So, the past couple of days I’ve been battling a nice little fever-flu-upper-sinus-congestion sort of thing (I’d like to thank my school kiddos for sharing). So, I hope that this makes sense today.
Today is one of those “duh” moments. Jesus tells us to love God and to love our neighbor. “Duh, Jesus.” This lead me to think (in between my medicated stupors): “why does Jesus give us this command?” I mean isn’t this self-evident? Why does He have to make this explicit?
As a I moaned about my fever, I quickly realized the answer.
My tendency is to be self-centered.
I’m not talking about being selfish. I’m talking about how at the center of all my experience is… me. I feel this or I feel that, I’m the one who is going through whatever it is I’m going through. And what’s more, in my mind I have an internal, sometimes hypnotizing monologue which is always analyzing and evaluating and interpreting things through the lens of… me.
So, for example: when I’m driving down the road, I can easily think that people are in my way. Or when I’m waiting in the incredibly slow line in the grocery store and someone is taking their time, I can judge them as inconsiderate because don’t they know that I’m in a hurry? You see how this goes.
What troubles me about my self-centeredness is that it is kind of my “default setting,” something that I tend to without even thinking about it. It takes no effort. It is easy and unconscious. *(This idea is not mine, but the idea of David Foster Wallace, published in a fantastic speech—and later, book—entitled “This Is Water.”)
The problem with my unconscious self-centeredness is that I can easily and unwittingly make my world small. I am limited by whatever is currently on my iPhone or my to-do list. I look down and engage myself in the “me” project and the self-centered world that I have constructed, a world that seeks my own pursuits, my own interests, my own comforts, my own life.
And for the most part, the greater world is fine with that because the world hums merrily along on the unconsciousness of people—selling me a whole list of goods focused on me to make me more “me” than I can possibly imagine me being.
(Hmm, that sounded like the fever talking…)
But it is true: Worship of myself is the easiest thing to do because I am at the center of my world. It is a default setting. It is unconscious.
And it is the most insidious kind of slavery -- because I can never worship me enough or fill me enough and so everybody else becomes an obstacle, a frustratingly maddening obstacle, to me.
Love, on the other hand, involves a kind of consciousness and attentiveness to the fact that there is a whole wild world outside of myself, a huge horizon extending beyond my interior monologue and my daily wants and needs.
The hardest part of life is choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of our default-setting, to become aware of a world outside of ourselves and to begin interpreting our experiences through the lens of others and, ultimately, through the lens of God.
Being conscious of this outside world is a prerequisite for love.
This brings us to Jesus and the Greatest Commandments in today’s Gospel. Self-centered me hears today’s Gospel and thinks, “Great, more moral exhortations. Something more I must do.” But when I hear the Gospel through the lens of God’s perspective, what I realize is that this Commandment is firstly a proclamation of liberation, a power that reveals to us an exciting world beyond ourselves: “love God and your neighbor! it’s an exciting world out there!”
It is important to note that when Jesus quotes this as the Greatest Commandment, he leaves out the previous line—a line which he presumes that we know. What did he leave out? “I am the Lord your God who freed you from slavery.” God wants to free us from the slavery of our small self-centered world and liberate us into a wild, cosmic, beautiful and exciting world where others love you and where God loves you more than you love yourself!
There is something also very peculiar about these Commands: they reveal something to us about God. Paradoxically, while God is at the center of all existence, God is not self-centered. He is creative. He extends Himself. He loves. So much so that He literally enters into our shoes.
So when Jesus calls us to love, to open our horizons and to extend ourselves in creativity to God and to neighbor, what Jesus is doing is inviting us into the very dynamic of God. In other words, we are being invited into the very nature of God and to become like Him (for God is love) and to become aware, for God is aware—so aware that he knows all the hairs on your head.
This is the radical proposition of the greatest commandment: God is not just commanding us to love—God is showing us how to become like Him.
What is wonderful about this is that, as we love God and neighbor, and as the horizon of our world is expanded, we receive the most basic truth of our very own existence: namely, that God loved you into being; that He is at the very center of you, closer to you than you are to yourself.
This leads us not to a Worship of Self, but to right worship: To Worship of God. And, more, it leads to a worship that then attends to others because, having encountered the God within me, I can begin to see that God dwells in others and that He loves them. God is in that car that just cut me off on the highway. God is loving that person who is taking forever in the grocery line.
Every moment, therefore, can become an occasion to love—and not just to love one’s neighbor. But to love the God who is there. Every moment can become an occasion to worship.
How are we to live this out on a day-to-day basis? How can we keep from falling back asleep into an unconscious self-centeredness that devolves into a self-Worship that is easily frustrated and inconvenienced by others?
When Jesus gives us the Greatest Commandment, he quotes the Shema. The Shema was the daily life-breath of Israel: they would repeat these words of love several times a day, always bringing them to mind so that they would never lose them from their heart.
They would repeat them as frequently as some of us check our iPhones. And therein is the difference. So often during our day we unconsciously practice a kind of self-worship that closes us in and makes us forget.
Jesus is giving us a plan to stay awake: several times a day, call this to mind. St. Francis de Sales would stop several times a day and say, “Let us recall that we are in the presence of God.”
We are in the presence of God.
Admittedly, to be so conscious of a wild, radical horizon beyond yourself—to be so awake is very tough to do. The self-centered will think this is a task that they have to do by themselves. Echo the worlds of the Psalmist: “I love you, Lord, my strength.”
The Lord is your strength. When you cannot love Him with all of your strength, call upon Him.
Ask the Holy Spirit to come into your heart, and into your mind and you soul, and to fill you with His strength. For this is something that you cannot do on your own.
You will have then begun to break free of that self-centered slavery. This is the Truth that will set you free.