As Christians we are called to love God above all: with our entire mind, soul, and strength. However, as a result of Man’s rebellion and Fall in the Garden of Paradise, our inclination is not towards loving God, but towards pleasing ourselves. Even St Paul confessed, “For what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that I do.” (Rom 7:15) Beyond the struggle to do the right thing, is the struggle to do the right thing for the right reason. Of course, the best reasons are for the love of God and our neighbor. The fact is, whenever we set out to do something good, even as simple as taking out the garbage, we are often tempted to inaction or to do it begrudgingly. As Christians we should aim to do good out of love, rather than out of duty.
What are the characteristics, then, of the Christian love that we are aiming for? First of all, to do something out of love, does not necessitate that we “feel” a certain way. We may feel happiness, joy, pleasure, or gratification while performing a good work, but these feelings can be present even if we are motivated by something other than the desire to serve. We can describe love as being motivated by concern for the other, by gratitude, humility, or honor. When our love mirrors God’s love, it will not be coerced or constrained. It will flow liberally and freely, unimpeded by barriers of self-concern, and unconstrained by selfishness or self-awareness.
Of course, there are degrees to love, just as there are degrees, textures, and layers to a painting or a symphony. When all the powers of our soul are directed in the same way, towards God, then we love Him in the proper way and joy abounds. But when the powers of our soul are divided, when our heart attempts to cling to God and mammon simultaneously, it is as if the members of the orchestra are playing different musical pieces, and we are left with cacophony, rather than the beauty imagined by a single composer. As beginners in the Christian life, our love will most likely be a bit contaminated with self-centeredness and worldly pursuits, but this does not mean that we are incapable of love. If we think about the degrees of love being a ladder, we can imagine that, even if we are only three or four rungs high, we are still on the ladder, though there is much climbing to do for us to reach the pinnacle. At the top of that ladder stands perfect Love, who encompasses all of our being, and is completely free of selfishness.
How then do we learn to love as we should? How do we learn to serve God and those around us, with a cheerful spirit that does not hold back, but gives everything with a humble and sacrificial love? We learn to do this by practice, practice, practice – practice and lots of Grace. We can practice in this way: Let’s say that our prayers have become cold, mechanical, and without feeling. Although we may be tempted to stop saying prayers with the thought that, “because I am not offering this out of love, I might as well not do it,” it is better to make a few adjustments. First, we acknowledge before God that we have allowed distractions to captivate much of our attention. Secondly, before we begin our prayers, we offer thanks to God, recounting all of the blessings that He has bestowed upon us and even thanking Him for the small trials that He has put before us. Thirdly, we confess to God that our attempts to love Him are weak, and ask Him to accept our efforts and to strengthen them by His Grace. By approaching God in our prayers in this way, with humility and thankfulness , it will not be long before the coldness and mechanical nature of our prayers dissipates and is replaced by the warmth and tenderness of His Grace. We can follow a similar regimen before coming to the Church services. It is a good idea to remind ourselves “why” we are going to Church in the first place—to offer thanks and glory to God. Before receiving Holy Communion, even before we read the prayers of preparation for Holy Communion, it can be beneficial to stand in the presence of God and once again acknowledge before Him where we fall short, and to thank Him for the offering that we are about to receive in the Eucharist. The more that we make an effort to warm up our hearts and focus our attention on the Lord, the more we will be able to approach God with a pure and devoted heart.
Another way to practice loving God is by loving those around us. It is important to approach our neighbors with a pure heart and not with egotism and self-centeredness. These degrees of self-love are what cause us to fall short of perfect love. Practice and God’s Grace are once again the keys that unlock the door to the mystery of selfless love. We may not always want to offer our time and our talents to our neighbor, but the more that we do it, the more these right actions will take root in our heart and become part of the fabric of our being. By continuing to serve others out of self-less love, we will climb the ladder of love and eventually be stripped of our egotism.
Before embarking on any good work, however, it is good to remember that we are weak, and will most likely face the temptation of the demons, who would like to twist and corrupt our offering so that it is not pleasing to God. They will do this by either suggesting to us that we are doing something great, so as to lead us to pride; or they will try to get us to complain, so as to render our offering tainted and less than perfect. Before we begin to serve and attempt to love another, it is beneficial to remind ourselves of the temptations that we will face, and then say a prayer to ask God to help us make our offering selflessly, to the degree that we are able. We can ask God to help us love Him through the love that we are about to offer our neighbor, acknowledging that we will fall short if He does not supply the Grace to help us.
As we enter into this Christmas season, we have many opportunities to practice love. Opportunities for philanthropy are ever before us as we go about our daily routine, and the Nativity Fast is a way for us to offer our bodies as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. We also have the wonderful opportunity to attend the Divine Liturgy and receive Holy Communion every day during this season. The preparatory Pre-Communion prayers are read at 5:30 most mornings so that those of us with jobs can attend the services before going to work. This series of Forty Liturgies (Serantoliturgo) is a wonderful way of practicing love for God, as we make the effort to live “outside of time” and stay focused on the reason for the Christmas Season. As we enter into this Season that culminates with the loving act of God’s Incarnation in the world, may we grow in love for Him each day, making an offering out of our effort, and asking Him to transfigure our mind, soul, and strength, so that as cheerful givers, we can love Him ever more fully.
~ Vasili (now Father) Hillhouse