SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD
‘The Law of Love: Modern Language for Ancient Wisdom’, by Fr Richard Leonard SJ
By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia
The Year 12 student was fired up with an all-encompassing zeal. He had just completed a retreat during which he had finally understood the deep and abiding power of the words “I love you”. So he sat down, pulled out unblemished sheets of paper and wrote a letter to both his older siblings, because his brother lived interstate and his sister was working with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in India.
“I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told you before,” he wrote. “I love you.”
Having completed the letters, next on his to-do list was to tell his mother the same thing. His heart was thumping. His stomach was churning. He’d never actually said those words to his mother before.
He remembers the moment clearly. “My heart was going boom, boom, boom. My stomach was going churn, churn, churn.”
Eventually, having conquered his nerves, he strode out to the living room where his mother was watching television. He announced he had something very important to tell her.
“So she took the remote and turned off the telly. When I told her the words I’d never said before – ‘I love you, Mum’ – she thought it was just the warm-up act and that I’d go on to tell her one of two possible scenarios: either that I’d got some girl pregnant, or that I was gay. But when she realised I had nothing more to say, she calmly said ‘Good, I hope so,’ picked up the remote and promptly turned her attention back to the telly.
“Later on, when my siblings wrote to her and said, ‘We’ve had these odd letters from our young brother’, she didn’t miss a beat. She responded, ‘Well, bully for you. I got the live version’.”
That Year 12 student is now a Jesuit. Meet Fr Richard Leonard SJ, author of 12 published books. I was at St Peter’s Church in Toorak on the night of 12 July, where a crowd of about 180 people packed the pews and listened to him speak. Well, perhaps speak is an understatement. He quipped. He gesticulated. He did accents. And he sang. Yes, really, he sang. Just about the only thing he didn’t do was tap dance.
He even reworked the Book of Genesis. Well, not literally – what he actually did was introduce an enthralled audience to the genesis of the book. Back in early 2020, when he was in the United States, his publisher gave him a deadline for the book and he airily put his signature to the agreement. At the time, he ignored the soft but persistent voice in his head that said, “But Richard, where on earth are you going to find the time to write this book?”
As it turned out, a couple of weeks later he realised he had more than enough time on his hands as the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill. Not only was book No. 12 delivered to his publisher on time, but it will soon be followed by book No. 13.
“Some people baulk at the words law and love being used in the same sentence, but they co-exist in the title of this book,” he said. “Jesus not only overturned centuries of religious beliefs and images of God by giving us the law of love as the most important, demanding and challenging teaching: ‘Love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself; on this hangs all the law and prophets.’
“Christianity broke away from seeing the law of love as blindly following a book of rules, to obeying Christ who guides all choices, determinations, decisions and, even, sometimes duties in our lives. It’s not meant to be burdensome and one way, but a reciprocal gift-giving because we do not follow laws as such, we follow Christ. I want to stay with the book of rules or laws.
“The problem with the word ‘love’ in English is that we have only one word for such a variety of meanings, expressions and applications. But there were seven words for love in the ancient world. The New Testament uses four of them: eros: romantic love; storge: family or protective love; philia: love between friends; and agape sacrificial love.
“Jesus tells us to agape God, neighbour and self. It’s the highest form of love there is. But we can’t take much credit for it because we believe our ability to love God, self and neighbour does not come from our initiative, but our response to God because ‘our desire to love you is itself your gift’.”
Sometimes, expressions of love are not always what we expect. Fr Richard told us of his student days, when he sang at weddings to earn pocket money and how he was sometimes aghast at the nature of the chosen lyrics. The Tina Turner hit ‘What’s Love Got to do With It’, with its undertones of her troubled marriage to Ike Turner, was one front-runner at the altar. Another strong favourite was the memorable track ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’, from the 1971 Broadway hit ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. In particular, he wondered how each groom would react to the bride’s choice of lyrics: “He’s a man, he’s just a man. And I’ve had so many men before.”
But the pièce de resistance was the time he was asked to sing ‘Yesterday’, the 1965 chartbuster by The Beatles, with the line “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.” He couldn’t help himself: “I burst out laughing. Thank gosh, so did the congregation. Yes, it was the groom’s favourite song, but it was absolutely the wrong place and wrong time!”
Talking about the wider message of the book and its relevance to our everyday lives, he said: “To love our neighbor is not about the feel-good factor; it’s a life-changing encounter, where, sent by the God, who has first loved us, we follow his lead in acting mercifully and justly to everyone, bar none. In doing this we are doing no more than following the pattern of being shown God-made-human in Jesus. We are invited to love the relative we won’t speak to, the former spouse against whom we poison our children, the neighbour we delight in annoying, and the work colleague we bad-mouth because they got the promotion we were after. It’s still a tough call. And yes, it means that we don’t succumb to road rage when we’re behind the wheel just because someone has cut us off.
“We just don’t know what problems anyone is carrying and so what we can do is treat them with kindness. Suicides are the single biggest killer of people under 30 in Australia. No one told me that when I first started out. I was ordained 30 years ago and I cannot tell you how many funerals I’ve done for young people who’ve taken their own lives. That’s really the impetus to show kindness, even when it’s difficult, because that’s really how people feel appreciated and loved.
“Finally, The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Language is a reworking, a revision and a reclaiming in modern language – filled with stories, applications and examples of how the Ten Commandments, Transfiguration, Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the Love of God, neighbour and self and 1 Corinthians 13 enable and inspire us to be the best free samples, or loving giveaways, of God’s body language that we can possibly be in and for the world.
“The best outcome from this book would be that by its end we agree to tell people that we actually love them, and that we live out the love we profess. We would change the world.”