do what you will.” d’Elbée also quotes St. Therese of Lisieux, who, when asked to summarize her faith shortly before her death, said, “It is love alone that counts.”
As I read those words, my heart seemed to skip a beat. For you see, for the first time, I was not just reading those words, I knew I actually was living them. I knew my friend, with whom I had reconciled, and I were – after ten long years – so very different from the persons we had been in our youth. We had each gone our separate ways, and our lives were both figuratively and literally miles apart. She had a graduate degree, a well-paying job, and owned her own home. I was a writer, working on a small community newspaper, making one-third what she was earning. In every way our world would measure, we were completely different – and so changed. Only one thing had not changed – our love for one another – even though for many years we had ignored that love, even tried to consciously put an end to it.
And now, here we were, thousands of miles apart, going on with our personal and professional lives, but the love was still there. And, as I could believe in the presence of that love, which had somehow survived through all the years of silence and the physical distance, I could for the first time in my life really believe in a God who is love, for that love was pure gift. I had done nothing to keep it alive. But, it was alive. It did exist. Therefore, my heart and mind reasoned, it had to have come from somewhere beyond simply me.
And then, sitting in my room at the retreat house, I read the words that put it all together for me. Again, it was John, trying to explain to the early Christians exactly what I was trying to understand. What I read was, “We love because God first loved us” (I John 4:19).
Perhaps you are familiar with the story from the Bible of Jesus and Peter on the shore, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. When I read that story once again in d’Elbée’s book, I realized that Jesus, knowing he was about to leave his friend, did not say, “So, do you think you folks understand my teachings now and are ready to go it on your own?” No. All Jesus asks Peter in that scene is, “Do you love me?” Does Peter know what it means to love. Because in loving, Peter would be connected to whatever it is that lived through 10 years of hurt and neglect and brought my friend and me together again. And that for me, like Peter, was now something to which I could intentionally, much more than instinctively, dedicate my life. For, as St. Therese put it, “It is love alone that counts.”