If You Want to Be in the Father's Love, Love the One You're With

Our destination is God himself who is love.

Rembrandt (1606-1669), ‘The Good Samaritan’
Rembrandt (1606-1669), ‘The Good Samaritan’ (photo: Register Files)

“I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.”
Linus van Pelt

“The neighbor is every human being without exception.”
Pope St. John Paul II

When your radio presets are all set to classic rock stations, you have to be prepared to squirm a bit when you’ve got kids in the car.

“Aw, this is a great song,” I hear myself saying time and again, “but not so much the lyrics.” Of course, that’s usually an understatement, for the words of so many pop songs are appalling. Whether it’s the Stones or Led Zeppelin or The Who or, well, you name it, so often there comes a moment when I have to twiddle the volume knob for a moment of censorship – or else punch another preset to move on to another song entirely.

Sometimes it’s not actual lewd language, but rather a provocative image that offends, and this can be an even trickier to handle. How to explain to the kids, for example, Stephen Stills’ hit, “Love the One You’re With.” As a teen drummer, I loved the song’s driving rhythm and multilayered percussion (congas, steel drums, and what sounds like a slapstick). Also, there’s a rich chorus and a soaring Hammond organ that backs Stills’ dramatic mining of the tune’s tight melodic range.

Really, it’s a great song, but there’s no getting around its creepy lyrical commendation of cheating and/or adultery. No amount of “eagle flies with the dove” sugarcoating gets around the fact that Stills is advising the listener to hook up, as the saying goes these days, with whomever is convenient. Why dither if “your baby is so far away,” right? That person sitting next to you has “nothing better to do,” so “get it together” and “make it nice” – and give no thought to commitments or vows or the distant beloved who’ll be devastated.

Ick – hit the preset.

Strange as it might sound, Mr. Stills’ paean to infidelity came to mind at Mass the other day during the first reading. “On the subject of fraternal charity,” St. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” Right – no need for anyone to write them about that charity stuff. Got it – except that Paul goes on to do exactly that, urging the letter’s recipients (and us) “to progress even more.”

What caught my attention was the Apostle’s follow-up recommendation that the Thessalonians “aspire to live a tranquil life” and “mind your own affairs.” St. Paul seems to link progress in fraternal charity with staying at home. You can almost detect echoes of Mother Teresa in this. “It is not enough to say to my God I love you, but my God, I love you here,” she said when accepting her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. “We will love naturally, we will try to do something. First in our own home, next door neighbor in the country we live, in the whole world.”

In other words, love – really love, selflessly love – the ones you’re with…first.

Dom Hubert van Zeller makes the very same point when he refers to successful domesticity as doing “a lot of dull things for everyone else. Not heroic things but dull ones.” God plops us down into the world, not amid humanity in the abstract, but with individual people – into families, that is, into parishes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. It’s the people we find ourselves with, day in and day out, that we’re called to love; they are the foci of our vocations to holiness, the paths to our sanctification. “One loves the people one is with, whether they are our parents or our children,” van Zeller writes, “not because they are amusing but because they need one to be nice to them.”

There’s nothing flashy about such loving, nothing noteworthy or newsworthy. It’s simply taking the grandiose principles of Gospel charity and applying them in the arena of our routine humdrum, for it is there that God has stationed us most the time. “Where there is no love, put love,” wrote St. John of the Cross, “and you will draw love out.” The thing is, if we neglect to put love in such places, it may never get there. We’re on the spot – we’re called to act ourselves.

I think this idea holds true even when we’re called to extraordinary forms of service. Let’s say we’ve devoted ourselves to humanitarian work, or maybe evangelization in foreign lands. Our letters home and online postings might feature spectacular highlights and accomplishments, but the bulk of our successes will remain hidden – perhaps even to ourselves.

This is precisely what we’ve been witnessing in Houston during the flood as ordinary folks joined first responders in reaching out to strangers in need – gratuitously, sacrificially, anonymously. “If you gave just a few minutes to the news,” Peggy Noonan wrote in the WSJ, “you saw it all – the generosity and courage, the sense of community, of people who really care about each other…. No one knows how many were saved or how many saved them.”

Well, God knows anyway. Besides, the numbers don’t matter. What matters are the individuals, the nameless and numberless Good Samaritans, who put love where it was desperately needed.

When they did that – when we do that – the human story is enhanced and extended in a glorious, albeit shrouded way. Children who participate in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd are intimately acquainted with this concept, particularly through a work known as la fettuccia – literally a long cloth ribbon that represents the sweep of history from Creation to Parousia. “La fettuccia returns to a point of great important in our catechesis,” writes Sofia Cavalletti, “the contrast between ‘small’ and ‘great.’” The great moments of salvation history, the landmarks and key events, are marked along the fettuccia, but there’s also a blank space at the far end, just before the Second Coming. The children learn that they – all of us today – occupy that blank space, and it’s there that each of us must inscribe our own stories.

We write our lines into that timeline, not in general terms, but concretely, with specificity, by how we serve and interact with and love those around us – our immediate neighbors, our children and spouses, the ones we’re with. Like drops of water in the Chalice during the consecration, our daily charitable efforts are tiny in themselves, yet their impact is great – “great in the sense of dignity when we realize that, in this history, each of us has our place and work,” Cavalletti notes, “which helps us bring us near our destination.”

Our destination is God himself who is love. Thus, destination and journey are one and the same. The next step – the next entry in the blank page – is our own.