“Jesus said, you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second resembles it: you must love your neighbour as yourself.
On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also.”
– Matthew 22:37-40
Faith is a community exercise – when lived authentically, it extends far beyond ourselves.
But for faith to do this in the way it ought to, we sometimes need to stop for a moment and take stock of exactly where we are in the spiritual life. While faith is communal in it’s reach and in it’s effects, each of us lives it personally and individually in the first instance.
This present week is the point at which the Church moves out of the Christmas season and into the ‘ordinary’ season of the year; this all follows on closely from Christmas itself and – most recently – the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. These two great feasts convey a single message to every one of us – that Christ came for us, to us, and He asks us now to take Him out to everyone else. We need a Saviour and He is the only one. Now, we need to share His saving action with everyone else. The present moment is a good one in which to ask ourselves how well we are accomplishing this task.
The first step in this process is to look inwards, within ourselves.
It is there, in the heart, the mind and the will, that our faith comes to life and finds it’s first expression. It is there, too, that it will either begin to grow warmer, or colder. Like a glowing ember, that faith is something we must carefully nurture and stoke, gently blowing across it so that the glow brightens and takes hold, until eventually it produces a flame. There a great many spiritual exercises which will assist us in determining the state of our interior faith and which will offer suggestions on how to care for it and to sustain it. But above all else, we must pray, asking the Lord to send His divine light into our souls, dispelling any darkness or error and illuminating us in His truth, always under the guidance of His Church.
When we focus too much on ourselves, one of the dangers – and there are many – is that our own needs and wants and rights assail us and overwhelm us; it becomes about me. What we practice might be described as ‘religion’ – it may not necessarily be a living faith. And so, simply put, this first step on our path should help us perceive both clearly and honestly where we are right now in the spiritual life. And the likelihood is that the realisation we come to will challenge us greatly. We can be very generous with ourselves when it comes to thinking about how well we are doing. We do like to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves that we are not like those others. And we may not be like those others; we may have faults of our own far greater than those we see in anyone else. The antidote to this is to think less of ourselves and more of others.
Consequently, our process does not end here at this first step. If we stop at the ‘looking inside ourselves’ part of the process, we run the risk of pointless navel-gazing, or of wool-gathering which has no clear purpose to achieve. If we have a clearer idea of ‘where we are right now’, then the next goal is to decide ‘where we need to be next’ – and, more importantly, precisely how to get there.
And so the second step turns our gaze outward, away from ourselves.
Remember, our faith is designed to be communal. It might be that at this point, we ask ourselves one direct and simple question; if someone was to look carefully at the faith I profess to practise, what effect – if any – would it have upon them? Would it draw them closer to the Lord, or would it push them away from Him? Do I put other before myself? Am I humble and charitable? Do my actions accurately reflect the faith I profess? Do I mirror the Lord in my dealings with everyone around me? Do my words build up others – or do they tear others down? Do I pray for those who hurt me most – or do I pray for vengeance? Note well – you won’t be judged by others on how you treat those you love, but on how you engage with those you find most disagreeable, who most test every reserve of good grace and virtue which you posess.
It is said that Mother Teresa was radiant when caring for the poor of the streets, for the lost and abandoned and unwanted. Why? Because she saw Christ in every single one of them and treated them as though she were treating Him. Which, of course, she was. Remember – the Lord will call us to account for how we treated ‘the least of these’, because this will reflect how we have treated Him. For me personally, who are ‘the least of these’ in my own life – and how am I treating them? This is the whole point of that ‘looking outside ourselves’ step – it is to teach us to see Christ in every single person we encounter; not just the ones we like, but every single person. It isn’t easy. But it is certainly possible – it must be, if the Lord asks us to do it.
In the end, it comes down to this – living a life of faith is much more than simply being religious in whatever way. It isn’t what we profess to be that matters – it’s what our actions, day after laborious day, show us to be. And those actions need to be based on, filled with and propelled by one thing alone – love. Love of God and love of neighbour. I cannot profess one without doing the other. They go hand in hand.
One day, near or far, I will stand before the Lord and He will ask me to account for what I have done.
I wonder what I will tell Him on that day.