Loving God with all our Mind

Mark and Matthew agree that we can, and should, love the Lord our God with all our mind (cf Mark 12.30 and Matthew 22.37), but I wonder how many of us fail to register that or settle for the easier (because apparently more demonstrable) loving God with all our heart, adding ‘with all our soul’ or ‘all our strength’ by way of affirmation. In the West, the heart has become the pre-eminent symbol of love and devotion but its popularisation has also led to, not a cheapening exactly, but certainly a lightness in use that can be disconcerting. We ‘like’ a tweet and a little heart appears alongside; we love, love, love chocolate when all we really mean is that it is a favourite treat; and then we have no words or symbols left when we want to express something deeper, more demanding. We have wasted our efforts on what a friend once called amour confiture — syrupy sentimentality.

That is not to deny the reality of anyone’s professions of love and devotion to God. But do we give sufficient thought to what it means to love God with all our mind? At the end of the day, I examine my conscience by thinking where my desire has been: what have I wanted, what have I dismissed as unimportant, what have I said or thought that shows where my desire has truly been. My words often trip me up, but when I think of the never-ending bilge that passes through my mind, not necessarily sinful thoughts but a near-constant inner monologue about everything under the sun, I realise how hard it is to ‘take every thought captive’ for Christ (cf II Corinthians 10.5). The old monks regarded control of thoughts an essential monastic discipline, but even after a lifetime in the monastery, I know I am as far from it as ever. I pray that I may learn some day, and perhaps you do, too, because I believe it has an important role in loving God with our whole mind — not just part of it, nor even the major part, but all of it.

To love with our mind means more than intellectual appreciation of what is good or the restraint of negative impulses in some sort of approximation of ancient virtue, while to love with all our mind takes us into the realm of transformation by grace. It means, surely, allowing the light of the Holy Spirit to illumine what is dark in us (or for us) and responding to God’s love without hesitation or reservation. There is no room for ‘I’ll love God if he answers my prayers as I want him to’ or ‘I’ll be like St Augustine and start my conversion tomorrow’ (!) There isn’t even any possibility of holding back ‘I’ll forgive everyone except X.’ The fundamental problem of loving God with all our mind is that we have to love as God loves with his mind — completely, mercifully, charitably. Far from being restrictive, doing so is both liberating and creative.

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Clenched Fists and Wicked Words

Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash

Lockdown and Lent

A number of people have got quite stroppy with me recently, saying that they are not giving anything up for Lent, they have suffered enough during lockdown, thank you very much, their aim will be just to get through each day. I cannot quibble with part of that. Some people have suffered hugely; but I would query the idea that Lent requires some form of self-imposed suffering. That would make God a monster, delighting in the pain of his children; and I have not the slightest hesitation in saying God is not like that. Lent is about becoming closer to the Lord, becoming more free, more joyful. Christian tradition has always valued prayer, fasting and almsgiving as means to that end, but they are not ends in themselves, nor should they be interpreted narrowly. An illustration may make this clearer.

Clenched Fists and Wicked Words

Today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 58.9–14, with its references to clenched fists, wicked words and sharing with others, is an excellent way of examining our conscience. What is more useless than a clenched fist, which can neither give nor receive? What is more pointless than a wicked word, which injures both speaker and hearer? Even if we have nothing material to share with others, we can rein in the others and share as much by not doing as by doing. There are days when my illness makes me think I’m incapable of anything more than just existing, can’t be ‘nice’ to others or contribute in any meaningful sense to the common good. That’s when the real work of conversion begins, when we realise that what we value may be reinforcing an idea we have of ourselves that is actually hindering us on our way to God, making it all about us again, not him.

A Different Approach

So, don’t worry about giving up wine or chocolate or saying an extra decade of the rosary or whatever you decided to do for Lent. Take control of your thoughts first. Cultivate kindness and generosity of mind: it will lead to action. Watch your speech: restrain that angry word, pause before you tap out your opinion on social media, make friends with those who think differently from you. Be honest with yourself and trust God for the rest. To be fair, I haven’t seen this working in myself yet, but I have seen it in others, so there is hope for us all.

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