Our highest ideal & our greatest gift
I recently read a fascinating story about a great violinist named Nicolo Paganini. Paganini left his exquisite violin to the city of Genoa, the place of his birth, but on one condition—that the instrument never be played again. As it turned out, this was very unfortunate because it is a characteristic of wood that as long as it is used and handled, it shows little decline in quality. However, as soon as it is set aside or put into storage, it begins to decay. So the fabulous, mellow-toned violin gradually became worm-eaten in its gorgeous case, no longer any good except as a relic.
The author of the story points out that this is true of our gifts and talents: they are meant to be used, not treasures to be stored up. Just as Paganini’s stored violin rotted, the same thing can happen when a life is withdrawn from love and service to others—it loses its meaning.
An inspiring story of love is to be found in the German city of Weinsberg. Overlooking the city is a mighty fortress, and when one visits the city, the people are proud to tell a famous legend associated with that fortress. In the 15th century, enemy troops laid siege to the fortress and sealed all the townspeople inside. The enemy commander sent word up to the fortress announcing that he would allow the women and children to leave and go free before he launched a devastating attack on the fortress.
After some negotiations, the enemy commander also agreed, on his word of honor, to let each woman to take with her the most valuable, personal treasure she possessed, provided she could carry it out herself (it was an age of honor and chivalry).
You can imagine the enemy commander’s surprise when the women began marching out of the fortress, each one carrying her husband on her back. Now that’s love being put into practice!
Some people might be surprised that, when Jesus is asked what he believed was the greatest commandment, he did not quote one of the famous Ten Commandments. But what he is doing is pointing to something even more basic, something that underlies the Ten Commandments: love of God above all, and love of neighbor as oneself. The first three of those commandments are more concrete and specific ways of loving God, of not allowing love for God to die: we are to have no other gods; we are not to abuse or misuse the name of God; and we are to honor the Lord’s Day and make it a special time of rest and worship. The other seven commandments spell out in a more specific way the means by which we keep our love of neighbor real and concrete, making a shared and meaningful life in society possible: no killing; no adultery; no stealing; no bearing false witness; no lusting after persons and things that do not belong to you.
In all these ways, we put love into practice, exercising our ability to love and keeping love real—more than a mere sentiment. By focusing on love above all else, the bottom line of what Jesus is saying is that the one thing we are not allowed to do is to hate.
Now, you might argue that all this talk about love sounds nice—in the abstract. But we live in a complex, confusing and imperfect world. Isn’t this commandment to love naïve and, at least in some cases, impractical if not impossible?
Well, let me share one more story. Perhaps you’re familiar with Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest, who was arrested and made a prisoner in the Auschwitz death-camp during the Second World War. I’ll jump right to the heart of the story. In July of 1941, it was reported to the deputy camp commander that a prisoner from St. Maximilian’s barracks had escaped. In order to set an example, and to prevent further escapes, the standard procedure was to have the commander of the barracks single out ten men for the starvation bunker. Father Maximilian, although not among the ten first selected, volunteered, in a heroic act of charity, to be the victim in place of a prisoner who cried out: “My poor wife; my poor children!” The result of this self-offering was that Father Maximilian would be assigned to the infamous starvation bunker where he would slowly but surely die. At that precise moment, it can be said that Kolbe attained full conformity to Jesus, the Victim of the Cross; for there is “no greater love than this, that a man lays down his life for his friend” (Jn 15:12).
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t think I would have that kind of courage. But I certainly have seen love being shown in difficult circumstances. I’ve seen love in the heroic example of mothers who won’t let harm come to their children. I’ve seen love in the tender way a person takes care of a seriously ill or dying spouse. I’ve seen love in those who step in and try to defuse a potentially deadly situation. And I’ve seen love in countless acts of compassion and kindness. All these acts of love, heroic or otherwise, help to keep me trying—trying to love in times of fear and cynicism, abuse and violence, division and outright hate. Such acts of love keep Jesus’ vision of the world alive—a world founded upon, and anchored in, the very love of God. We have been created in love and for love. Love is our heritage and our destiny. It may not be easy, but it is our highest ideal, our greatest gift, and our most important commandment.