We Are Measured by the Quality of Our Loves

The following is the speech I gave at IHM School’s graduation yesterday. Readers should know that our school in rural southern New Hampshire is very small. We had three graduates this year. My effort was to be lighthearted as well as informative and encouraging for our graduates. 

IT WAS recently brought to my attention that my accustomed manner of giving graduation speeches has a certain disadvantage. Usually, I talk about some current event — usually something negative — and I attempt to derive life lessons from it for our graduates. The disadvantage is that what apparently gets remembered more often are the negative remarks themselves, while the life lesson gets lost in the sauce. As I was mulling the dilemma this knowledge presented me with, a concerned school mom suggested that I speak about butterflies and rainbows, her own standard go-to subjects when things are going badly at home. Certainly that would be pleasant. Another idea that came to mind was to talk about everybody’s favorite mythical mammal, the unicorn, an inoffensive subject if there ever was one, and one upon which I happen to be an expert. Not that it’s difficult to be an expert on something that does not actually exist; having a good imagination is all that’s required.

As I was giving these weighty matters due consideration, I thought I might point out that, while the butterfly is not mentioned in the Bible, and while there is no tradition of which I am aware of its use in Christian iconography, certain modern commentators make of the butterfly a symbol of the Resurrection and of the Christian life of grace. Permit me to quote selectively from the website “Glorious-Butterfly.com”:

The stages of the butterfly — egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly are wonderful analogies to our life as Christians.

The miracle starts with an egg the size of the top of a straight pin. […] A few short days later, a TINY caterpillar emerges through the shell of the egg [….]

[Next is] The caterpillar stage of eating…[:] eating is symbolic of life on earth…..preoccupied so often with the physical and material.

In the chrysalis stage, it appears the caterpillar is lifeless inside the [cocoon]…..symbolizing death and the darkness of the tomb, an inevitable reality. But, lo, inside [the cocoon] a miracle is taking place..…

[Lastly,] The butterfly emerges….. symbolic of our souls rising from the grave and ascending into heaven and eternal life.

Now, regarding the rainbow, before it was co-opted by the marketing department of a certain unnamed agenda that seeks to normalize crimes against nature, it was a bona-fide Christian symbol. And it still is. God first made it as a sign of the covenant between Himself and Noe, a reminder that, in His mercy, He would nevermore destroy humanity by a universal flood. As God says in Genesis 9:13-15: “I will set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be the sign of a covenant between me, and between the earth. And when I shall cover the sky with clouds, my bow shall appear in the clouds: And I will remember my covenant with you, and with every living soul that beareth flesh: and there shall no more be waters of a flood to destroy all flesh.” In the deuterocanonical Old-Testament Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach, the inspired author, whose name, by the way, was Jesus, gives us this sublime piece of advice: “Look upon the rainbow, and bless him that made it: it is very beautiful in its brightness” (Ecclesiasticus [Sirach] 43:12). The rainbow is also mentioned in the very last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse — or Revelation (4:3) — where it is, believe it or not, mentioned as a decoration of God’s throne.

Now, as for unicorns, the subject of my expertise, it might surprise you to know that it, too, has long been a Christian symbol. Along with the pelican and the phoenix, symbols of the Precious Blood and the Resurrection respectively, the unicorn was treated in a second-century Greek patristic text called the Physiologus, where we learn that the unicorn can be captured only in the lap of a pure virgin, making it a wonderful allegory of the Incarnation of Our Lord in the virginal womb of Mary, as well as a symbol of chastity.

Upon further reflection, though, I don’t think I should speak of butterflies, rainbows, and unicorns in a graduation speech. That would be silly, and I have something of an image to maintain as the kind of man who would never speak of butterflies, rainbows, and unicorns — at least not in public. So, instead, I will speak of an important subject that is always in season, one which is very positive, very Christian, and not as soft-sounding as butterflies, rainbows, and unicorns. That subject is love.

Dr. Josef Pieper, the German Catholic philosopher of the last century, imparts to us a good deal of wisdom in the following brilliant and overflowing paragraph:

For if it is true that all beings at the core are nothing but will, and if the will, of all the forces of the psyche, is the dominant and most powerful force, then love as the primal act of the will is simultaneously the point of origin and the center of existence as a whole. What kind of person one is will be decided at this point.* “Ex amore suo quisque vivit, vel bene vel male” — [a sentence from Saint Augustine which he translates as:] Whether for good or evil, each man lives by his love. [Dr. Pieper goes on:] It is his love and it alone that must be “in order” for the person as a whole to be “right” and good. There is, says Augustine, a very brief definition of virtue (and “virtue” [, Dr. Piper tells us,] means nothing but “human rightness”): “Virtus est ordo amoris.” [Virtue is the order of love.] — Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, pp. 166-167

Among the few footnotes in that paragraph, there is this one, again from Saint Augustine in Latin that the good Doctor does not translate for us: “Talis est quisque, qualis eius dilectio.” Which means: “Such is each one as is his love.” Or, less literally: “Such as a man’s love is, just so is the man himself.” We might paraphrase it and say that we are measured by the quality of our loves. If we love only mundane things, we will be worldly. If we love God, we will be godly. If we love impurity, we will be impure. And so on. At the core of each of us is will. What we really love — and to the degree that we love it that will be the determinant of our actions and of our habits. It will determine whether our acts are good works or bad, whether our habits are virtues or vices.

It’s an idea that Saint Augustine has written on more than once. Again, Dr. Pieper quoted the Doctor of Grace saying this: Ex amore suo quisque vivit, vel bene vel male”: “Whether for good or evil, each man lives by his love.” What we love will determine how we live — what we love will determine us.

Hence, Saint Augustine says elsewhere, “Dilige, et quod vis fac,” which has been translated variously as, “Love God and do as you please,” or, “Love God and do as you wish,” or, “Love God and do what you will.” The utterance has been gravely misunderstood. It does not mean that we can sin as much as we want as long as we love God. No, as is obvious from Saint Augustine’s context, it means that if we really love God, then we will what He Himself wills. As Jesus Himself said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And as the Beloved Disciple, Saint John, tells us: “He who saith that he knoweth him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But he that keepeth his word, in him in very deed the charity of God is perfected; and by this we know that we are in him” (1 John 2:4-5).

If we really love God, we can do what we will, because we will what He wills. That is love: a union of wills, the lover with the beloved.

Now, I’ve made the point — or I hope I have — that we are measured by the quality of our loves. But at this juncture, a question arises: Aren’t we supposed to love sinners? And if so, how does that impact the quality of our loves? Does it lower the bar and make us of lesser quality?

Saint Thomas Aquinas gives us clarity on this point in an article of the Summa Theologiae under the heading: “Whether we ought to love sinners out of charity?” He says this:

Two things may be considered in the sinner: his nature and his guilt. According to his nature, which he has from God, he has a capacity for happiness, on the fellowship of which charity is based, as stated above … wherefore we ought to love sinners, out of charity, in respect of their nature.

On the other hand their guilt is opposed to God, and is an obstacle to happiness. Wherefore, in respect of their guilt whereby they are opposed to God, all sinners are to be hated, even one’s father or mother or kindred, according to Luke 12:26. For it is our duty to hate, in the sinner, his being a sinner, and to love in him, his being a man capable of bliss; and this is to love him truly, out of charity, for God’s sake.

What the Angelic Doctor is saying here is that we are to love in the sinner the nature that he has in common with us, which has for its last end happiness with God in heavenly bliss. What we are to hate in the sinner is only that thing that defaces his nature — that thing which also prevents him from achieving his ultimate happiness with God. In short, we love the sinner so much that we hate in him exactly and exclusively what harms him. This is what Saint Augustine would call the “ordo amoris” — the order of love — which, he says, is virtue itself. To love the sinner in this way is to love him truly, and this in no way lessens the quality of our loves; it only enhances it.

I would like to close out my remarks with some personal words directed to our graduates. But before I do that, let me point out to the audience that what you behold here in today’s graduating class a divine pun. The name John, of Hebrew origin, means, “Yahweh has been Gracious,” or “Graced by Yahweh.” And here is John with not one, but two Graces: Grace, and Mary-Grace! Let us not forget that God so loves puns that He founded His Church on one. So this commencement was obviously planned for all eternity. God has been indeed gracious to us!

Dr. Pieper says that the fundamental thing we are saying when we tell someone we love him is this: “It is good that you exist. How wonderful that you are!” It’s a note of approval, of agreement, if you will, that God has made the beloved. (So now let me get personal — and here is where you get to cry a little.) Grace, Mary-Grace, and John — ladies and gentleman: I do love you. It is good that you exist. How wonderful that you are! I heartily and unconditionally approve of God’s project of bringing Grace, Mary-Grace, and John into this world. I’m also most grateful that God has graciously allowed me to lend a hand in the realization of his benevolent designs in creating you. And I most ardently desire what God wills in the completion of this project — or, I should say, of these three projects. If at any point I can lend an additional hand, you know where to find me.

But before I yield the microphone, let me ask you three in front of everyone… What do YOU love? WHO do you love? HOW MUCH? And IN WHAT WAY? These are the questions that you must ask yourself repeatedly. Their answers will determine your direction in life. They will be an examination of conscience. For you, my beloved graduates, like the rest of us, will be measured by the quality of your loves. So, for God’s sake, make them good ones!