We all like to believe that we are ‘good Christians’, that we are walking upon the right path – and even that we are making excellent progress in the spiritual life and in the practice of our faith. The reality, all too often, is that we are far behind where we think ourselves to be; we are less perfect than we tell ourselves; and we have a much greater way to go yet, than we imagine.
So how do we measure our progress?
In the Gospel, a disciple asked the Lord what is the greatest commandment –
“Jesus said to him, ‘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 first commandment. The second resembles it; you must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets, too.” (Mt.22:37-40)
Here, then, is our answer; love is the measure of our progress – love of God and of neighbour.
Now, all of us are sinners – and all of us can find hope in these words of the Lord, like the Sinful Woman mentioned in the Gospel. Tending to Jesus at a meal to which He had been invited, the host expresses surprise and disdain that the Lord allows the woman near Him – she had “a bad name in the town”, as the Gospel words it with some delicacy. Using a parable, the Lord explains to Simon how He sees the woman – which is in flat contradiction to how these ‘good’ people view her. The Lord tells Simon what matters most in His eyes –
“I tell you that her sins, many as they are, have been forgiven, because she has shown such great love.” (Lk.7:47)
Perhaps we are like these ‘good’ people at the meal, dining with the Lord while still looking down on others around us, for whatever reason, and yet believing ourselves to be holy and perfect followers of the Lord. ‘We deserve to be here at the meal with the Lord’, we tell ourselves – ‘but they do not’. The Lord, thankfully, sees things just a little bit differently.
As though to echo the Lord, Saint Peter tells us what the measure of our progress consists of –
“Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Pet.4:8)
By now it should be clear to anyone with ears, that our task is to love God and neighbour – and nothing less. Our task is not to love but with additional qualifications and conditions attached, nor is it to love only those whom we find it easy to love – anyone can do that. No. To follow the Lord, we must walk amongst sinners and we must do nothing less than love them, as He loves them – and as He loves us who are every bit as sinful as anyone else we might care to look upon.
There is one further point to note here.
The Servant of God Dorothy Day once said – “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
And so, if we truly wish to consider where we are in the spiritual life and what progress we have made, then this is the test; look around for the person you find most offensive, most disagreeable, most ‘sinful’, the person you would describe as ‘having a bad name in the town’, as the Gospel writer phrases it – and then ask yourself what love you have for that person.
Your answer will tell you precisely where you are on the spiritual path and give you your measure.