By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
10 April 2020
Father Sebastian Athappilly, in conversation with Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
Q: It is said that we must love God before all else. The Bible says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7). The Bible says that Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)
Some people might think this commandment is simply impossible, even absurd. They might ask, “How can we love God, Whom we cannot see with our physical eyes or experience in other ways with our other sense organs?” Human beings, they might say, can love things that they can access through their senses. So, one can love ice-cream because one can taste it. Or, one love perfume because one can smell it. Or, one can love a certain person because one can see her or him. But since God isn’t accessible to our senses in this way, is it at all possible to truly love Him?
How do you look at this issue?
A: You are quite right that we cannot see or experience God as we do the beings of this world. Precisely because of this, we cannot love God in the same way as we love the creatures of this world. We should also remember that the commandment of the love of God does not demand that we should love God the same way as we love the beings of this world!
Now, after this clarification, how, one might ask, is the love of God possible for us within these parameters?
Wherever and whenever you love a creature of this world for a supernatural reason—that is, for a reason that surpasses a merely worldly motivation (in other words, for a transcendent reason)—you are loving God! And whenever you do something for the genuine well-being of another without the intention of a material or temporal benefit for yourself (and sometimes incurring a worldly or material loss in the process), you are loving God!
A few heroic examples can illustrate this. Mother Teresa of Kolkata served the poorest of the poor, and not for any material benefit. Father Damien (d.1889), a Catholic priest from Belgium, lived with the lepers for many years and died also as a leper in Molokai, Hawaii, and he did it not for any temporal considerations. Maximilian Kolbe (1941), a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar, volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the German death camp of Auschwitz, located in German-occupied Poland during World War II. In all these cases, it was the love of God that motivated them to do what they did. Whom did they love at the visible level? Of course, the beings of this world. But not for any earthly profit! They saw God in their decisions. And even if one does not consciously think of God in such altruistic and unselfish deeds of love for fellow human beings, one is doing it in effect for love of God! That is why Jesus says in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 that whenever one has done to the least of his brethren, one has done it to him (Mt 25: 40).
It is true that we humans can do things only in such a way that our deeds involve creatures of this world. But it is also a fact that we can do things from a transcendent point of view—that is, for supra-mundane reasons. We can also be tempted to act immorally by doing things for our temporal, material benefit, disrespecting the rights of others and against justice. For example, accepting a bribe or saying a lie or committing a murder. Whenever one withstands this temptation and acts according to the dictates of one’s conscience, one is acting out of love of God. That means that we can love God even though God is not the direct object of our senses.
I may also add here that according to the Christian point of view, God became a human being as Jesus Christ and in this way made it also possible for us to love God in a human way. Christians believe that Jesus is the “visible image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15; cf. Jn 14:9: “He who has seen me, has seen the Father”).
Recognizing that everything in this world is God’s creation and that all the good we see here and what we have are God’s gifts, and thanking and praising God for all this in a house of prayer or house of God (a temple, mosque, church, synagogue, Gurdwara or any other such place) or at one’s own home, is, again, an act of love of God.
To forgive someone who has offended you is an act of love of God; it is sharing in God’s generous love and imitating God.
To hope against hope and to trust in a loving God Who is loving and all-powerful in face of problems that have no solutions from the point of view of this world is also an act of love of God!
To believe in the messengers and prophets sent by God is another form of the love of God.
This all shows that love of God has a broad range and spectrum beyond the narrow confines of the love of a creature. Primacy of the love of God implies that we should not absolutize anything creaturely. Absolutization of a creature, whether person or thing, is idolatry!
Love of God in the above senses, is a real possibility: many have actualized it and are still realizing it! The mere fact that God cannot be directly perceived by our senses is, therefore, not an argument in itself against the possibility for loving God. If someone wants to love God, it is indeed possible. The most important thing here is the conviction that God is not merely a power, but personal, in the sense that God loves us and God can be loved: God desires and deserves to be loved. God is relational. At the spiritual and mystical level one can even enter into a direct personal relationship of love with God. This can lead even to concrete experiences as has been manifested in the lives of many mystics from different traditions, such as numerous Sufis from the Islamic tradition, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and several others from India, and the saints Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Joseph Cupertino, Padre Pio and others from the Christian tradition.
Fr. Sebastian Athappilly is a Catholic priest from Kerala belonging to the CMI [Carmelites of Mary Immaculate] religious congregation. He has been teaching Systematic Theology from 1985 at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram in Bangalore, a leading centre for higher Catholic learning. He served there as the President, Dean [Faculty of Theology] and Registrar. Since 2009 he has also been serving as hospital chaplain at the University Clinic, Graz, Austria, besides being a visiting professor at Dharmaram.