420px-Phirography_the_shepherd's_loveI had a cousin called John who was a bit of a rake. If he wasn’t genially propping up the bar at the rugby club, he was engaged in a similar exercise at the golf club. He drank too much, smoked incessantly and generally ended up late at night gambling. Even though he was quite well off, he soon got into debt. His mother didn’t see him for days on end. She had no idea where he slept, or with whom he slept for that matter. The rest of the family was more concerned for my aunt than for my cousin. He seemed to thrive on his revelry, as if the physical effects of his life-style by-passed him and were inflicted by some ugly twist of fate on his mother instead. It was a sort of ‘Dorian Gray’ situation, where his mother took the place of his own decaying portrait. Everybody in the family had rows with him. There were frightful scenes, endless flare-ups, and he even came to blows with an uncle of mine on one occasion. I tried with the rest of them, but got nowhere.

We had all given up, when things dramatically changed, or so my aunt said. It was almost as if he had a conversion experience, been struck by an angel of light, or something heavy! My aunt didn’t know what to make of it at first, couldn’t for the life of her find out what had happened. Then after a few weeks he arrived home with a tiny Korean nurse called Nina, whom he’d met at a party. She was nothing to look at, quite plain in fact, but he was hopelessly in love with her and they had already decided to get married. In normal circumstances my aunt would have raised all sorts of objections, rational and irrational, but she was so overjoyed at the change that had come over her son, so grateful to the girl for what she had done, that she readily agreed.

He was a changed man. At the time I was convinced that he was already an alcoholic. I thought his case was hopeless. One thing I’m sure of to this day, is that he’d never have changed his life-style on his own, he couldn’t. Things had got out of hand, gone too far. Not only did he stop drinking and gambling, he also stopped smoking. He had to pay off his debts and then start saving for a mortgage. Rows, arguments, quarrels, couldn’t change him, neither could warnings or threats. Reasoning, appealing to his better nature, pleading for consideration for his mother were a waste of time. In the end only one thing got through: love. The love of this four-foot-eight, seven-and-a-half-stone Korean nurse, Nina! It’s twenty-four years since all this happened; next year will be their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. That incident had a deep and lasting effect on me. I was fascinated by the tremendous power of love in action. I had been convinced that no power either in heaven or earth could have done anything for my cousin.

St John said that “God is love and wherever there is love there is God”. It was not just human love that had changed John, but God’s love working through Nina. It was this realization that made me understand that we could all be radically changed for the better if we could somehow place ourselves in the way of God’s love, put ourselves under the influence of his creative power, then like John, we could be radically and permanently changed; not superficially, but from our innermost parts. When I began to read the New Testament in earnest, I saw that this is what it’s saying time and time again. I was staggered to realise that I’d never noticed it before. I’d missed the wood for the trees. I’d missed the whole point of the Gospel. Everything suddenly began to make sense, the pieces of the jigsaw started to fall into place once I’d discovered the central piece.

The story of Jesus is a unique and world-shaking example of what happens to a man who dares to expose Himself totally to God’s love. It is the story of how he is gradually possessed, and the effect that this had on his life and on the lives of others. Once love of this force and magnitude invaded the life of Jesus, it not only enabled him to listen to people and care for them, but to enter into them, heal and cure them, restore them to wholeness and even raise them from the dead; for there’s nothing that can resist the power of uncreated love, not even death.

The more I tried to steep myself in the Scriptures, in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and in the most ancient and hallowed traditions of Christian spir­ituality, the more clearly I came to see that the message was always the same. The burning question was not firstly, ‘how do we love God’, but ‘how do we welcome God’s love into our lives’? How do we best position ourselves to be the recipients of that love? Once we get this right, everything else falls into place, as it did for John.

I began to see with ever-greater clarity that Jesus didn’t primarily come to detail the way we ought to love God and our neighbour, He came to give us the power to do it. Without the power to do it, we can read the Bible till we are blue in the face and say “how beautiful, how uplifting”, but no moral code however well-reasoned, however lofty, however sub­lime will ever permanently change a person, but love can! God’s love certainly will, if it is only given a chance.

I know most people would agree with me in theory, but in practice most people act quite differently, because without realizing it they are in fact Semi-Pelagians. What I mean to say is, we think we can change ourselves and direct the course of our spiritual growth by dint of our own muscle-power and dogged endurance, but we can’t. It doesn’t matter how hard we try, how optimistically we flex our mental muscles or clench our fists, failure is only a matter of time. In this enter­prise, the ‘tough guy’ approach inevitably leads to failure.

The exceptionally stubborn might push things to the limit before finally cracking up in a fit of depression, self-pity and despair, but the majority settle for a compromise. They sense failure before it comes and tactfully avoid the humiliation of facing their own weakness by lowering their ideals and putting off until tomorrow the steps they feel are necessary to attain them. They reassure their guilty consciences with dreams of tomorrow’s fresh start, when they will begin again in earnest to take themselves in hand and get down to the serious business of pulling themselves together.

It seems to me that the Gospel says loud and clear, time and time again, “You can’t, but I can – if you’ll only let me.” If Nina’s love could turn John’s life upside down, what could God’s love do to ours?”

God’s love will automatically grow and develop in us like a seed. It will ultimately extend to every part of our being until it completely possesses us. It’s only in prayer that we come into contact with the love of God and begin to experience it entering into our lives.

Nobody can experience being loved and remain the same.

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