If you attend an Episcopal Church service this or any Sunday, you’ll probably hear a priest say, just before the offering plates are passed, “Walk in love as Christ loves us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.” It’s a biblical passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, one of his many exhortations to love.
Walking in love implies movement and assumes that we are in relationships. There’s nothing abstract about the kind of love Jesus embodies. We don’t grow in love by thinking more loving thoughts, but through concrete actions that manifest love in ways that stretch us beyond our comfort.
To illustrate this very point in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky describes a scene in which a woman seeking spiritual counsel expresses concern about her capacity to love, for she is always searching for reward and recognition. The wise counselor, Father Zosima, tells her a story about a man similarly inclined. This man emphatically declares his love for humankind in general, while acknowledging utter disdain for individual people. He dreams of sacrificing himself for others, but finds the company of those with whom he shares life endlessly irritating.
“Active love,” Father Zosima tells her, “is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, with everyone watching. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance.”
Our wondrous Presiding Bishop preached on the world stage about the power of love, and judging from the world’s response, there is an overwhelming hunger for the kind of love Jesus came to show us all. “There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can,” the Presiding Bishop said, “Power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will. Power to show us the way to live.”
But what does that kind of love look like in action, where the rubber meets the road? It’s easy for me to think of ways I’d like others to grow in love, but what about me? What about you?
This Sunday, should you hear a priest speak St. Paul’s exhortation to walk in love, consider where you need to grow in your capacity to love. I promise that when I speak it, I will do the same. If we’re honest, the first thing we’ll need to do is go to our knees, confess the ways we fail to love, and ask for the grace to become more loving people.
If we truly want to grow in love–and desire is key–we do well to set an intention with as much specificity as possible. Often my desire to grow in love follows after a time when I have failed in love, or in response to situations that break my heart. Seasoned spiritual guides encourage us to bring this question to prayer–where is God at work in my life now, calling me to grow? Where is God calling you?
It could be an intention to be more emotionally present to someone we find difficult to love. Or, conversely, to be more firm with loving boundaries in relationships. It may an intention to offer our gifts where they are needed, or simply to show up in a painful situation. Criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson reminds us of the importance of proximity to the people who bear the brunt of social inequities if we hope to create a more loving and just society. Or perhaps we begin by acknowledging to God our internal emptiness and need to experience anew the love of Christ for ourselves.
After we set our intention, “with God’s help,” as the prayer book says, comes the hardest part of any growth process: actually practicing a specific way of love that stretches us, as practice always does, beyond our current capacity. In my experience, with practice comes failure and the chance to begin again, but also the joy of finding strength in spiritual muscles I didn’t know I had. In practice, we can experience a different kind of grace that meets us in our imperfect efforts.
Throughout the summer I’ll be writing about what Dostoevsky called love in action, ways we choose to grow in love. I close today with Father Zosima’s encouraging word to the woman seeking his counsel, reminding us all there God’s love is for us and at work in us, a faithful presence we can trust:
I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment, you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.
May God bless us all in our walking, and growing, in love.