the greater love

In 1941, as German bombs dropped around her, Caryll Houselander wrote about what it means to love in the midst of evil, suffering, and death. She describes Christ’s passion as the work of love, not only for his followers, but most especially for those who persecuted and killed him:

Yet, quite equally, [his Passion] was all done to save sinners; knowing perfectly well that men had caused all the evil He was facing, He suffered it all for their sake, to save them from the only death that could be worse than His, the death of their souls. He died to overcome sin and save sinners, and His last prayer was that those who had caused Him all this might be forgiven, and united to His Father by His suffering. There was no question of blotting out men, of destroying sinners, but only of saving them, of delivering them from the wounds of their own sin. (This War is the Passion, p. 24)

I find the last line of the above quotation, like much in Houselander’s extraordinary book, strikingly resonant and challenging today, 80 years on. Have we learned so little? Grown so little? It would seem the answer is yes.

I don’t mean only those terrible evil people over there, with their F*ck Biden flags and their Nascar rallies and their guns. What’s more striking–and condemning–in Houselander’s book is the finger it points at me. Have we “good” Christians, we monks, priests, lay leaders, Bible readers, meditators, contemplatives–have our hearts become so hardened and our ears so stoppered and our righteousness so inflamed that we have forgotten how to love?

There was no question of blotting out men, of destroying sinners, but only of saving them, of delivering them from the wounds of their own sin.

Much of the time, I’m in the blotting out camp. I hear the political and religious rhetoric justifying bigotry, environmental destruction, and violent nationalism, and I feel sick at my stomach. The bile rises along with the anger and the grief, all eddied about with fear. What will become of us? What has already become of us? And, I confess, my first wish is to see them blotted out. Or, what amounts to the same thing, drawn up at the great judgment seat and shown the horrors they have inflicted on us all.

Beneath the anger lies the heartache. I feel so tender these days. The scourging of one shooting after another, the clangor for gun rights, the hysteria of violent “freedom” leaves its bruises. But so does the rending of our common life, so does the evil of fracture and condemnation, of justice without mercy. It is an evil that enslaves all of us, and I must admit that I often court that evil within.

Houselander’s challenge is also Julian of Norwich’s, and, for that matter, Christ’s. Julian assures us that the only time we should concern ourselves with someone else’s sin are the rare times when we feel deep compassion for how that person’s sin causes them suffering. We ought to be so preoccupied with our own sins that we only see another’s through the eyes of mercy and the recognition of our shared humanity.

The challenge of the times we live in, as in Houselander’s own day, is to struggle to love our enemy, who is, after all, our neighbor, too.

Houselander again: The consistent Christian will, with Christ for his strength, be led on to risk all he has, gladly, offering his sacrifice in reparation for all evil. He will see men not as people of different nations at war, but as one great family, wounded, insane, in dire need of healing and help, and in all that he does he will offer the only healing and help there is, Christ in his heart for a sacrifice. (p. 25)

I’m not a very consistent Christian, not in Houselander’s definition. But I do want to be. I want to love, even as I resist the evil that grows all around us. Because we are all one family. None of us will be saved in isolation. It’s all of us, or none of us. The we in which we all share is wounded, insane, and in dire need of help and healing.

I don’t mean, in any of these reflections, that both so-called “sides” are morally equivalent. They aren’t. There is real evil in the world, and it threatens us all, body and soul, though it threatens the bodies of our most vulnerable, poor, and marginalized disproportionately.

And also, none of us is clean. None is pure. The task for us Christians today is to make Christ’s sacrifice complete in own lives, to bear the pain of betrayal and death and to allow that pain to open our hearts to love totally and completely, like Jesus. I don’t know that any of us is fully up to the task, not on our own. Thankfully, we don’t have to be.

It is enough, today, to know that Christ lives within us, and to trust that, however stumblingly, if we’re open to it, Christ will guide us to live and to act and to love as he would have us do.

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