Chance conversations often have the most profound significance. Yesterday, I got caught up in one, a half over-heard exchange between someone and their dog. A family member who we look after was being re-united with his dog, after having spent the day in hospital. The dog was ecstatic. The relative, not given to showing much emotion, especially in public, exclaimed that it was just as well that someone loved him, hoping, perhaps that one of us would exclaim that we, and many others, love him a great deal – which is what we told him. I could tell he found that hard to take. It is easier to be loved in an uncomplicated way by a dog than to accept the love, with all its nuanced complications, coming from close family members.
This very minor incident has remained with me, perhaps because it is the kind of oddly fractured moment that we all experience from time to time with people close to us and, of course, with our animals. But I also think it begs a much more important question, a question that has to do with how love is recognised, owned and received. I think, if we’re honest about it, it’s far more difficult to come to terms with the fact that we are loved by our fellow human beings, and not just by our dogs, than it is to assume in an unexamined way that we are more loved by our dogs (who make no significant demands on us in return) than we are by other people. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why owning and receiving other people’s love is so difficult. We often don’t feel adequately prepared for it, so don’t know how to respond or what to do with the love on offer.
If we expand this idea a little and apply it to the Church and to relationships between people of faith we see something comparable going on. There are people of faith, irrespective of their religion, who, when they encounter one another, fall into one of two responding groups in regard to love. They are either ecstatically pleased to greet someone who, whatever their faith perspective, they sense is in the same ‘place’ in regard to how they understand, or intuit, what matters most to them. Neither party may ever have spoken about this and probably never will. This is the equivalent of the dog-human encounter I described earlier.
Then, there is another group of people who rush too hastily, perhaps, into a ‘loving’ embrace, based on assumptions about the other person (who they may think they understand) and their particular take on religion, an assumption which may later prove ill-founded and lead to ultimate distrust and even, perhaps, hostility. It will be very difficult for people in this group to learn to accept the love of the other, should the relationship mature beyond the safe and superficial. It will be difficult for all parties to re-learn trust, to believe in the love, to be sure that it is offered unconditionally without any kind of sub-agenda, the kind of covert agenda that is all about ultimately snaring the other person (through ‘love’) and dragging them around to believing exactly what you believe and in the manner that you believe it. No wonder Paul writes that love must be genuine. (Rom.12:9)
We depend on genuine love not only for the ongoing life of the Church, but for that of the world. This is also the heart of the matter when it comes to human relationships and to the way societies can thrive. Love must be genuine. Only genuine love can embody the kind of vision that transforms those a Church or society exists to serve. So vision takes love a step further because it requires more than a set of ideas, still less a strategy or growth plan. It requires painstaking time and commitment to being society in the fullest and deepest sense, which is not to say that everyone has to agree about everything for the sake of keeping up the appearance of some kind of spurious unity. Such appearances are invariably transparent and unlikely to take everyone forward into a truer and better place in regard to any one issue.
Here, it is the ‘everyone’ that matters. Used in this way, the word ‘everyone’ acquires universal significance in regard to the giving and receiving of love, because love refuses to be contained within any one Church, family or identity group, or even species. It does not allow itself to be defined or circumscribed with a view to being better understood and thereby controlled. It takes risks and makes itself vulnerable, but is also wise and guarded. It does not sell itself cheaply, although it is available to anyone who is prepared to receive it. For vision to be true, then, love must be genuine and genuine love begins with the hardest task of all, an openness to receiving a love we feel we don’t deserve and perhaps don’t want.