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Thomas Merton on loving others: loving Christ in them

love-othersOne of the hardest things for us to do is to love. It’s hard sometimes as leaders to love the people we are leading, because we inevitably encounter struggles with them, backlash against our leadership, anxiety and vacillation, criticism, and so on. It’s hard for people in organizations to love their leaders, because they inevitably experience disappointment and disillusionment with us, because they come to see our weaknesses, character flaws, and the mistakes we make. It’s hard for those of us in spiritual communities to love those outside our bubble, those different from us, because we see them as “other”, as flawed, and maybe even as a threat.

The Bible, and especially New Testament authors like Paul and John, challenge us over and over to love. Jesus offers the thrilling insight that when we do things for others (for “the least of these”), we do it for him. He doesn’t say that doing things for others is “sort of like” doing it for him. There is a sense in which doing things to/for others is actually doing them to/for Christ. Thomas Merton talks about this, and I’m going to quote him at length, because it’s so helpful:

“We have to resolutely put away our attachment to natural appearance and our habit of judging according to the outward face of things. I must learn that my fellow man, just as he is, whether he is my friend or my enemy, my brother or a stranger from the other side of the world, whether he be wise of foolish, no matter what my be his limitations, ‘is Christ.’ …

“Any prisoner, any starving man, any sick or dying man, any sinner, any man whatever, is to be regarded as Christ–this is the formal command of the Savior Himself. This doctrine is far too simple to satisfy many modern Christians, and undoubtedly many will remain very uneasy with it, tormented by the difficulty that perhaps after all, this particular neighbor is a bad man, and therefore cannot be Christ.

“The solution of this difficulty is to unify oneself with the Spirit of Christ, to start thinking and loving as a Christian, and to stop being a hairsplitting pharisee. Our faith is not supposed …to assess the state of our neighbor’s conscience. It is the needle by which we draw the thread of charity through our neighbor’s soul and our own soul and sew ourselves together in one Christ. Our faith is given us not to see whether or not our neighbor is Christ, but to recognize Christ in him and to help our love make both him and ourselves more fully Christ. …

“Corrupt forms of love wait for the neighbor to ‘become a worthy object of love’ before actually loving him. This is not the way of Christ. Since Christ Himself loved us when we were by no means worthy of love and still loves us with all our unworthiness, our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. …

“What we are asked to do is to love; and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbor worthy if anything can. Indeed, that is one of the most significant things about the power of love. There is no way under the sun to make a man worthy of love except by loving him. As soon as he realizes himself loved–if he is not so weak that he can no longer bear to be loved–he will feel himself instantly becoming worthy of love. He will respond by drawing a mysterious spiritual value out of his own depths, a new identity called into being by the love that is addressed to him.”

– Thomas Merton

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