Love and Do What You Like

(Homily for Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A)

When I was a seminary student back in the sixties, I often heard this quotation from St. Augustine, “Love and do what you like.” Some even knew it in Latin: Dilige, et quod vis fac. However, I never met anyone who read it in context. Thanks to the Internet, many of Augustine’s works are available both in the original Latin and English translations. For the first time I read his Seventh Homily on the Letter of John which contains the famous quotation. I was surprised by the example he gave.

Augustine observes that if a person had to choose between being chastised and being treated affectionately, everyone would pick the latter. Nevertheless, suppose the punishment comes from a boy’s father and the caress comes from a kidnapper. “In that case,” he says, “it is love which disciplines and iniquity which caresses.” Love does not necessarily mean that you make the other person feel good. First and foremost, it requires that your actions flow from a right relationship with that person and with God. If that is the case, says Augustine, “Love and do what you will.”*

St. Paul expresses a similar thought: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Interestingly enough, we also have today the Gospel reading about fraternal correction. Augustine alludes to it in illustrating the meaning of love. It obviously is not the only form which love can take, but it is one of the most challenging. No one enjoys being corrected – and few people enjoy correcting others. (Those who do, usually do a bad job.) It requires tact, patience, prayer, courage and follow-up, also known as perseverance. Moreover, it calls for humility because the one who corrects others must also open himself to correction.

The qualities which go into fraternal correction are the same which comprise any act of love. Back in the sixties, we had a very truncated notion of love. Basically it was a matter of kindly feelings. If I felt benevolent toward others, I thought I was fulfilling the command of love. Don't get me wrong. Kindly feelings are important and we should do everything we can to cultivate them. You can develop affection for ornery, unlovable people. I've done it - even for some parishioners who will remain unnamed.

Nevertheless, as Augustine’s example illustrates, much more than benevolence is required. A kidnapper may feel kindly toward his victim, but who would say that he truly loves the child? A distorted notion of love got us – and a lot of others – into trouble. Real love involves a daily examination of conscience; not just warm feelings, but the avoidance of sinful tendencies and the cultivation of positive habits. Thus we can begin to love and to experience the freedom of the Gospel, “Then do what you will.”

This applies on a broader scale. To a degree it can help understand some of things happening in our world. Last week we saw the images of the terrible suffering of our brothers and sisters on the Gulf Coast. Our hearts go out to them and we want to help alleviate some of their misery. We will of course have a second collection to join other in our archdiocese and throughout the country in supporting the relief efforts.

All of this raises the question: How can God permit such things? Why did he create a world with hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts and disease? The problem of pain, of human suffering on one level is mystery we can never understand. We see it eloquently expressed in the book of Job. He suffers horrible affliction and only desires to see God face to face so he can get an answer. When God finally appears to Job out of the whirlwind, Job bows in worship. His “comforters” or “friends” had tried to get him admit his own, but he sees nothing deserving of what he has suffered. Yet, when he meets God, his final words are, “I repent in dust and ashes.” (42:6)

Hopefully we will not be like Job’s false comforters, saying that the people in New Orleans somehow deserve what befell them. We can hardly claim to be better than them and we do not know what disaster might befall us. It is more profitable to reflect more personally about suffering. I hesitate to do this because, in comparison to other people, I have no suffered very much. And the pain that has come my way, I have not born very well. I remember once going through a time of mental anguish. I said to myself that I would greatly prefer physical pain. The next day I awoke with a terrible backache. I quickly asked God to give me the mental anguish instead.

I am not good at handling pain, but I do recognize that God allows misfortunes for a reason. He is the best and wisest of parents – and in relation to him we are all like small children with very little experience. We can be sure that sufferings are given to correct us, to help us get on the right track.

I remember visiting my niece who has four young children. When I came in, the oldest daughter was standing in the corner. I wanted to go over and talk with her, but I realized she had done something wrong and was being corrected. So is God with us.

C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, he speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Suffering is meant to work to our good, to our salvation. That is why Jesus knowingly accepted the cross. But there is a risk in all this. Suffering can turn a person bitter. It can lead to hardness of heart. For that reason it would do us well to make today’s psalm our prayer:

“Oh, that today you would hear his voice: ‘Harden not your hearts...’
For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.”

**********

*Here is a more extended quote from Augustine’s great homily:

“The deeds of men are only discerned by the root of charity. For many things may be done that have a good appearance, and yet proceed not from the root of charity. For thorns also have flowers: some actions truly seem rough, seem savage; howbeit they are done for discipline at the bidding of charity. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” (Homily VII, paragraph 8)

Spanish Version

From Archives (for Twenty-third Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2014: Finding Your Place Week 5
2011: Dissuade the Wicked
2008: He Died in the Trenches
2005: Love and Do What You Like
2002: Why Did No One Stop Him?
1999: How to Correct Others

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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Permit me to raise another concern. In late July, you told a Vermont radio show that you wouldn’t vote to confirm a nominee who “didn’t consider Roe v. Wade settled law.” You then compared Roe to Brown v. Board of Education, the epic civil rights case that rejected “separate but equal” public education as unconstitutional. I suggest that you have the wrong analogy here. The correct analogy is between Roe and Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision that created the “separate but equal” doctrine. Now there was “unsettled law;” there was a decision that cut across the grain of basic principles of justice; there was a decision that roiled our politics for generations, until Brown effectively reversed Plessy in 1954. Plessy, in a word, was the Roe of its time: a case wrongly-decided on a fundamental issue.

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