I used to do my annual retreat at a Jesuit Spirituality Center in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. I say “used to” because Grand Coteau is one of those places about which it can be said, “You can’t get there from here.” In order to travel there I would take a flight from Tampa to Houston, Texas, and then catch a commuter plane to Lafayette, Louisiana; Grand Coteau is a forty-five minute drive from Lafayette.
It wasn’t the changing planes or the driving that discouraged me from the place; it was uncertainty about arriving at my desired destination. The idea of going west to Houston, and then back east to Lafayette seemed strange to me. Nonetheless, I made the trip for many years. My willingness to make that trip changed on one occasion when I arrived at the gate in Houston for my connecting flight, and learned that the flight was delayed. The airline said that there were technical problems with the plane. I could see the plane from the gate; the technicians had the entire nose section of the plane disassembled, and lying on the ground.
The nose section is where all of the radio communications and navigational equipment is housed. The nose section looked like a giant bowl of multi-colored spaghetti. It wasn’t spaghetti, of course; the “spaghetti” was all of the avionics wiring that kept the plane in the air, on course and from crashing. At that point, I decided that the trip just wasn’t worth it. I decided that I couldn’t get there from here, and found another place to do my retreat. There is something in this Sunday’s Gospel that might be described metaphorically by the words, “You can’t get there from here.”
I cringe every time I hear the words in today’s Gospel: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) I’m not certain that people today need to hear a message about love of self. We are a society obsessed with self-love. We take “selfies” with our cell phone cameras. We give ourselves “me time.” In the United States, more is spent on cosmetic surgical procedures than most nations around the world make annually in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The American Psychiatric Association publishes a book titled the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; it is a categorized list of all emotional and psychiatric disorders. When the Manual was being revised recently, there was a serious discussion about removing narcissism from the Manual; narcissism is defined as excessive self-love. There was serious consideration given to removing it from the list of disorders and dysfunctions because it is now so prevalent as to be considered normal. That’s how obsessed we are with ourselves: a state of excessive self-concern that used to be considered pathological is now so widespread as to be normal!
I am tempted to suggest that it would be healthier if we removed the words “Love your neighbor as yourself” from the Bible. However, I am prevented from making the suggestion because of a suspicion I have. I suspect that what we have in this country is not really self-love, but rather self-indulgence. We are an overly indulgent society. We indulge our every passion. We indulge our pets. Mostly, we indulge ourselves. Self-indulgence is fundamentally different from self-love because of the effects it creates in our lives. Regardless of how spectacularly we indulge our wants and whims, there seems to be no diminution of our neediness. Our obsession with self-love is itself a symptom of its lack in our lives.
Our own self-indulgence has put us in a situation where we can’t actually get what we want and need. Our self-indulgence makes us see everything and everyone from a very self-centered perspective. Our attempts at loving our neighbor, and loving God, fail because we define love as self-indulgence. We expect everything and everyone to cater to our self-indulgence, and when that doesn’t happen, we walk away dissatisfied and unfulfilled.
Every person wants a healthy love of self, but you can’t get there from here. You can’t get there from here because the route to healthy self-love doesn’t begin with self. The only way to get to love of self and neighbor is to begin with love of God. It is no mere coincidence that Jesus began his teaching on the commandments by saying, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and continued by saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37,39) Jesus described love as beginning with God, continuing to one’s neighbor, and ultimately, getting to oneself. Love in any other order is disordered. Love derives from One source, and returns to its source; neighbor and self are waypoints along the journey.
God created the universe as an act of love, and redeemed humanity as an expression of love. Real love follows the dynamic of God’s nature: it reaches down from God, and lifts up to God. Self-indulgence, by comparison, travels in a narrow orbit around self, and leads nowhere. If we want to get to an appropriate love of self and neighbor, we have to begin at the beginning of love; we have to begin by loving God, first and foremost.
There is no greater example of love than God’s love for our sinful human nature. God loves humanity so fervently that God has never ceased to reach out in love toward human nature. That divine intent to reach out to human nature culminated in Divinity entering human nature in the Incarnation of the Word in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. God loves humanity to the extent that God took on a human nature. Think about that for a moment. God wants so much to be with us that God became one of us.
It is possible for us to love humanity, our own and our neighbor’s, in the same way that God loves humanity. It is possible to love so fervently as to live harmoniously with one another. However, that possibility can only become a reality when we first love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. (Matthew 22:37) Taking any other route to love doesn’t arrive at the desired destination.