Words on the Word
4. Sunday A
Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13: Seek integrity, seek humility.
1 Corinthians 1:26-31: God chose what is foolish.
Matthew 5:1-12a: Blessed are the peacemakers.
This morning, having recited the Divine Office, I switched on the BBC World Service while getting out the coffee things. I had to stop in my tracks. I couldn’t both listen and do something else. The news was appalling. In Jerusalem: two shootings. One left seven dead; the other injured two, a father and son. The agent behind this second attack was 13 years old, the friend of a boy who had died after being shot by Israeli police. In East Ukraine: fierce fighting, the bombing of a hospital having left 14 casualties. In Memphis: unrest after a black man died of injuries sustained during arrest by a police unit named ‘Scorpion’. All this in the first nine minutes of the broadcast.
The spiral of violence rightly worries us humanly and politically. I was left with a theological quandary, too. Against this backdrop, what can the meaning be of the prayer I had just recited at the end of Lauds, the same prayer we used at the beginning of this Mass, the collect for the week?
Grant us, Lord our God, that we may honour you with all our mind, and love everyone in truth of heart.
Don’t we risk falling into a kind of double-speak whereby we gather in church now and again to recite reassuring but ultimately meaningless lovey-dovey formulas before we step back into the ‘real’ world where love has no place and man is to man a wolf?
Part of the problem, here, is to do with the meaning we attribute to words. For us, in 2023, to say, ‘I love you’, is tantamount, alas, to saying, ‘I affirm you unconditionally’. We get into trouble, then because there are behaviours and people we simply can’t and wouldn’t want to affirm. And so we think we cannot love them. This is nonsense, though. If you see someone you care for set on a path of patent self-destruction, is it ‘love’, to say, ‘Good for you, I’m with you all the way!’? Of course not. Love calls for positioning. Clear positioning is never easy.
In modern languages we’re hampered, when it comes to love, by our poor vocabulary. It is funny, really: we speak more about love then ever before, but have fewer words at disposal. We say, ‘God is love’, and, ‘Love me tender, love me sweet’, as if these statements were on the same level. Latin is better able to make distinctions. That’s helpful to us. As Roman Catholics, we’ve Latin as our mother tongue, whether we speak it or not. It is the language of the Church. Our prayers were composed in Latin. Authentic versions of official pronouncements are still made in Latin. If you want to know what a Catholic document says, look it up in Latin. Else you risk finding content lost in translation. So we might do that with today’s prayer. We have all said ‘Amen’ to it. It’s as well to know what it means.
‘Grant us that we may love everyone in truth of heart’. This renders, ‘Concede ut homines rationabili diligamus affectu’. The word for ‘love’ is diligere, derived from ‘lego’, which means, ‘to pick out’. The root sense of diligere is, ‘to distinguish one by selecting him or her from others’. We still use it like that in the word ‘predilection’. The love we are talking about is not generic, but particular. The English obscures this fact by speaking of loving ‘everyone’, but this is just an inclusive-language cop-out to avoid having to translate the Latin homines, which means ‘men’, though in the inclusive sense of ‘human beings’. The first stage of love is to distinguish persons within the great human mass, then to relate to these one by one, which means we must take the trouble to get to know them.
This kind of relating is to come about ‘rationabili affectu’. From where the translators got ‘in truth of heart’, I have no idea. I sympathise with their creative effort, though, since affectus is hard to render. It refers to a state of ‘affectedness’, ‘a state of body or mind produced on me by some influence or other’. One affectus might be the weepiness that fills my heart when I hear a sentimental tune on the radio; another, my pride on hearing of (yet another) Norwegian athlete who has won a gold medal in ski-jump. We know how easily we surrender to this kind of affectus. Our prayer helpfully reins it in. It tells us that the affectus which should determine our discerning attitude to particular others should not be sentimental but thought-out and ‘reasonable’. We shouldn’t let ourselves be carried away by feeling. We are to use our minds, configured to the honour of God, to consider what, in the light of faith, is an appropriate response to a given person, then make that response, aware that it might be costly.
The Gospel has told us what love of this kind can involve: hunger, thirst, persecution, not to mention the courage required to be gentle in a world of harshness, to make peace where minds are set on war. It is by living, and loving, in this way, however, that we shall know beatitude and be agents for that renewal of the world for which Christ came. So let’s get on with that cheerfully in his name. Amen.
‘Follow me!’, says the Lord. That’s the bottom line of Christian love, a proposition every bit as adventurous as ski-jump.