"Whoever comes close to [Christ] . . . must be prepared to be burned. Christianity is great because love is great. It burns, yet this is not the destructive fire but one that makes things bright and pure and free and grand. Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire.”
My reading of the book a few years ago had such a great impact on me that the above-quoted passage flowed back into my mind as I pondered yesterday's theme of "the power of vulnerability." I wanted to discuss God's truly burnin' love yesterday, which was the feast of the first martyr for the Faith, St. Stephen, but decided on a shorter post connecting the basic theme with Christmas. But now I have it: if we accept God's vulnerability to us, we must also accept our vulnerability to him. Whoever comes close to Christ must prepare to be burned, because being his disciple means surrendering to and emulating, in our often-pathetic little ways, the One who saved us by letting himself be totally vulnerable to us and suffering accordingly.
But why, as the Pope says in the book, must we "think of love as suffering”? Is that idea what Nietzsche thought: the perverted, resentful rationalization of the weak who can do no better?
Actually, it's an ineluctable law of spiritual nature. Only people who are unusually fortunate in a temporal sense, and therefore in more-than-average spiritual peril, can fail to see it. Whether we reject or accept God's love, it burns. For one thing, says the Pope in the book, “punishment is the situation in which man finds himself if he has alienated himself from his own essential being." Our essential being is to be united to God, eternally, in that love which is his being. Accordingly, the phrase the wrath of God "is a way of saying that I have been living in a way that is contrary to the love that is God. Anyone who begins to live and grow away from God, who lives away from what is good, is turning his life toward wrath.” So God's love burns when it is rejected. Whether the fire of his wrath purifies or not is up to the individual—while, that is, one is still on earth and thus still has a chance to change.
But more importantly, God's love burns even when it is sincerely accepted and taken seriously as such. Why? "Because God loves us, he wants us to grow into truth, he must necessarily make demands on us and also correct us." As the late M. Scott Peck said to those who had forgotten: "life is difficult." Suffering, if only as diminishment, is inevitable: through it, we can grow into people who know how to love, or we can let it embitter us, enclosing us in ourselves and turning God's love into wrath. God asks of us no more than he asked of himself: he did not spare his own Son from that horrible suffering which was made inevitable by his love's compulsion to be with us intimately in every aspect of our existence. As the divine example of the Cross shows, we must die, spiritually as well as physically, in order to live with God's own life; when we imitate him thus, we have his eternal life, which is bliss.
In the meantime, however, the fire of his love burns. So I now think of purgatory not as a special intermediate place that Rome only thought of several centuries after Christ, but as the needed completion of our spiritual growth after we are saved but before we can be glorified. It may seem weird to speak of purgatory during the Christmas season; but the thought of my own sloth and incomplete spiritual growth made me think of it anyhow. Given the reality of sin, the Cross is latent in the Incarnation, and the pain of our purification is correspondingly latent in our rebirth through baptism. I pray that I, and those whom God sends into my life, will keep that in mind and be kindled accordingly.