Life is hard and we often find ourselves in difficult situations. When overwhelmed or confused as to how to proceed on a specific issue, we sometimes need a road map. For Christians, the Bible and the teachings found in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” provide such maps; however, both can be daunting. Time constraints, not to mention the complexity and sheer size of both, hinder most of us from making use of these treasures. Most need Cliff Notes to navigate them, especially when time is of the essence and we must decide quickly. Our issues are often modern ones, such as those arising from technology. Consequently, we do not always get clear-cut answers. They must be inferred or ferreted out, a tricky task that often requires some training in these sources. Many times, answers to questions must wait for the Magisterium to address, taking extra time without a specific answer. The good news is that Jesus provides a touchstone or marker by which all decisions can be made and by which one can judge any action.
During Jesus’ ministry, He was questioned regarding which is the greatest commandment of the law (Mark 12:28-34, Matthew 22:34-46 and cf. Luke 10:25-37). Later, Rabbinic Judaism would articulate a total of 613 laws in the Torah or Pentateuch. Jesus’ response proves Him a master rabbi while simultaneously providing us with a benchmark by which to judge all actions and decisions—our roadmap distilling the Torah down to its essence. Jesus responds to the question by quoting perhaps the most well-known text to Jews in the first century, as well as today, and then adds to it a lesser-known text from the Torah. He combines them in such a way that His authority and His divinity are presupposed.
His response to the question begins by quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. In what scholars generally agree is our earliest Gospel, Mark 12:29 states that Jesus answers, “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’” Jesus then continues by quoting the remainder of the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5 and cf. Mark 12:30). Jesus explains this is the greatest, most important commandment (Mark 12:28-29 and Matthew 22:40). The Shema, which means “Hear!” in Hebrew and is a reference to the first Hebrew word in the statement, commands Israel to hear. It was and is today the classic monotheistic declaration of faith for Jews.
Jesus then goes on to explain that there is a second commandment and He quotes Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Matthew 22:39-40 reads, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Mark 12:31 adds Jesus explaining, “There is no other commandment greater than these.”
In distilling the entire law down to its essence, what comes to the fore and is relevant for our purpose is that Jesus points to one salient thing—love. Both texts from the Torah use the Hebrew root ahavah. It is no coincidence that Jesus points to this concept for, after all, The New Testament explicitly says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8b). Love fulfills the law or is the essence of the law and God is love. Many, such as the Franciscan friar and modern mystic Richard Rohr, in his recent book, “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation,” suggest God’s very language is love and that the Trinity exists in love. Thus, in the end, love is what it is all about: love of God and humanity, precisely what Jesus explains is most important. Could there be a bigger authority than Jesus for Christians? This coheres with what Saint Paul, the Apostle to the gentiles, writes in Galatians 5:14: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (cf. Romans 13:9 and James 2:8). First Peter 4:8-10 also explains, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”
Love or ahavah is at the core of the Christian life. Ahavah is God’s very nature (1 John 4:8b) and it is not a stretch to assume love is what binds us all together. Another modern-day mystic of the faith, the late Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths, in “The Golden String” eloquently said, “For love can give us a kind of knowledge that is beyond both faith and reason. The divine mystery is ultimately a mystery of love …”
Jesus teaching on ahavah also provides a framework by which to judge all actions and decisions—one of love. You should always ask, “Will my action or decision show love to God or neighbor?” You might wonder what it means to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. For starters, spending time with God and refraining from that which sets us apart from Him is one way to demonstrate love of God. How do you love your neighbor as yourself, you might also ask? First and foremost, by seeking the welfare and best for another, even at the expense of yourself.
Saint John Paul II reminds us that a true life consists of giving it away. Thomas Merton wrote, “Clean, unselfish love does not live on what it gets but on what it gives. It increases by pouring itself out for others, grows by self-sacrifice and becomes mighty by throwing itself away.” This is a paradox and counterintuitive. As with so many of Jesus’ and the Gospel’s teachings, it turns our conceptions on their head. Nevertheless, in giving oneself away, or dying to self, we find true freedom and life. This dying to self and ridding ourselves of the ego or “false self” is what it means to be in Christ. Galatians 2:20 reads, “And it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
You may wonder how to apply ahavah in practice. You might ask, “Should I forgive the person who did that horrible thing to me, who really hurt me or mine and caused me much suffering?” According to the principle of ahavah for God and other, an unequivocal “yes” is the answer, for loving our neighbor would entail forgiving him. There would be no ahavah in withholding forgiveness; rather, it would harm you and potentially your neighbor. This is in alignment with the teaching of Jesus elsewhere in His ministry. Specifically, it is imperative for our eternal wellbeing that we forgive one another (Matthew 6:15 and 18:35). You will find the principle of Jesus’ teaching on ahavah coheres with all of Scripture and brings wellbeing to others and us. Its divine origin summarizes and is the pinnacle of the law in a quick and easy teaching. It is easily called to mind, thus serving as a helpful touchstone.
As another example, suppose a parent is trying to figure out how much time he or she should allow a child to use an iPad per day. For obvious reasons, Scripture and the Catechism are silent on this modern dilemma. Yet, for a child’s growth and wellbeing it is important to figure out. Jesus’ summation of the law and His pointing to the ahavah of God and neighbor actually provides the key. In this case, you might ask and reflect on how you love your neighbor—your very own child. How do you demonstrate ahavah for your child in this case, rather than what is most convenient for you? Loving the child might be allowing only a few minutes a day on the iPad. This way, the child will learn to cultivate other habits such as reading, socializing or playing outside in nature.
Every case will be different and prayer is always recommended, but Jesus’ summary of the law provides the key to judge all decisions and actions. It is a framework that helps us seek the love of God and neighbor and not self. As issues arise in daily living, we can quickly rely on this principle by asking ourselves what will allow for the greatest show of love for God or neighbor. In these examples and in other cases, when we are able to demonstrate love of neighbor, it nearly always follows that the love of God is present and vice versa.
Saint Paul writes, in Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus pointed to this principle as being at the core of what it is means to follow God. Ahavah is at the core of our very life, for it is the core of God. It follows, then, that it should be our road map in all matters. It is fitting to close with a text we should memorize on ahavah and we should start making use of it. When the question was posed to Jesus as to which is the greatest commandment in the law, He answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29- 31).
It truly all boils down to ahavah.
James Anderson is currently a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern in Texas and serves as Adjunct Faculty at various universities in the San Antonio area. He received a PhD in Biblical Studies/Hebrew Bible from the University of Sheffield in England and a Masters of Divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He has a Masters in Mental Health Counseling from Texas A&M-San Antonio and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Southern Methodist University. He has studied in Israel and Germany, given papers in Ireland, Portugal and England and traveled widely in the Middle East, Europe and India. James has worked with those desiring to implement spirituality into the therapeutic process, with great benefit for those struggling with grief, trauma and depression. He currently works with all ages on a variety of issues. He takes seriously the belief that God is the ultimate source of healing and well-being as he seeks to work collaboratively with clients to foster autonomy, empowerment, well-being and healing. Regardless of the issues, James works from the perspective that our thoughts play a much larger role in our lives than most realize. He maintains that change is always possible; it is never too late. His research interests include the implementation of spirituality into the therapeutic process, the religions of Iron-Age Israel and Judah, monotheism and religious developments in Persian-period Yehud. His other publications include articles on ancient Israelite religion and the recent monograph entitled Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).
Ever wondered why bad things happen in life? The reason may surprise you Often, when we are faced with severe trials and sufferings, we are tempted to blame God: “Why is God doing this to me,” or “Why does a loving God not come immediately to my aid?” In the process, we conveniently forget the Bible tells us that there is also a mysterious evil Force at work in our world whose only purpose is “to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). Jesus called this evil power the Devil and described him as “a murderer from the beginning… a liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44). “An enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28). Jesus specifically taught us that we must never blame His/our “Abba” for our sufferings! In His insightful parable, when questioned by the servants about the appearance of weeds among the good wheat given them to sow, the Master replied categorically, “Some enemy has done this, not I.” Choose Your Victory God is not a moody, tyrannical, or uncaring deity who causes cancers and marital breakdowns and tsunamis to plague His beloved children! The cause lies in the mysterious spiritual battle raging between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil that involves every human being! The precious gift of free will, given to us by the Creator, allows each of us “to choose life or to choose death” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20), to stay happily on the side of Good or to cross over to the Enemy’s side. And this choosing is done not only by individuals, but by systems as well. In addition to individual sin, there is systemic sin—well-organized oppressive systems and institutions which perpetuate social injustice and religious persecution. The Bible tells us that Jesus has won the victory over all the Forces of Evil, and that in the “new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21, 22) whatever turned creation away from its original purpose will be destroyed for the sake of the new creation, which will fulfill the Lord’s prayer: ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. In his 1986 Encyclical Letter on the Holy Spirit, Saint John Paul II explained this cosmic spiritual warfare when he explained how the sin of Adam and Eve allowed “the perverse genius of suspicion” into the world. This apt phrase expresses correctly that the Enemy is a genius (as a fallen angel, his intelligence is superior to ours), but a perverse genius (he uses his intelligence for evil purposes rather than for good), and his (successful) strategy has been to sow suspicion in the minds of God’s creatures (us!) against God the Creator Himself! The real Enemy goes scot-free: “For in spite of all the witness of creation, the spirit of darkness is capable of showing God as an enemy of His own creature, and in the first place as an enemy of man. In this way, Satan manages to sow in man’s soul the seed of opposition to the One, who from the beginning would be considered as man’s enemy—and not as Father. This analysis of sin indicates that throughout the history of humanity there will be a constant pressure on man to reject God, even to the point of hating Him. Man will be inclined to see in God primarily a limitation of himself, and not the source of his own freedom and fullness of good” (Dominum et vivificantem, n.38). Reason for Suspicion Don’t our own personal experiences bear this out? Throughout history, a constant pressure has indeed been exerted on humanity to suspect God! And because of this, Saint John Paul II explains, “there is in the depths of God an unimaginable and inexpressible pain. This inscrutable and indescribable fatherly ‘pain’ will bring about, above all, the wonderful economy of redemptive love in Jesus Christ, so that love can reveal itself in human history as stronger than sin” (Dominum et vivificantem, n.39). When I was the Parish Priest at Holy Family Church, Mumbai, I was surprised to learn that I was expected to insure my church against God! The insurance contract which I had to renew, contained this line: “We insure this building against floods, fires, earthquakes and such acts of God!” I protested to the agent that my God, the God revealed by Jesus Christ, could never be blamed for natural calamities, but was instead a God of surpassing love. (I eventually signed the contract, but only after crossing out the offending words). The incident taught me how a “perverse suspicion of God” has become so ingrained in human customs and traditions that a good God gets represented as a moody, tyrannical deity! Instead of recognizing that the cause of the misery and suffering that plagues our world is man’s refusal to be an obedient steward of God’s creation (see Genesis 1:28) the secular (and often even the religious) world prefers to make God the scapegoat for everything amiss! However, we cannot blame God for our human ills resulting from global warming, terrorism, wars, poverty, unforgiveness, contagious diseases, etc. On the contrary, from the mystery of His own Son’s terrible crucifixion and resurrection, we must conclude that God always desires our good, and that “wherever evil abounds, His grace super-abounds” (Romans 5:20). There is a spiritual battle being waged imperceptibly between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. Even in 2023, humanity needs to be reminded that, despite all its technological progress and scientific achievements, this spiritual battle continues, and involves every human being! “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). So please, let’s put the blame where it belongs and never blame Jesus’ and God, our Father!
Beginning the first day of my incarceration, I have been building a relationship with God. I often feel regret that it took such a tragedy for me to submit to my need for Him, but even more often I feel grateful that I have found a burning passion for life in the Lord. My desire to seek Him sprang from prayer. I prayed intently for those suffering the crushing consequences of my dangerous actions driven by addictions. It was during this prayer time that God revealed His unconditional love for me and called me into kinship with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. My journey, building a relationship with God during these years in prison, reminds of the techniques needed to build the foundation for a camp-fire, a skill I had developed in the past when I was free to spend my time enjoying the outdoors. I cleared the ground to make room for my new love. Like the stones I placed around the fire pit, I surrounded myself with others seeking self-improvement via divine guidance. Church became the bedrock on which my foundation was laid. I listened carefully to The Word, and did my best to apply it in my daily activities. But my fire pit was empty. I set out to add elements to build my fire pit. Small portions of time were dedicated to communal prayer, Bible study gatherings and group recovery sessions. These small additions, like kindling were needed to start the fire burning, but I knew that I needed something more substantial to add, or my fire would be sure to burn out quickly. I fervently sought for something I could dedicate my life that would consolidate my bond with God. The answer came in the form of service work. It was service to others, whether in the simple form of a listening ear, or working in leadership positions dedicated to teaching my peers, that brought me true joy. I piled the giant logs of service positions onto my nest of kindling. Now I needed something flammable for ignition. Much to my surprise, unique accelerators were express delivered by the Lord Himself. Counselling sessions with our Chaplain, professional mentoring with my work supervisor, and the loving support of my family back home, gave me the encouragement I desperately needed to ask forgiveness for my past and believe in my future. I poured all their loving guidance onto the firewood with eager expectation. The time had finally come to set my constructed masterpiece ablaze. I found the perfect spark in the Living Word. For an entire year I cupped this crucial element. I fed it oxygen while digesting God’s teaching, direction and wisdom and carefully placed the spark near the base of my structure. God assisted by gently blowing against the spark, and a fire of love for Jesus roared into life in my heart. Today, this fire burns warm and bright. The love I share with the Lord has satisfied all that I have ever longed for. Prior to incarceration, I was lost and distracted by worldly pleasures, trapped in its pitfalls, feeling desperately drained and directionless. As someone lost in the wilderness of life, there is no survival without fire. My life is meaningful in the Lord, and it is so much easier to see hope in opportunity by the light of this fire.
Q – My pre-teens are clamoring for a phone so they can get social media, like all of their friends. I feel so torn, because I don’t want them to be left out, but I know how dangerous it can be. What is your opinion? A: Social media can be used for good. I know a twelve-year-old who makes short Bible reflections on TikTok, and he gets hundreds of views. Another young person I know has an Instagram account dedicated to posting about the saints. Other teens I know go on Discord or other chat rooms to debate atheists or to encourage other young people in their Faith. Without a doubt, there are good uses for social media in evangelization and forming Christian community. And yet…do the benefits outweigh the risks? A good maxim in the spiritual life is: “Trust God immensely…never trust yourself!” Should we entrust a young person with unfettered access to the internet? Even if they start out with the best of intentions, are they strong enough to resist the temptations? Social media can be a cesspool—not just obvious temptations like pornography or glorifying violence, but even more insidious temptations like gender ideology, bullying, becoming addicted to the “high” of getting likes and views, and feelings of inadequacy when teens start to compare themselves with others on social media. In my opinion, the risks outweigh the benefits of allowing young people access to a secular world which will try to form them away from the mind of Christ. Recently a mother and I were discussing her teenage daughter’s poor behavior and attitude, which was correlated to her use of TikTok and her unfettered access to the internet. The mother said with a sigh of resignation, “It’s just so sad that teens are so addicted to their phones…but what can you do?” What can you do? You can be a parent! Yes, I know peer pressure is tremendous to allow your kids a phone or device with endless free access to all the worst humanity has to offer (aka social media) – but as a parent your job is to form your children to be saints. Their souls are in your hands. We must be that first line of defense against the dangersof the world. We would never allow them to spend time with apedophile; if we knew they were being bullied we would try to protect them; if something were harming their health, we would spare no expense to rush them to the doctor. Then why wouldwe allow them a window into the cesspool of porn, hatred, and time-wasting trash that’s readily available on the internet without offering careful guidance? Study after study has shown the negative effects of the internet in general—and social media in particular—but still we turn a blind eye and wonder why our teenage sons and daughters struggle with identity crises, depression, self-hatred, addictions, aberrant behavior, laziness, a lack of desire for holiness! Parents, do not abdicate your authority and your responsibility! At the end of your lives, the Lord will ask you how well you shepherded these souls He entrusted to you—whether or not you led them to Heaven and preserved their souls from sin to the best of your ability. We cannot use the excuse, “Oh, well everyone else’s kids have one, so my kid would be strange if they didn’t! Will your kids be angry with you, maybe even say they hate you, if you put restrictions on their devices? Probably. But their anger will be temporary—their gratitude will be eternal. Recently another friend who travels the country speaking about the dangers of social media told me that after her talk she always has many young adults come up to her with one of two reactions: “At the time I was furious with my parents for taking away my phone, but now I’m grateful.” OR “I really wish my parents had protected me from losing so much innocence.” No one has ever been grateful that their parents were so permissive! So, what can be done? First, do not give teens (or younger!) phones with internet or apps. There are plenty of dumb phones still in existence! If you must give them phones that access the internet, put parental restrictions on them. Install Covenant Eyes on your son’s phones—and on your home computers while you’re at it (almost every Confession I hear involves pornography, which is mortally sinful and can lead your son to view women as nothing but objects, which will have huge ramifications on his future relationships). Do not allow them to use their screens at meals or while alone in their bedrooms. Get the support of other families who have the same policies. Most importantly—do not try to be your kid’s friend, but be their parent. Authentic love requires boundaries, discipline, and sacrifice. Your kid’s eternal welfare is worth it, so do not say, “Alas, I can’t do anything—my kid needs to fit in.” It’s better to stand out here on earth so we can fit into the Communion of Saints!
The world’s greatest treasure is within the reach of every person! The reality of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is something great and marvelous. I know that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist from my own experience not just because the Church teaches this truth. The First Touch One of the experiences I had that helped increase my faith in the Lord was after I was baptized in the Holy Spirit in my early days in the Catholic Charismatic renewal. I was still not a priest at that time. I was leading a prayer meeting and during this meeting, we were praying over people. We had the Eucharist exposed for Adoration and then people would come one by one to be prayed over. A woman came asking me to pray over her with folded hands and I thought she was praying. She asked me to pray for her husband who had a problem with his foot. But as I was praying, I felt in my heart that the Lord wanted to heal her. So I asked her if she needed any kind of physical healing. She told me, “My hands are like this because I have frozen shoulder.” She had a problem of mobility with her hands. As we were praying for her healing she said that a great heat came out from the Eucharist, descended on her frozen shoulder and she was healed then and there. That was the first time I actually saw such healing taking place through the power of the Eucharist. It’s exactly as we have in the Gospels—people touched Jesus and power came out of Him and healed them. Unforgettable Moment I have had another powerful experience of the Eucharist in my life. Once I was praying with somebody who was involved in the occult, and she needed a deliverance. We were praying as a group and there was a priest with us. But this woman, who was on the floor couldn’t see the priest who was bringing the Eucharist inside the church to the sacristy. The exact moment the priest brought the Eucharist, from her mouth, a male violent voice said these words: “Remove Him whom you’ve got in your hands!” It choked me because the demon did not say ‘it’- a piece of bread, but “Him”. Satan recognizes the living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. I will never forget that moment of my life. When I became a priest later, I kept those two incidences in my heart to really believe and preach the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Unspeakable Joy As a priest I had one another experience which I will not forget. I attend prison ministry when I am not preaching around. Once I was giving communion to a particular division in the prison and had the Eucharist with me. Suddenly I felt in my heart the joy of Jesus in giving himself to the prisoners. This is something I cannot explain to you. If you could only experience and know the joy Jesus has in the Eucharist to come into each and every one of us! Another experience I have had of the Blessed Sacrament was a personal, emotional healing for myself. Once somebody who was in the church really hurt me with his words. It wasn’t easy and I was starting to get angry. Although I am not aggressive by nature, this hurt stirred up a lot of feelings and bad thoughts against this person. I fled to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and just cried. In that moment I felt His love, for that person who hurt me, radiating out from the Eucharist and entering into my heart. Jesus in the Eucharist healed me, but more than that, as a priest it helped me to realize where the real source of love and healing is in our lives. Not only for me as a priest, but for married persons and young people - who can really give the love that we are looking for? Where can we find love that is greater than sin and hatred? It’s in Him, present in the Eucharist. The Lord gave me so much love for the person who hurt me. On the eve of the day I was going to make my first vows, a sudden darkness entered into my heart. I went straight to the tabernacle instead of finding my new room in the community. Then from the depths of the heart I heard the Lord telling me, “Hayden, you are coming here for me.” And suddenly all the joy came back. In the Eucharist Jesus taught me one very important thing about my life as a Franciscan priest—He has called me for Him, I exist for Him. The Eucharist teaches every one of us that we can do nothing apart from Jesus—it’s not about us, it’s JUST ABOUT HIM. We are in the Church to be with Him! As a priest, celebrating the Eucharist is the most wonderful moment I have with the Lord and it also brings me closer to the Christian community. It is Jesus in the Eucharist who is the source of communion between us. As a priest, I cannot live without the Eucharist. What is the greatest thing we can ask Jesus when we receive Him in our hearts? It is asking Him to fill us with His Holy Spirit once again. When Jesus was resurrected, He breathed the Holy Spirit into the Apostles. When we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, He gives us once again the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Ask Him to fill you with the gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit. Broken for you Once when I was lifting up the Host and breaking it, I got this deep conviction regarding the priesthood. We look at the people through the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which is a broken body. A priest should be like that. He breaks his life so that he can give it to the community and the rest of world. One can also discover this beauty in the married life. Love is like the Eucharist. You have to break yourself in order to give yourself. The Eucharist has taught me how to live a celibate life, how to be Jesus for the community, giving my whole life for them. The same thing has to happen in married life. Finally, I can tell you that whenever I have felt lonely or down, just going near him—is enough to receive all the strength that I need, even if I am tired or sleepy. I can’t count the number of times I have experienced this in my travels and in my preaching. The best rest is to get closer to Him. I can assure you; He can renew us physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. Because in the Eucharist Jesus is ALIVE—He is there for us!
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