‘The Greatest of These Is Love’

Love is our foundation and our destiny, says this noted Franciscan. But how can we remove the barriers between us and God?

It’s so simple that it’s hard to teach. Our Christian mission is to awaken us to what we already know is true: The foundation of everything is love because “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). God’s love in us is seeking to love and be loved and to bring healing and wholeness to a suffering world. Love is our basic identity in God.

My own experience of God’s love has inspired me to be a channel of divine love for others. I try to remove the barriers—created by immature religion, bad teaching, culture, ego, and our own woundedness—that keep us from knowing God’s love for ourselves. My goal is to take us back to the basics that have been forgotten for so long and for so many reasons. Jesus summed up the entire law and prophets with these words: “Love God and love others” (Mt 22:36-40; Lk 10:25-28; Mk 12:28-31).

Faith in God is not just faith to believe in spiritual ideas. It’s to have confidence in love itself. It’s to have confidence in reality itself. At its core, reality is OK. God is in it. God is revealed in all things. The most powerful, most needed, and most essential teaching is always about love. Love is our foundation and our destiny. It is where we come from and where we’re headed. As St. Paul said, “So faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). God’s love is planted inside each of us as the Holy Spirit, who, according to Jesus, “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (Jn 14:26). Love is who you are.

All I can do is remind you of what you already know deep within your True Self and invite you to live connected to this Source. John the Evangelist wrote, “God is love, and whoever remains in love, remains in God and God in him or her” (1 Jn 4:16). The Judeo-Christian creation story says that we were created in the very “image and likeness” of God—who is love (Gn 1:26 and Gn 9:6). Out of the Trinity’s generative, loving relationship, creation takes form, mirroring its Creator.

We Are Made in God’s Image

We have heard this phrase so often that we don’t get the existential shock of what “created in the image and likeness of God” is saying about us. If this is true—and I believe it is—our family of origin is divine. It is saying that we were created by a loving God to be love in the world. Our core is original blessing, not original sin. Our starting point is positive, and, as it is written in the first chapter of the Bible, it is “very good” (Gn 1:31). We do have a good place to go home.

We must overcome the illusion of separateness. It is the primary task of religion to communicate not worthiness, but union—to reconnect people to their original identity “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). The Bible calls the state of separateness “sin.” God’s job description is to draw us back into primal and intimate relationship. “My dear people, we are already children of God; what we will be in the future has not yet been fully revealed, and all I do know is that we shall be like God” (1 Jn 3:2).

I can remember visiting my Catholic parish as a young boy and seeing all the statues, paintings, color, music, incense, and candles. It was a mystical place—and I was in awe. It felt like a different world. To me it felt like the real world.

That real-world feeling echoes my earliest memory of a God-like experience: I was probably 5 years old. I was in the living room. All the family members were in the kitchen talking, and the kitchen was bright. But the living room was dark with just the Christmas tree lit. I had the sense that the world was good, I was good, and I was part of the good world; and I just wanted to stay there. I remember feeling very special, very chosen, very beloved, and it was my secret. The family in the kitchen didn’t know what I was knowing.

Our first spiritual experience can be very ego-inflating. But, like the Apostle Paul, we know that chosenness is for the sake of letting everybody else know they are chosen too. I have spent my adult life doing just that—reminding people of their inherent belovedness.

My memory of the Christmas tree was like being taken to another world, the real world, the world as it’s meant to be, where the foundation is love, and God is in everything. It’s a benevolent universe where God is on our side and God is more for us than we are for ourselves, where “my deepest me is God,” as Catherine of Genoa says.

Your True Self

Your True Self is who you are and always have been in God; and at its core, your True Self is love itself. Love is both who you are and who you are still becoming, like a sunflower seed that becomes its own sunflower. Most of human history has referred to the True Self as your “soul” or “your participation in the eternal life of God.” The great surprise and irony is that “you,” or who you think you are, has nothing to do with your True Self’s original creation or its ongoing existence. This is disempowering and utterly empowering at the same time.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more; and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. All you can do is nurture your True Self.

According to Paul (Rom 8:28), becoming my True Self seems to be a fully cooperative effort, and this is affirmed in my own limited experience. God never forces us or coerces us toward life or love by any threats whatsoever. God lures us, yes—coerces us, no (Jer 20:7; Mt 11:28-30). God is utterly free and utterly respects our own human freedom. Love cannot happen in any other way. Love flourishes inside freedom and then increases that freedom even more. “For freedom Christ has set us free! ” shouts Paul in his critique of all legalistic religion (Gal 5:1).

We are allowed to ride life’s and love’s wonderful mystery for a few years—until life and love reveal themselves as the same thing, which is the final and full message of the risen Christ. Life morphs into a love that is beyond space and time. Christ literally “breathes” shalom and forgiveness into the universal air (Jn 20:22-23).

God Is Good

I would like to share an especially powerful experience I had in the Franciscan novitiate. I was kneeling in the choir alone. Suddenly, I felt chains fly in all directions.

The Scripture that I had read that day was from Philippians 3:7: “What I once considered an asset, now I consider a liability. The law that I thought was going to save me, now is my curse” (I’m paraphrasing). Suddenly, I knew that God’s love did not depend on my following all these laws and mandates or being worthy. I knew I wasn’t worthy, and yet here I was experiencing absolute grace and absolute acceptance from God.

The whole system I’d grown up with had implied that God will love you if you change. That day I realized God’s love enables and energizes us to change.

I had that boyhood secret discovered in front of the Christmas tree: that I’d been taken over to another world, which was really this world as it truly is. I’d realized, My God, this is what everybody is living inside of—and they don’t see it! Now, once again in the novitiate, I somehow knew that I was good, God is good, life is good. And I didn’t have to achieve that goodness by any performance whatsoever. I am saved by grace. Grace is everything! In that one moment, I understood the Gospel.

I can’t say that in the intervening years I’ve always believed this on a daily basis. Just like the biblical writers and the saints, I would get it and then lose it for a while. Sometimes I would let irritations, resentments, and annoyances eat me alive and would not be able to live in the state of grace and inner freedom. Or I’d get caught up in the drama of life—even good and exciting things—and wouldn’t have time for God’s unconditional love.

Love was still and always flowing through me, but I wasn’t resting in it or consciously enjoying it. Even now there’s a temptation to think I have to earn God’s love. There is still an inner voice that says, I am not worthy enough or good enough. And that’s where I continue to grow in love and faith—by not believing those negative voices and trusting grace’s absolute givenness.

Lord, lover of life, lover of these lives,
Lord, lover of our souls, lover of our bodies, lover of all that exists . . .
In fact, it is your love that keeps it all alive . . .
May we live in this love.
May we never doubt this love.
May we know that we are love,
That we were created for love,
That we are a reflection of you,
That you love yourself in us and therefore we are perfectly lovable.
May we never doubt this deep and abiding and perfect goodness
That we are because you are.

This was adapted from Father Richard Rohr’s book Essential Teachings on Love (Orbis Books). Editors Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger contributed to this article.

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