Have you ever noticed how radical the words of love songs are? “Forever”, “always”, “never”, “you alone”, “no one else”, “for all eternity”. There are no “if’s”, no “but’s”, no “maybe’s”; just a lot of certainty and single-minded focus on the person one loves.
That’s understandable, since falling in love is that way; and the heart simply knows what it wants, for reasons not even reason itself knows - to paraphrase Pascal. The world changes when one falls in love. Things are more beautiful; life’s more interesting. One has more energy for things. And there’s a whole lot of excitement all around.
That’s what happens when a man falls in love with a woman, and a woman with a man. I've seen it, again and again, in friends, in former students, whose hearts found themselves drawn towards someone they simply know is "the one". It happened to me too; though I'm not talking about falling in love with a girl (that would be for a whole other article.)
I'm talking about what happens when a young man first chooses to follow Jesus in the priesthood, when he first finds his heart drawn towards something he feels "in his gut", is "the one".
You see, whether in marriage or the priesthood, the first step is always the same: a person falls in love and the whole world changes. There’s so much to live for, and enthusiasm for life is at an all-time high.
Every single one of Jesus' disciples went through this experience. They fell in love with his teachings and with the good things he was doing. And so they followed him around, sat at his feet, listened to his every word and tethered their very hearts to this man whose words, ways, and actions had so captivated their hearts, minds, and souls.
Like a man or woman in love or a young man who becomes a priest, Jesus’ disciples fell in love with him. And their world was changed. It was good and beautiful and exciting. And they liked it.
But “falling in love’s” just half the story. And beautiful as it might be, there’s the second and more important half: “staying in love”.
If “falling in love” is the first part of a relationship; “remaining in love” is the second. It’s longer, and without it, the first part just fizzles out. “Falling in love” just happens, “staying in love” needs work. “Falling in love” is grace. You don’t earn it. “Staying in love” is commitment. You take out as much as you put in. “Falling in love” is easy, “staying in love” is tough.
Because as any married couple or priest would tell you, when the honeymoon ends and the excitement subsides, the daily grind begins. And soon, the high’s and low’s of life take over and reality sets in.
The disciples of Jesus found themselves at such points too. Think about the times when they found themselves perplexed, even confused by what he's said or done, or the times when he'd reprimand them for failing to understand. The honeymoon stage of their relationship eventually came to an end - as all honeymoons do - the excitement began to wane; and worse, Jesus seemed to be entering a difficult stage in his work.
His words and deeds were beginning to cause trouble. Israel's leaders were no longer amused, and sooner or later things would get messy, not just for him, but for his friends as well.
For his disciples, reality had sunk in. The initial stage of being attracted to Jesus was over. The exhilaration and newness of the adventure were fast becoming a memory. Were they going to stick around and endanger themselves? Would they stay with him?
Many of them didn’t. One by one, many of those who found themselves drawn to Jesus before, slowly abandoned him. We can only imagine the sadness and disappointment in his eyes, as he asked them: "Will you leave me too?"
When that “thing” hits the fan—that’s when you know who your real friends are. When life’s no longer as bright and beautiful as on your wedding or ordination day, when the peaks have turned into valleys, and you’re still in love, that’s when you know your love is real.
Not everyone left Jesus. Some of them stayed. Among them was Peter who says: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”
Peter and all the other disciples had one thing in common. They all fell in love with Christ. But while they all “fell in love”, Peter “remained in love”. While many of the others left, Peter stayed.
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” These were not the words of a fair-weather friend, but of a man who stuck to his commitments. He knew that while his initial attraction to Christ was important, sticking to him through thick and thin was even more. He simply knew his priorities.
Others left. Peter stayed. And he stayed not because he was stronger than they. He will after all, deny Jesus three times. He stayed not because he was holier than they. Jesus called him “Satan” at some point. He stayed not because he was, smarter, wealthier or more powerful than they. He was a lowly fisherman.
Peter stayed because his heart belonged to Christ, and Christ alone.
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” They might as well be the radical words of a radical love song. They were the words of a man in whose heart Christ had sunk roots so deep, no “high” or “low” point of life could rip Christ out. Nothing could make him fall out of love.
And life can make us fall out of love. Life can complicate things. It can make us forget why we got married or ordained in the first place. Life’s up’s and down’s can dim our love. It can make us less enthusiastic, even cynical and jaded.
A husband can fall out of love with his wife (and vice-versa), a priest can lose sight of why he chose to follow Christ in the first place.
Life can make us less like Peter, and more like the others who left.
Peter stayed in love because he kept his eyes on Jesus. He anchored his heart, mind, body, and soul on his reason for following Jesus in the first place. And he kept that reason alive. To fall in love is great; to stay in love is greater.
In this day and age when love is too often seen more as a feeling than a promise of commitment, the challenge can be overwhelming. And becoming like the fair-weather followers of Jesus is an ever-present danger.
But we don’t have to be like them. If we can keep our eyes on the essentials and less on the marginals, we can remain faithful to "the one", we can
And how do we distinguish the essential from the marginal? We have only to go back to Peter’s words: “Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of everlasting life”.
When a husband and wife look into each other’s eyes and see only the person they fell in love with many years ago, they’ll know they’ve stayed in love. When a priest considers Christ and sees in him, the only reason for becoming a priest in the first place, he’ll know he’s stayed in love.
- “Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of everlasting life”.