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in the Catholic Mystic Tradition


Be gentle with the sinner,
But be firm in your refusal to condone sin.


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The Mandate of Christianity | Love is Hard Work | Love’s Opposite: Sin | Forms of Love | Desire Raised to the Divine: Real Love | Sin’s Antidote | When Love is Thwarted

THE MANDATE of Christianity is simple: love. Yet in this simplicity, complicated problems can spring up like weeds, for we more often than not use “love” as a mere excuse for self-indulgence. In the modern world especially—although it has been a problem throughout Church history—we commonly scorn real love. We scorn the suffering, self-sacrificial love with which Christ loved us to save us from our sins. And even though Christ told us to love each other “as I have loved you,” we scorn this love because we have so perverted and eroticised the concept of “love” that we even condone sin today in the name of Christ.

Love is Hard Work

Some people claim that the Church puts too much emphasis on the concept of sin, and that, if parents didn’t scare children with talk of sin and focused more on love, the world would be a better place. This argument can even lead to the idea that we should accept everything in the name of Christian love, and that we lack charity and are being judgmental merely to speak about sin. “It’s offensive to another’s individuality,” they claim, “to say that something that ‘does not really hurt others’ is morally wrong.”

Well, it’s a great sadness that most parents do not teach their children how to love. Love is hard work, and most parents shrink from that work. When children misbehave, for example, it’s far easier to tell the children that they will go to hell because of their misbehavior than it is to show them consistently, by example, that all behavior should be motivated by love for God. When parents take the easy way, the children grow up being afraid of hell and understanding nothing about real love.

The irony, though, is that parents fail to teach their children real love because they fail to understand the psychological reality of sin.

Love’s Opposite: Sin

In psychological terms, sin can be described as a sort of infatuation with the vanity of our personal desires. That is, most people are narcissistically preoccupied with their immediate desires and have little, if any, altruistic awareness of anyone or anything else around them. Psychologically, this behavior allows you to feel good about yourself (that is, to feel strong and “in control”) by using, hurting, or neglecting someone else. Sin therefore leads you away from true love and compassion, and it sends you right into all the predicaments of self-indulgence. Sin really does hurt others because sin defiles love.

Simply teaching children to be kind to one another, therefore, will not make sin “take a back seat.” In fact, teaching kindness without also teaching the full meaning of sin unwittingly promotes sin. Without an awareness of sin, anything goes. “If it feels good, do it,” is equivalent to the devil’s motto : Do what thou wilt. To see what is really required to overcome sin, let’s look more closely at the various forms of love.

Forms of Love

Love, in its purest and most divine meaning refers to something so far beyond our comprehension that it is, well, incomprehensible. Christian theology says that “God is love,” but most of us can grasp that concept only intellectually. Many Catholic mystics through the ages, however, have had an immediate experiential encounter with divine love, and they all end up saying essentially the same thing: I thought my heart would burst and that I would die right there.

But by reason of this secret and intimate union with God, there remains in the Soul a sweet impression, so firm and assured a satisfaction, that no torture, however cruel, could overpower it, and a zeal so ardent that a man, had he a thousand lives, would risk them all for that hidden consciousness which is so strong that hell itself could not destroy it.

—Saint Catherine of Genoa
Spiritual Dialogue, Part Third, Chapter X


Read more from the writings of Saint Catherine of Genoa
about God’s love, patience, and mercy

This sort of love is what Catholic mysticism is all about: a love for Christ so overwhelming that a person would risk anything and give up anything to get close to it.


Read about the martyrdom of love
by Saint Jane Frances de Chantal

But this divine love is not something you “fall into”; it’s something you have to work at. To understand this, let’s first consider love’s other forms naturally accessible to general human experience.

A child’s love for a parent refers to a natural emotional bond every child must make with a caretaker in order to survive the helplessness of infancy and childhood. This childlike love for a parent serves as a preparation for the eventual experience of real love for God.

We also naturally love our siblings within our families; this is called brotherly love, and it is necessary for peace and growth in families—although sibling rivalry often manifests in dysfunctional families.

We can naturally love our neighbors, too; this is called neighborly love, and it, too, is necessary for social survival—although aggression and war often stain all societies.

What we commonly call romantic love, or erotic love (from the Greek eros), is just “common love”—a politically correct distortion of real love. Romance—in all truth, and contrary to popular sentiment—is actually a mixture of two things: a dependent, infantile attachment to a caretaker, and desire.
     Now, infantile dependence needs no further explanation because it is a natural experience between an infant and a parent. But when an adult develops a dependence on another adult in the way that a child would have a dependence on a parent, then the dependence is disordered and perverted (except in cases of dementia, for example).
     Desire, in the psychological sense, refers to our attempts to fill ourselves with things that feel pleasurable or soothing, so as to hide from ourselves the reality of our essential human emptiness and brokenness. When you look at another person with desire, you do not see a soul enrobed in chaste beauty; you see only your own exuberant fantasy that your aching throb of loneliness might be alleviated.
     Romance, therefore, is the desire to fill your bodily emptiness with an attachment to the body of another person—a person as broken and empty as you are.

Desire Raised to the Divine: Real Love

Desire isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. Although Buddhism, for example, teaches that all desire must be avoided, [1] and although Christian theology teaches us that misplaced desire can lead us straight into sin, desire can be raised to the level of the divine. In fact, that’s the essence of the Catholic mystic tradition: to desire union with God as the supreme desire. As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God (Psalm 42:2). In this mystical desire for God we turn away from the illusory social attractions of the world around us and turn only to God for strength and refuge. That’s what it means to “die” to the world. And that’s a necessary step toward holiness for everyone—clerics, religious, and the laity.


Read an excerpt from a writing about love
by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

Thus, our natural human capacity for some forms of love is but a faint reflection of the divine love by which God created and redeemed us. Yet when natural love is raised to the level of the divine through Christ, it enters into a true mystery. In regard to this mystery, Christ told us something very important.

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

—John 15:13

Now, think about this. Why would someone lay down one’s life for anyone except to save that person from something?

Well, this brings us right back to the topic of sin.

Sin’s Antidote

The Hebrew word for sin, hata’a, means to “miss the mark.” Consequently, to save us from the emptiness of self-satisfaction into which we have wandered and to bring us back to the point, God gave us His only beloved Son. In real love for us, God knew that the free will of a hardened sinner cannot be brought to sorrow and contrition through force or threats of punishment. Such tactics only drive a sinner deeper into sin.


Jesus loves everyone, and He calls everyone into His love. But to accept this call we must give up everything that is not love. That is, we must give up sin.


Thus our task in life is to accept God’s love—the loving gift of redemption that God, in His great mercy, offers us. We have only to do as Christ commanded us—“As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34)—by sacrificing our pride and desire for personal pleasure in order to repent our sins and help save others from their sins.

This, then, explains the Christian meaning of suffering. Just as Christ suffered and died for us, so we must “die” to our natural desire for self-satisfaction and then offer our suffering for others, in the hope that they might be saved from their sins. As Christians, we are called to “pray and make sacrifices” for others (as Our Lady of Fátima told the children), freely offering our suffering as the price it takes to bring hardened sinners to contrition. Remember, this capacity to suffer derives from a love of such a firm and assured satisfaction that no torture, however cruel, could overpower it.


As long as you are concerned about what you can get from life, you will always be dissatisfied. Everything material—food, entertainment, drugs, masturbation, pornography, erotic pleasure in another person—passes quickly only to leave us overpowered by cravings for more. Real love, however, endures every insult peacefully and so it can never be overpowered by anything.


Real love—or true love—therefore, is not about getting noticed or feeling accepted. Real love is a process of giving—not the giving of material things that merely bribe others to like us, but the giving of qualities such as patience, kindness, compassion, understanding, mercy, forbearance, and forgiveness, qualities whose ultimate purpose is the salvation of other souls. 


Now, many persons today claim to love Christ. But do they really love Him? Are they willing to do anything it takes to purify themselves for His service? Are they willing to love their enemies—that is, to endure peacefully the suffering caused by their enemies and to offer it as a prayerful sacrifice for the repentance and conversion of those very enemies? Or, instead of really loving Christ, do they simply take satisfaction in the idea of loving Him as a dry act of duty [2] and let real love wither and die in the darkness of their hearts?


In order to love others in the way of true love, though, we have to see sin for what it is, in all its pervasive, ugly reality. This isn’t at all depressing—in fact, it should be a cause for joy, because seeing sin for what it is opens the possibility of mercy. What greater charity is there than this?

But if we can’t see sin for what it is, then we aren’t loving our neighbor, we’re loving his sin—and that is very, very depressing.

When Love is Thwarted

Once you understand what love really is and commit yourself to living it, and you encounter others, even family members, who defy love, you will have several choices, but only one of them is healthy.

You could try to protect yourself from rejection or abandonment by being especially careful of what you say or do lest you offend someone. You might even convince yourself that this course of action demonstrates love. But it doesn’t; all it demonstrates is fear. It demonstrates your fear that if you don’t take responsibility for the feelings of others, you will get hurt—and so it also demonstrates your fear of trusting that God will accept and protect you when others reject you. So don’t deceive yourself; acting out of fear is not an act of love. 

Or you could confront those persons and tell them how you want them to act. Or you could ridicule them. Or you could even kill them. But such behavior would be acting out of hatred, not love.

As for the healthy alternative, you could go about witnessing your faith and speaking the truth in all things, regardless of how others might react. If others treat you harmfully, you can speak the truth about their lack of charity.[3] Then, if they apologize, there is nothing more you need to do. If they get defensive and angry and treat you with disrespect, then you can say, “Listen, I’m not going to take this sort of treatment from you. If you are disrespectful to me again, I will get up and leave.” Then, the next time someone is disrespectful, say, “Look, I warned you once. I’m not going to take this mistreatment.” Then leave. But always pray for the repentance of the offender and give the pain to God so that you don’t get stuck in resentment.

Depending on the type of people with whom you are dealing, you may have to keep repeating your warnings and leavings over and over. That, though, however tiring, would be love. It would not only demonstrate a loving concern and mercy for the offenders, but also it would demonstrate healthy self-love and self-respect. 

But it may happen that the offenders completely reject you. They could do this directly by telling you to never come back, or they could do this indirectly by saying, “I don’t care what you have to say!” [4] In either of those cases, accept the fact that the relationship is over (at least until the others repent). Then you will be alone, yes, but you will be in the hands of God. It may feel scary, but pray and trust in God, and do not be afraid.


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1. Buddhism, an atheistic natural philosophy, denies the reality of God. And consequently, even though some of its followers may acknowledge Jesus as a “good man” or a prophet, they deny the divinity of Jesus the Christ.
    Buddhism teaches that all suffering is the result of desire. Suffering has no value in such a philosophy, so it teaches a deadening of all desire as an escape from suffering. Many individuals, therefore, are drawn to Buddhist practices because they seem to offer an esoteric “spirituality” while making no moral demands on a person beyond the ethics of non-attachment and acceptance.
    But genuine spirituality must embrace the redemptive purpose of sacrifice and suffering when endured in love for others, as Christ demanded, and this true love, therefore, can be understood properly only in the context of Christian theology. Without God, there can be no love, only self-indulgence—and without a proper understanding of love in the first place there can be no meaning in God sending His Son to redeem us, and no meaning in suffering as the only means to overcome sin: that which “misses the point” about love.
    Considering all of this, it’s ironic that atheistic Eastern philosophies have so many techniques for achieving self-restraint and self-discipline, and yet they know nothing about love of God. Yet so many Catholics, who possess, through the Church, all the graces necessary to dwell in God’s love, scorn the discipline necessary to make efficacious use of those graces.

2. In its psychological sense, duty has nothing to do with love. When you act out of duty you are trying either to gain someone’s approval or to avoid losing someone’s approval. Love, in contrast, has no ulterior goal; the purpose of love is love. Love is its own reward.
     Nevertheless, it is possible to speak of one’s “duty” to love and worship God, but when used in this unique theological sense the word duty simply points us to a need to avoid being careless about, or ungrateful for, the ineffable love which God bestows upon us.

3. I don’t recommend that you try this with strangers, however. In situations where you don’t know the offender, it is usually best to keep quiet and pray silently.

4. When you attempt to speak up about an offense caused by another person, and that person says to you, “I don’t care what you have to say,” that person is telling you that he or she doesn’t love you; when love is dead, the relationship is dead—at least, until the offender repents and apologizes. In this case, all you can do is keep your distance and pray for the other person to repent.


Recommended Reading
A treasure of a resource for psychological and spiritual healing. Information gathered from my websites (including this webpage) is now available at your fingertips in book form.


Healing by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. explains how psychological defenses help to protect us from emotional injury. But if you cling to the defense mechanisms that were created in your childhood and carry them on into adulthood—as most everyone does unconsciously— your quest for spiritual healing will be thwarted by overwhelming resentments and conflicts. Still, God has been trying to show you that there is more to life than resentment and conflict, something so beautiful and desirable that only one thing can resist its pull: hate So now, and in every moment until you die, you will have a profound choice between your enslavement to old defenses and the beauty of God. That decision has to come from you. You will go where you desire.

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