Love Rules: The Power of Personal Witness

Christ tells us that what marks us as his disciples is our readiness to love.

Gebhard Fugel (1863–1939), “Jesus on the Road to Emmaus”
Gebhard Fugel (1863–1939), “Jesus on the Road to Emmaus” (photo: Public Domain)

When St. Catherine of Alexandria was summoned to debate the ancient Roman Emperor Maxentius’s 50 best philosophers and scholars, she converted Maxentius’s own wife, Valeria, in the process. I’ve often wondered — was it her skill with words and her wisdom, or was it the sight of her unshakeable courage in the face of such overwhelming odds that touched the Empress’s heart?

When St. Teresa of Calcutta ministered to the forgotten ones in the slums and gutters, she didn’t catechize so much with her words as with her works. Similarly, St. Maximilian Kolbe quietly stepped forward to take another man’s place in the gas chambers. No words needed here — this incredible act of love, to lay down his life for another, skips the ear and speaks straight to the heart.

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Personal witness is so powerful in the work of evangelization. And recognizing its power perhaps gives us some much needed encouragement if we feel like we don’t have all the answers.

One of my favorite moments from the Gospels is at the Last Supper, when Christ washes the feet of the disciples. In St. John’s Gospel, the Lord offers no explanation for what he is doing: “Knowing that the Father had given him all things into his hands, and that he came from God, and goeth to God; he riseth from supper, and layeth aside his garments, and having taken a towel, girded himself. After that, he putteth water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded” (John 13:3-6). Afterward, he commissions them to do likewise: “For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also” (John 13:15).

What I love about this moment is that Our Lord acts first, and explains afterward. By humbling himself in this way, he gets the attention of the disciples, and the lesson about servant leadership becomes that much more memorable. Had he simply instructed them using words — or even with a parable — I’m not sure it would have had the same effect. Our Lord seems to be showing us at this moment that it isn’t so much what we say, but what we do, that speaks the loudest.

This lesson about imitating Christ’s humility leads directly into his next instruction to his disciples: “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). What marks us as people of faith isn’t our readiness with proofs and logical arguments and all the answers to theological questions — though these tools are beautiful and necessary parts of our formation. Christ tells us that what marks us as his disciples is our readiness to love. 

In Episode 3 of The Quest, we consider what it means to be witnesses to love. We consider how much it can cost when we follow the Lord’s call. But above all, we consider how powerfully our light can shine if we let it, and how our choices, even the ones we think are small or hidden, can have a transformative effect on those we encounter. St. John Henry Newman suggests that this personal witness is more persuasive than arguments because it is the language of the heart — and the heart, as we know, is the place where we are moved to respond to the call of God.

I think that this is why, in her wisdom, the Church has given us the saints — saints who come from every time and place, every age and vocation. Seeing someone else live a full life in witness to love is a powerful mode of encouragement to us as we struggle each day to follow God’s call. This work can be done. It has been done before, and we can do it again, each of us in our own special way.

But it’s so daunting, isn’t it? Do you hear that little voice that whispers, “Of course they could do it. But it’s impossible for you.” But is love impossible? Isn’t love actually as natural to us as breathing, even if sometimes it’s incredibly hard and sometimes it hurts? I’d even go so far as to suggest that love is so foundational to our being that we need it even more than we need air and food. Babies who aren’t cuddled enough, even if their other physical needs are being met, can stop growing and even die if the situation is prolonged. We are hardwired for community, connection and empathy. We’re hardwired to receive love, and we’re hardwired to give it.

In her Autobiography, St. Thérèse of Lisieux describes the moment Jesus converted her soul: “Love filled my heart, I forgot myself and henceforth I was happy.” One of her favorite quotations from St. John of the Cross was this: “Love has so worked within me that it has transformed my soul into itself.” Look again at the passage from St. John’s Gospel, where Christ commands us to love one another, not just once, but twice: “That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” The repetition is fascinating, and seems to suggest that as we work to love one another in imitation of Christ, so he works his love in us, enabling us in turn to love even more fully and deeply.

St. Thérèse came to the extraordinary realization that Christ would work in and through her and bring her to himself if she allowed him to do so: “I was determined to find [an elevator] to carry me to Jesus, for I was far too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection.” And she found in Scripture the words of Christ: “Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me.” She found this passage so reassuring: Christ wanted her to be little, to become “less and less,” and she knew that he would take care of everything. 

We might be tempted to focus on our ability to make some grand and convincing argument to lead someone to the truth, but St. Thérèse waves this aside; instead, she says, what if we focused on doing the little things well? What if we allow someone to borrow something without asking for it back, or keep our patience when we discover that someone has taken our cup of water, or our headphones, or our favorite seat on the couch? Do these things seem insignificant? In a very real way they are — but this is the “elevator” of the Little Way: doing everything, especially the smallest things, in witness to love.

The Quest will air March 27-31 at 10pm CT on EWTN.