Monday, April 13, 2009

What Does it Mean to Love God?

Here is my translation of a short word by Bishop Longin of Saratov and the Volga on the first commandment:
Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked Him a question, tempting Him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, 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 neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Mt 22: 35-40).

Sometimes people ask: what does it mean to love God? To love a person is understandable; to love flowers, trees, animals, music, poetry – all this is more or less understandable. But to love God? How does love for the Creator differ from love for creation? How does one answer the question to oneself: “Do I love the Lord?” How do I find this love? Finally, why does the Savior Himself inextricably bind the commandment to love God with the commandment to love one’s neighbor?

Love for the Creator is the loftiest form of human gratitude. Not everyone attains such gratitude. The vast majority of mankind lives without giving any thought to man’s place in the world or to the meaning of his own life. Yet these questions (in our youth we called them the “cursed questions”) should come to everyone regardless of age. The fact that the majority of people do not pose these questions to themselves is a tragedy of contemporary society and the root of all its further problems.

Someone who poses the question of the meaning of his life invariably comes to the thought of God. If it is best to begin this path in one’s youth, an authentic feeling of love of God comes with age, with experience. The fruit of life experience is a feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for the fact that I exist, that the Lord brought me into this world – without any merit of my own, without any participation of my own. Yet this feeling is deeply connected with suffering. Only someone who has known illness, the bitterness of loss, the shame of one’s falls, turns (if he is not broken) a truly profound glance at himself and this world. The English writer Chesterton had a remarkable thought: are you worthy of seeing this dandelion in front of you? Chesterton was for years on the border between life and death, and therefore every new day was for him a joy and gift from God.

It is gratitude to the Creator that distinguishes the genuine person. Gratitude is always accompanied by a feeling of personal indebtedness: having brought me into this world, the Lord has a meaning for me, some mission. This is the meaning of my life. No one and nothing can prevent me for pursuing this goal.

Why is the first commandment not only the first and greatest, but also a twin? In what way does love of one’s neighbor follow from love of the Creator?

If one feels true gratitude, true love for God for the fact that He created him, that He loves him just as he is (although, if one looks deeply into oneself, no one of us is such a pleasant being), then he begins to understand that the other person is just as beloved by God. From here proceeds the thought that if God loves me, then how could I not love other people?

Only a truly believing person, only one who is truly grateful to the Lord and loves Him, can humble himself to the extent that he can accept his neighbor as this neighbor is in reality, and not as he, from the former’s point of view, should be. Only someone who loves God can follow this rule: to be strict towards oneself, and indulgent to one’s neighbor.

No matter what our love for the Creator “looks like,” can it bear a vivid, emotional character? On different steps of spiritual growth, love of God is experienced in different ways. In its perfected form it does not, of course, have anything in common with the feeling of being in love, of psycho-emotional excitement. This is expressed by the term “neophyte ardor.” Someone had lived in emptiness – and suddenly the world of God is revealed to him. This extraordinary discovery leads one to an exited, vivid, joyful condition. To use the words of St Ignaty (Brianchaninov), this is a heating up of the blood. With time, if the process of churching goes properly, if one has a good, experienced spiritual father, and if the initial heat does not go out, it is transformed into a steady fire, the heat of which warms those around him. Then this person himself acquires sobriety and discernment.
See also Metropolitan Anthony of Sourzh, Sermon on Gratitude.

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