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Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year

Deciding to love

Adam sounds just like a teenager when God introduces him to Eve:

This is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh.
'We were made for each other! We're a perfect match.'

It's the experience of falling head over heels in love, no thought of difficulties to come, of the many compromises that have to be made if a relationship is to survive.

And then Mark's gospel brings things down to earth with its talk of divorce. It touches on the pain of falling out of love, on the sense of betrayal and deception -- often self-deception as much as being deceived by one's partner -- that sometimes follows in the years when that initial excitement dies away and the love that was promised is no longer alive.

But what is that love and how can it be kept alive? In his book, The Art of Loving the psychologist Erich Fromm says something quite illuminating.

To love somebody is not just a strong feeling -- it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision?

This is not suggesting that feelings are unimportant, especially when it comes to marriage, but feelings on their own are not enough to carry people through. Feelings fluctuate, sometimes from one day to the next or even from one minute to the next. They are affected by our health, by the weather, by the sort of pressure we are under and so on. If love is to stay alive, we need something more stable than that.

And so Fromm talks about love being a judgment. We make a judgment that our wholeness and well-being and the wholeness and well-being of others are best served by the commitment that we make to each other.

It is a decision: we decide to make that commitment, to give ourselves to a way of life that may well curtail us in some respects but is nevertheless in keeping with our judgment of what is best for all. And it is a promise: what we offer is not just for now but is to endure through all the changes that will come in the future.

That is why Jesus is able to say,

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. (Jn 13:34)

No one can tell you how you should feel and the very fact that Jesus uses the word 'command' suggests that he too is thinking of decisions and actions and not about feelings. And what is true of all his disciples is particularly true between partners in a marriage.

The judgment and decision that is made on entering into marriage, or any other path of life for that matter, is not something that is made once and never needs to be revisited. But making and remaking that judgment is what marks people out as Jesus' disciples.

That sounds all right in theory but how do you do it in practice? It isn't easy and there are no foolproof solutions but here are two suggestions.

The first is to try and act in a loving way. A teacher I had many years ago said that when he was teaching an unruly class he pretended to be angry in order to control the pupils. After a very short time of acting as if he were angry, he found himself actually feeling angry. The same principle can work in reverse: if we 'pretend' to love, if we act in a loving way, love rather than anger can grow.

And the second suggestion is prayer. If Jesus commands love, then when we find that loving seems to be beyond us, we have a right to demand that he supports us in our efforts to love. And taking time to pray can also give us a little space away from thinking about everything that is stressing us and offer a chance to offload our frustrations onto God instead of taking them out on each other.

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