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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The Devil Isn’t Fair

One of the qualities St Benedict seems to have admired is fairness. The abbot is instructed to act fairly, not to make distinctions among the brethren; the monks themselves are not to allow previous rank in society or purely human considerations to affect how they behave towards one another. Then we come to the Mass readings for the first Sunday of Lent and realise, if we didn’t before, that the devil isn’t fair. If we’re fasting, he’ll tempt us with food, or at least whisper that it doesn’t really matter: God will provide what we need (which is true, but not in the way the devil suggests). If we’re giving alms, he’ll tempt us with the thought that if we give too much, we may not have enough for ourself — and look at all the things we could have if we didn’t give (all the kingdoms of this world, in fact). Finally, if we are trying to pray, the devil will tempt us with contemplation of how wonderful we ourselves are and the empty promises he makes to us, so that we end up worshiping self and the devil rather than God. Sound familiar? Then pity Eve, who did not have the experience of Jesus in the desert to guide her but faced the allurements of Satan alone and uncertain.

Most people, confronted with the narrative of Jesus’ temptations in the desert, tend to think they are so obviously wrong that no-one, least of all the Son of God, could fall for them. I am not so sure. The problem with temptation is that something in us finds it appealing. Take that first temptation. Jesus is in the desert, hungry, thirsty, worn out. He is no less a man because he is also God. There is no sin in him, but part of his humanity responds to the idea of bread or there could be no temptation. It is the same with us. It is precisely when we seem to be at our weakest that temptations crowd upon us. The devil knows how to play us. It may not be something as obvious as food that attracts us. It could be celebrity or fame or power over others. That is why the old monastic teachers lay great stress on knowing ourselves. They didn’t mean by that endless contemplation of ourselves, which can lead to narcissism, but something much more akin to what we call nowadays the process of discernment, discernment of thoughts. Seeing through our own justification for various acts, the ways in which we cloak our motivation, can be painful but is very necessary if we are to become truly free of the devil’s snares.

Fortunately for us, the devil does not have it all his own way. As St Paul reassures us in the Letter to the Romans, grace abounds. We have only to stretch out our hands to receive it. That is a heartening thought for the first Sunday of Lent. But I think there is something more heartening still. Jesus meets temptation with the Word of God. That is why familiarity with the scriptures is so important. Reading and praying the scriptures (lectio divina) is something we can all do, whatever our circumstances, and is particularly helpful in the matter of temptation. If we do nothing else this Lent, let us deepen our knowledge and love of scripture. It is our surest defence against the devil’s wiles, our passport to life.

Mass readings
Genesis 2. 7-9, 3.1-7; Romans 5. 12-19; Matthew 4. 1-11

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