We know God is love. We know, too, how little most of us do by way of demonstrating this. We have the perfect excuse ready, which is that we need to express our abhorrence of bad behaviour; if others do the same when we behave badly, we reciprocate, and the whole thing goes round again. If we were charged with being a Christian and the evidence was in the form of love, how many of us would even go to court, let alone get a sentence? In this context, it was lovely to see that the Pope and the Moscow patriarch are going to get together in Cuba. No one should hold their breath, as Chalcedon451 said to me, Orthodox ecclesiology means that the Patriarch speaks for no one save himself – but even so, it is a good sign that the two men want to meet – Churchill was right about ‘jaw, jaw’ being better than ‘war, war’. The history between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church has been one from which, as with so much of our history, no one emerges well, and this, we can hope, will bring a new spirit to that relationship – and mark a point when both sides turn from suspicion.
That won’t mean that all their respective followers will. Some, not least on the Orthodox side, will cry out against ‘syncretism’ and ‘heresy’. They ought to remember, but won’t, that whilst both claim they are the only Church founded by Jesus, Jesus has not confirmed it. Humility is a concomitant of love. Some people seem to be arguing that you can’t be a member of the Church until you clean up your life, others that you can be and you don’t need to clean up your life, we love you as you are, but for me, this seems to miss the point of being with Christ – it is by being with him that he cleans up our lives from within. Too often we seem to ignore the working of the Holy Ghost. Too often we act as though going to Church and taking the blessed sacrament will cure us. Too often we act as though Bible study and being ‘good’ will cure us. I am not disparaging any of these things, they are all parts of the cure for what ails us – but they are not what is at the heart of the cure – that is the operation of the Holy Ghost on our hearts and minds. It is not possible to be in Christ and for him to be in us and for us to be the same. It is perfectly possible that we sin, but if the sin does not seem worse, if we are not more tormented by remorse, then why would we seek to go to confession and be absolved?
God’s love reaches out for us. The Prodigal sought nothing from his father save a menial job and a full stomach and a roof over his head. In that he is the prototype of the sinner when repentance dawns. He does not say that he is sorry, he shows he is. All his hopes are dust. What revives him are the actions of his father. His father is on the lookout for him, his father welcomes him with extravagant gestures of love – ones which call forth from the elder son a complaint, because, after all, the Prodigal has not cleaned up his life; what guarantee is there that he won’t revert to his previous behaviour? Surely some sort of punishment is in order, some period of probation, some caution on the part of his father, who, after all, has already blown half the farm on the younger son? None of these caveats is unreasonable, what is unreasonable and unjust is the love of the father. But the father knows that the effect of that love will be to redeem the younger son – he has been punished, he has learned one sort of lesson – that the world is a hard place and that hedonism, whilst it gives you false friends in the heady days of wine and roses, leaves you bereft when the money runs out. How easy from that to drive home the lesson that the younger son needs to be penitent, to pay his dues, to work his way back. That, after all, is also the way of the world. But the father’s way is not the way of this world. The lesson the Prodigal needs is the one he gets – that love redeems all, and that it happens from within – and it won’t stop, unless we harden our hearts.
Newman once commented that the natural state of our hearts was to be hard as stone, and that as with hard soil, sometimes they needed to be broken to become fertile soils in which the seed of the Word can grow. Faith and hope are wonderful things – but without love they are nothing, and love transforms us – if we will but open our hard hearts. Let us pray we see that manifested in the forthcoming meeting between the Russian Patriarch and the Patriarch of the West.