Saint Anthony, once exclaimed, “Now I no longer fear God, I love him, for love casts out fear.” “Love” according to Bishop Nikolai of blessed memory, “…is joy, strength, peace and fortitude, and it anoints the human heart with these qualities. The love of God, like a fragrant oil, is shed up on our hearts in no other way than by the Holy Spirit.” If we desire to transition from the fear of God to the love of God as did the great ascetic father and this blessed bishop of the Church, we must contemplate as did Saint John of Kronstadt: “How can we love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and all our strength, and all our thoughts?” He concludes:
With all our heart means undividedly, not sharing our love between God and the world, or between God and creatures. If, for instance, you pray, pray with an undivided heart, not allowing yourself to be distracted; by wholly in God, in his love, with all your should—that is, do not love him with only part of your soul; not only with your mind, without your heart and will sharing in your love with all your strength, not with half your strength, or slightly. When you have to fulfill any commandment, fulfill it with zeal, unto sweat and blood, unto laying down your life for it, if necessary, and not slothfully, indolently and unwillingly.
With such a pure and complete love – heart, mind and soul - for God, it’s only natural that the heart will grow and encompass more and more in a love. On the other hand, the more we lapse into sin, the heart shrinks to such an extent that we are unable to truly love another. Father Paisios of blessed memory explains: “The purer the heart becomes, the larger it becomes; consequently it is able to find room for more and more loved ones; the more sinful it is, the more it contracts; consequently it is able to find room for fewer and fewer loved ones – it is limited by a false love: self-love. “
This is illustrated in a story of a certain brother of the desert who asked an old man saying, “Tell me, Father, wherefore is it that the monks travail in discipline and yet receive not such grace as the ancient Fathers had?” And the old man said to him, “Their was love so great that each man set his neighbor on high: but now love has grown cold and the whole world is set in malice, and each does pull down his neighbor to the lower room, and for this reason we come short of grace.”
Advancing us from the desert to the parish, Saint John of Kronstadt suggests that love for one another has even been removed from worship. “We stand before the altar of love, before the very presence of Love Incarnate himself; and we have no love for each other! Is it not strange? And worse, we do not even worry about it, do not care about it. But love will not come of itself—we must strive for with earnest efforts.”
What do we do if our love is weakened? When asked this question by a brother, Abba Dorotheos answered: “the fact that you are weak in the love for your brothers is because you accept thoughts that come to you from suspicions and because you trust in your own heart. It is also because you do not want to put up with anything that is against your free will. Therefore, firstly you must not trust your suspicious at all, with the help of God and you must try with all your strength, to humble yourself in front of your brothers and cut out your own will. If one of them abuses or afflicts you, pray fervently for him, as the Father said, as your benefactor and the leader of your voluptuousness. As you do this, your anger is lessened since, evidently, according to the holy Fathers, the bridle of anger is love. Before all else, ask God to grant you vigilance and wisdom so as to know His will, what is good, pleases Him and is perfect. Also pray to Him for power to be ready to do every good.
Thankfully, Elder Thaddeus of Vitvnica reminds us:
The Lord is always waiting for us to unite ourselves with Him in love, but instead we drift further and further away from Him. We know that there can be no life without love. This means that there is no life without God, for God is Love. But His love is not according to the understanding of this world. The love that the world gives us consists of suffering and enslavement because the spirit of evil interferes with it. There is a little bit of love, but mostly it is just enslavement. The spirits of evil try to enslave us so that we become tied to certain people or things, in order to prevent our hearts from going out to God, the Source of life and love. For they know that if our hearts unite with Him, then they cannot come close to us. The man who is given Grace and who is united with God’s love is also protected by this Divine love, and the evil spirits cannot come close to him.
This is then the task before each and every Christian; we are to labor to attain Grace through love so as to be united with Christ and one another. Thankfully, as Father Paisios of blessed memory explains, we are strengthen in this undertaking by the Church: “The way of the Church is love…The Church sees everything with forbearance and seeks to help each person, no matter what he may have done, no matter how sinful he may be.”
In accordance with St. John of Krondstat, as members of the Body of Christ we should:
Love every man as yourself—that is, do not wish him anything that you do not wish for yourself; think, feel, for him, just as you would think and feel for your own self; do not wish to see in him anything that you do not wish to see in yourself; do not let your memory cherish any evil done to you by others, just as you would wish that the evil done by yourself should be forgotten by others; do not deliberately imagine in yourself or in other anything wicked or impure; believe other to be as well-disposed as yourself, unless you see clearly that they are ill-disposed; do unto them as you would to yourself, and not otherwise, and you will find in your heart great peace and blessedness. He that dwells in love dwells in God and God in him.
He that dwells in love dwells in God and God in him. Imagining the experience of God indwelling in His Creation, Bishop Nikolai writes: “Once Christ enters by faith into the heart of man, that man experiences the inexpressible taste of the love of Christ. He creates us from love, takes flesh from love, endures shame and death from love, and from love opens the heavens and reveals the deathless glory that has been prepared for us.”
For St. Seraphim of Sarov, if Christ enters into the heart to such an extent, man in a sense, ceases to exist. “He who has perfect love exists in this life as if he did not exist. For he considers himself a stranger to the visible, patiently awaiting the invisible. He has been completely changed into love of God and has forgotten every other love.” Moreover, “He who truly loves God considers himself a pilgrim and a stranger on this earth; for in his yearning toward God with a soul and mind, he contemplates him alone.” Amen.