“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” -John 8:12 (RSV)
I was thinking the other day about the spiritual life. It perplexes me sometimes that, as St. Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they rest in God, because, on the other hand, we seem to be called to a certain level of peace in this life, called to live out a vocation now. We cannot be Christian if we do not ultimately hope to rest in Christ perfectly, but we also cannot be Christian if we do not love the things in our lives in this world. In particular, we must love the people in our lives. The greatest commandment calls Christians to unite themselves to the heart of Christ in two ways: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Christian love faces both directions. But how are we to balance these two?
At first, I was very troubled by this reflection. Are these two commandments in one not opposites? How can I love my neighbor above myself and also love God above all things? This call is universal, but Christ said, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26), and of some He said, “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29). Thinking about the saints was also no help to me: some saints have become holy by leaving behind everything and seeking to love God alone, but others have become holy by serving the Church and attending to the needs of other people.
I went into a chapel to pray, hoping to resolve the dilemma. I looked with hope at the tabernacle, and my eye fell on the candle quietly burning beside it. I knew that the Lord was present in that tabernacle because of the little flame nearby. But, I thought, the candle only bears witness to the real presence if it actually sheds light in the Church. If the candle sheds no light, the Lord does not live within; but the candle cannot be lit and not shed light.
Is it not the same with the greatest commandment? Is the Church not called to be the light of the world, a beacon on a hill, just as Christ was the light of the world? The Church has no light within her if she does not have Christ within her, but if Christ truly is within her then He brilliantly illuminates the world through her. So also with our souls. It is impossible to love Christ above all without also loving everything He has made. If I do not love the people in my life, then Christ is not in me and I do not love Him above all. But if I do love Him above all, the surety of my love for Him will be my love for everyone I meet.
Now, to be sure, Jesus also said, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). So the mere stuff of this world has no bearing on eternal life. It makes no difference unless it is used for the Lord or against Him. People alone have a foot in both camps: we are the physical made living by the spiritual. It is senseless to neglect the world, to a certain extent, since we are made of it. But it is not the things of the world itself that we are called to love: it is people. That little red candle shed light on everything in the chapel, but it shone for the sake of the people there, not the pews or paintings. So with the commandment: love in the form of kindness bears witness to Christ’s presence.
Kindness fulfills both halves of the commandment when Christ is kept in view. Kindness is and will be the light of the world. Indeed, in the cross we can even see how kindness can take the form of hatred of self (cf. Luke 14:26).