Saturday, May 30, 2015

"Love and do what you will." - From St. Augustine's Sermon on the First Epistle of John 4:4-12 (Reflections on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity)


Do you remember what it feels like to fall in love? The thoughts, the feelings, the ideas you had? Falling in love’s a beautiful thing. And no matter how many times we fall in love, the thoughts and feelings are often the same. It’s just a wonderful experience.

The thing about love though, is that beautiful as it is, once you start trying to explain it or put the experience into words, you can’t. That, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying to describe it.

In one of my philosophy classes at Providence College years ago, we were reading an article entitled, “The Anatomy of Love”. This is how the author, described the experience.

“Dopamine rushes through the brain which makes us feel good. Norepinephrine flows through the brain stimulating production of adrenaline that causes the sensation of a pounding heart. And phenyl-thylamine, creates a happy feeling”

“These chemicals sometimes override brain activity that governs logical thinking. These also play a role in the limbic system which can affect emotion. The limbic system is a group of brain structures, including the hippocampus, amygdala, dentate gyrus, the archicortex, and their interconnections with the hypothalamus, septal area, and the mesencephalic tegmentum. When a shift in the balance of brain power occurs, the limbic system takes over, causing a certain feeling of enchantment”.

After that paragraph, one my students raised her hand and said: “That’s not love.” She was right. “It’s just a scientific formulation trying to say what really can’t be said in words”.

We all know that love isn’t just a chemical reaction in the brain. Those of us who have experienced falling in love, know that however hard we try to explain it, it’s better felt than put in words.

There’s just no mathematical or scientific formula that can fully explain what happens when we love or fall in love. Love, especially if it’s genuine and sincere, is simply beyond our ability to express it in words.

We see it more than we know it. We see it in a husband and a wife’s love for each other, in a father or a mother’s care for his or her children, in a soldier’s love and dedication to his country, or in simple acts of generosity and kindness.

Love, especially when it is genuine, shows itself in commitment, in patience, in kindness, in compassion and in the sacrifices people make for others.

How else do we explain for instance, the death of a young man who during the Tsunami in Bali in 2004, tied a rope around his waist, attached the rope to a tree, then swam to save those who were being carried away by the waves? He saved many, but then the tree was uprooted and he himself drowned in the waters. Or how do we make sense of the death of a young husband who during a tornado in Joplin, MO, used his own body to shield his young wife from flying debris?

There are no scientific explanations for such acts of sacrifice and heroism; just love. “The heart has reasons, of which reason does not know”, says the philosopher Blaise Pascal. Love calculates neither risk nor cost; it simply gives, and when it has nothing more to give, it gives itself, wholly, completely, absolutely. 

“For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son”. The gospel today tells us. Outside this explanation of love, the sacrifice of Jesus doesn’t make sense. One atheistic philosopher used to ridicule Catholics. “You worship a dead man. How stupid is that?” he said.

Without the idea of love, the very symbol which most prominently marks our churches and our homes—the crucifix—is utterly ridiculous. It’s the image of a dead man nailed to a piece of wood.

But from the perspective of love, the cross makes a lot of sense. It shows us the extent of what love is capable of doing. [In fact love makes us forget ourselves and care more for the persons we love. Why that happens, nobody knows.] It’s a mystery. There’s no scientific explanation for it. When you see it, you just know it.

Our belief in the Trinity is very much like the mystery of love. In fact, the Trinity is love. We can’t explain it. We can’t fully understand it. But we know what it means. It’s the Father, Son and Spirit—the greatest symbol of love in our faith.

St. Augustine once tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity but then he realized he couldn’t. The mystery of the Trinity’s too big; our brains are too small. So Augustine summed it up in one word: “Love”, he said. That’s what the Trinity means. It’s that simple.

Like Augustine, we will never be able to fully explain the Trinity. But if we take his advice—if we experience love and give love—we may yet come to understand the Trinity, perhaps not in our heads, but certainly in our hearts.

The Trinity will always be a mystery. But its meaning is simple. “Love”, Jesus says, “it’s my commandment to you”. 

"Love and do what you will. Whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace. Whether you cry out, through love cry out. Whether your correct, through love correct. Whether you spare, through love must you spare. Let the root of love be within. For of this root can nothing come except that which is good". (Augustine, Sermon on the First Epistle of John 4:4-12, no. 8)

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)