420px-Phirography_the_shepherd's_loveSome years ago I had dinner with friends in London. When I was leaving their home I was introduced to the husband’s father, who was busy digging in the garden. Taken by surprise and not knowing what to say I asked a rather stupid question – “And what are you doing?” I said. “I do be digging the garden,” he replied, glancing at his son as if to say – “Who’s your fatuous friend?” Intrigued by his answer I asked a nun who taught Irish in Dublin what was meant by the expression, ‘I do be digging the garden’. She said that it is the English rendering of what is called in Irish – the present continuing tense. It means – “I have been digging the garden, I am digging the garden and when you stop asking the obvious, I will continue to dig the garden!”

There is no such tense in English, but it perfectly expresses the meaning of the Aramaic idiom, as spoken by Jesus, and in this case by St John, when he said, ‘God is Love’. He wasn’t trying to give a definition of what love is in itself, as a Greek Philosopher would do, but he was describing in his own language, that God is ‘Loving’, that’s what he is, and that’s what he does, continually. This is what St John was taught in the synagogue. It was here that he learnt how God had loved his people in the past and how he was still loving his people now in the present. Then when he became a young man, he tangibly experienced this love, in a deeply personal way, through the love of Jesus. After the Resurrection he continued to experience the love of God still reaching out to him from Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. The message of St John then, that you find on every page of his Gospel, is that – ‘God has been loving us, that he is loving us now, and that he will  continue to love us’ – ‘from here to eternity’.

The question that was continually asked by the Fathers of the Church and the other great spiritual writers who succeeded them, was not therefore, is God loving us, that was taken for granted and nobody doubted it.  The question that they continually tried to answer was, ‘What must we do to receive it?’ This question was first asked by the crowds in response to Peter’s famous sermon on the first Pentecost Day, when he told them that Jesus had risen and was at that moment and at every moment sending out God’s love on all who would receive it. The answer that St Peter gave, in the biblical language that they could understand, was deceptively simple – ‘repent’ he told them, and then you will receive the love of God in return. Now repentance does not just mean turning back to God, but turning back to God with a pure and humble heart. Then his Divine Loving can firstly become his Divine Mercy for without his loving forgiveness he cannot enter further to make his home within us, as promised at the Last Supper.

Just as the word love means loving in the Gospels, so the word repent means repenting, for if it is to be effective, it must be continual, because we are continually falling. In my last article I showed how, at the beginning of human loving, lovers reveal themselves to one another, ‘warts and all’. This is to make sure that neither are deceived by externals and that they both seek the understanding and the forgiveness that reassures them that their mutual love is the real thing. If it is, love can continue as preparation for making a home together. However as every married lover knows well enough,  the faults and failings that were once forgiven do not go away, but return again and again through even the best of marriages, and so therefore  does the need for forgiveness and mercy that was so readily shared with one another at the outset.

It is exactly the same with God. At the beginning of the year of Divine Mercy we might respond to him like never before, and make a sincere resolution to begin again, but our human weakness will inevitably mean that we will nevertheless falter and fall time and time again. So we must have the humility to repent and turn back to God to receive his Divine Mercy, time and time again too. Only arrogance and pride will tempt us to question the infinite mercy of God that never fails. Keep in mind, the words of an old hermit, who once said to me, –“When you stop falling you are in heaven, but when you stop getting up you are in hell!”

Published in The Catholic Universe Friday 4 February 2016

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