Although familiar, Sunday’s second Mass reading (1Cor 12:31-13:13) gave me pause. We have all heard it, in whole or in part, at virtually every wedding we've attended. The lovey-dovey, hearts-and-flowers-on-a-needlepoint -pillow association we make with this verse is misapplied. I would argue that this scripture passage really isn't as "pretty" in its meaning as it sounds.
If I actually apply Paul's words to my real, every-day life and frustrations, it is almost too tough to take.
When I listen with an open ear and an honest heart, I don't get an affirmation in the key of: "You love so well! If Love were degreed, you’d have your Ph.D.!" No, no, no. Au contraire!
Instead, I hear Paul getting real with me, like an older, wiser brother who can see and cut through my crap: "Well, yes...I know you are working hard to show God how spiritually gifted you are, but... That is not the ideal. You are misapplying your time and effort.
"Let me clue you in to something: more than those gifts of the spirit you long to have and make your home schooled children memorize, more than your scriptural or theological understanding via Scott Hahn et. al, more than your "faith to move mountains" (because even the devil believes in God), more than all of that is the charge from above to do. all. in. LOVE. Are you doing that, my dear one? Or are you not so sure? Roll up your sleeves, then: let’s run a spiritual diagnostic.”
I am not the first to say this, nor will I be the last: Love is not merely an intangible feeling or emotion; it is an action, a response, and a way to be. Thus, I can review my mundane life side-by-side with St. Paul’s (in)famous attributes of love, comparing not how I feel, but how I am in the given situations I am regularly faced with. When I do so, I am convicted.
When I hear my children in an angry-worded squabble, do I put aside my own plans for that moment to make the time to hear both sides and talk them through their feelings to a solution? Because love is patient.
Or in the interests of time, conservation of energy, and sticking to our must-do lists, do I squelch all parties with an angry bark and punitive dismissal to separate corners, even when I know there is something under the surface they need my help to see and address? Will I calmly guide them through this messy human moment, even if it means we start math class late or skip our piano lesson? Because love is kind.
Do I compare my situation in life with others’ and wish that I had theirs instead of my own? Love is not jealous.
Do I try to flaunt how good I have it, or how much I know, in the faces of others? When aware of some downfall, failing or obstacle confronting another person, do I congratulate myself on how solid my own choices have been? Love is not pompous.
When I do put aside my own plans for the good of my kids, or as a favor to my husband, do I do so in a spirit of service or one of distaste? Do I outwardly act put-upon? Love is not inflated or rude.
Everyone sometimes makes mistakes; husbands forget plans, misplace their cell phones, leave dirty laundry on the floor. Children break things, ignore our requests to do x,y, z task, lose their shoes ten minutes before we need to get out the door. In such moments, do I call on God for his grace to temper my anxiety and anger, or do I open my mouth and let words fall that neither teach nor encourage, but only hurt and provoke anger? Love is not quick-tempered.
When a loved one says they are sorry for some misdeed, is my forgiveness truly there? Do I let the moment’s transgression go forever, or do I instead keep that pain close to my heart? Am I ever secretly glad to be hurt, to be thus able to cast myself as right and a martyr and carry that flame of self-righteous indignation onward? Love does not brood over injury.
Do I thrill at the sinfulness of others, glad to “not be like that one”? Love does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
The truth is that God loves the most hardened sinner every bit as much as he loves me; I am still a sinner, too. The truth is that no transgression is unforgivable for someone willing to open themselves to God’s mercy and grace. The truth is that through His sacrifice on the cross, and the spilling of His blood, everyone may be redeemed. The truth is that His Love is what will get me to heaven; His patience, mercy and grace is what will slowly, over time, guide me to amend my fallen ways.
His Love has saved me, is saving me, and (with my co-operation) will save me. Without His love and His gift of grace, I would be forever mired in my pettiness. He does not offer this gift because I try; He offers this gift so that I may try and not give up.
Love bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
There it is: my reality check via St. Paul for how I am faring on this Christian walk. No matter how well I sacrifice (getting up to make coffee and breakfast for Emre, making it my life's vocation to teach my children at home, in obscurity) how much I may suffer for the Faith (“Four kids? Are you crazy?! So are you done yet?!”), or how much I can do for people I love (as home school teacher, mommy taxi, boo-boo kisser, laundry washer, fixer of broken toys, finder of lost objects), if I do it all without love in my heart, I am nothing.
Paul is not telling me to stop striving; faith without works is dead. Yet he reminds me that my efforts and my knowledge alone won't do anything. My orthodoxy, my service to others, my discipline, my daily decisions should not flow from anger, fear, practicality or need. All must flow from Love.
I have my work cut out for me.