During my roaming college campus ministry years, I did my share of retreats with college students. There was one prayer experience that still sticks in my memory, all these years later. The place was Our Lady of the Lake Parish, on the outskirts of Camdenton, near the Lake of the Ozarks. It was a Friday night, after their last talk of the night on forgiveness. Now it was time for the penance service. Each retreatant and team leader was given a lit candle. The church was awash in a gentle glow. There was one simple instruction given as a segue: “We are going to read a passage from scriptures. When you hear a line that you have not lived up to, blow out your candle.” “This should be interesting,” I thought.
“Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts.” A few candles were blown out. Wow! That was faster than I thought. People taking themselves out because they aren’t striving eagerly.
• Love is patient. Poooof, there went 12 candles.
• Love is kind. Another 8.
• Love is not jealous. About 20 went out at that point.
• It is not pompous. 1 candle.
• It does not rejoice over wrong doings. 7 more were down.
I don’t think we even got to the “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” and the chapel was dark, including my candle, pretty early on in the process.
Sometimes we think we have it all down, that we are doing it so well, that we are scoring high on the love meter. We feel good about where we are in our walk with Christ. The community at Corinth seemed to have felt that way. They were so gifted in so many ways. Intellectually, they were an educated community. Financially, they were pretty well off, a sign in those days of God’s favor. The Holy Spirit seemed to be lavishly released in their midst through the various charismas and gifts. Yet, St. Paul knew, they had so far to go. SO far to go. They were PROUD of their smarts, they used their wealth to their own advantage, and they boasted of the gifts that the Spirit had so freely given them at the expense of the gifts that he had freely given others. They had far to go on the journey to where love would lead them.
Into that disjointed experience of community, Paul wrote an extended meditation on what it meant to be the body of Christ, the culmination of which is this reflection on love. Though the context in which we usually hear this reading is that of a wedding day, for Paul, it really was a kind of examination of conscience. It is almost as if he is picturing members of the Corinthian community and writing this in the hopes they’ll see themselves as in a mirror. Love is patient, Gladys! Love is not jealous, John! It is not self seeking, Sue and Silas! Set your hearts on the higher gifts, St. Paul urges: Faith, Hope and Love and the greatest is love. Set your hearts to do what love does – and be willing to go where love goes,
I believe that is partly why the people of Nazareth went so quickly from admiration to wanting to ride Jesus out on a rail. Jesus told them in no uncertain terms what the love of the messiah would look like – not the local boy doing great things for the lowly town of Nazareth, but him being sent to the lowly, the outcast, the sinners – because he kept moving where love led him. That love would look like dinners with tax collectors, being in the company of prostitutes, hanging out with workmen, common people – even to God forsaken places like Calvary. And it was too much for them… Yet, he walked right through their midst. Love does that. Only love has that kind of power in a life – only love allows you to walk through all the false temptations that would keep your heart small and into all the places that need the light of God’s presence.
That is what we are called to do and be – to let our love meter run high. This week, engage in that most memorable penance service activity of my roaming college campus ministry career. Read this passage from Paul. Slowly. And when you get to the word, the phrase where it is not true for you, STOP. And pray. Pray until you can at least want to want what is written there. It may take some time, but when you can want to desire patience, kindness, letting go of jealousy, then move on. Let love lead you where YOU need to go…