I spent most of last week on retreat. The parish staff took two days together to reflect on the essential mission of the Church and how to do a better job of bringing the Gospel to St. Louis. Then I spent the weekend on the men's ACTS retreat where I met other men who—like me—want something more out of life and want God to be an essential part of it.
Now I've been on quite a few retreats in my life, and even after spending time studying theology and deepening my prayer life I still find that God honors the time when I can leave the mundaneness of my day-to-day life in order to intentionally spend time focusing on Him and His love for me and you. Theologians, priests, and church workers still have plenty of spiritual work to do. In fact, we might need time to retreat more than most…
One theme that kept stirring in my heart last week was how important it is for one to be both known and loved. Let me explain.
To be loved
Human beings want to be loved. Unfortunately, in the English language "love" means many things. It's an all-encompassing word that includes intimacy, romance, and commitment and it applies to both family and friend relationships. For instance, I love the Lord, and my girlfriend, and my best friends, and the parishioners of St. Louis, but it's not the same kind of love. We don't often differentiate between love of friend, love of things, and love of the other, and this creates a culture where the word "love" loses its deepest meaning.
Even though "love" means different things to us, the different kinds of love all describe a type of connectedness we all want for ourselves. In the deepest sense, we all desire to be loved fully by another person. That means that person will accept us and stay by our side no matter what. Maybe it means that person cares enough to be compassionate with us when we are down, to rejoice with us when we are joyful, and to stand by us when life throws us curve balls. In the weakest sense, it means others admire us, either for our work, or our personality, or our style, or our taste in music, or any other external trait.
We are driven by this desire to love and be loved. It's imprinted on our souls as we imperfect and wandering creatures journey toward Eternal, unconditional Love itself.
To be known
Human beings also want to be known. We see this from the way we interact with co-workers, family members, and friends, both in person and on social media. We share pictures and stories that both reveal our identities and shape the ways that we want to be known. We even want our technology to be smart so that it comes to understand our habits. My Nest thermostat knows that I will be home from work late on Wednesday nights, so it adjusts to my schedule. Being in community with other people (communion, a common union), whether it's at work or in our personal life, situates us in a sacred space where we can both be known and know someone else.
Of course, we don't do this perfectly.
If I'm loved by others, but not known by them, then there's no real relationship present. It's not a satisfying exchange between two people. Why do I settle for simply loving people from afar? Maybe it's because I don't want to do the hard work of really getting to know another person.
If I'm known by others, but not loved … well, that's my greatest fear. That's all our greatest fear, isn't it? No one wants to present themselves for who they really are—with all the good and bad that comes along—only to be rejected by another. That's why when we find someone who knows us without our masks and still chooses to stand by us out of love, we know we've entered into a lasting relationship of knowing and loving.
I can count the number of times on one hand when another human being came to know me for who I truly am—with all my wounds and brokenness—and still chose to love me. Experiencing unconditional love in our human relationships is truly a life-changing moment. It doesn't mean accepting wrong as right, but it does include healing and forgiveness, and another chance at relationship.
All this being said, I think it's much easier to love others from afar without knowing them totally. This way we don't have to get into the dirty details of people's lives, we don't have to expose ourselves to pain or hurt, and we don't have to be so caught up in the tension of knowing someone and loving them too.
But we're not called to take the easy path. Jesus didn't, and he doesn't want us to either.
In the very act of the Incarnation—of God becoming human—God the Son came to fully know our human experience. During his life, He entered into sinners' homes, He spoke with prostitutes, He called tax collectors by name. He didn't just encounter people, He knew people.
He looked with love on his disciples, who never really understood what he was saying, He gave his life for us in the Crucifixion so that we might have life in Heaven after we die. This is the fullest measure of love.
I think we were created to know and love others in very concrete ways. Of course, we should do this in a Christ-like and cautious manner because the human soul and heart are very fragile, and human beings are at times selfish and hurtful. But aren't there a few people in our lives who deserve to really know who we are? And don't we have a call—a duty—to offer love to all?
My thoughts are incomplete since this was just a brief time of reflecting on these themes, but I want to end with this.
There are few moments in our lives when we are both fully known and fully loved, but those are defining moments when we see that our identities are not our masks or our failures or our successes. In moments of authentic knowing and loving we can see that our identity is "child of God", broken, redeemed, known and loved.
Let's work to love others even though we might know who they really are.