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The Giving That Fulfills: Man’s Call to God Through Active Love

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By Mary Beauchamp, Benedictine College

The greatest commandment, Jesus states, is for man to love God with his entire being, and the second, for man to love his neighbor in the same way that he loves himself (Matthew 22:37, 39). Themes of love prevail throughout the Bible, yet the sincere and total ‘love’ that Jesus calls for remains an abstract term with no clear definition nor an explanation for why it is so important. However, Jesus does show His disciples how to act with this love in certain situations, and from His example, faithful Christians have discovered what it means to love and why it matters so much. This paper argues that this radical love, labeled by Fyodor Dostoevsky in his The Brothers Karamazov as ‘active love’ and hidden in the traditional teachings of the Church, is the way of life, the vocation of all men, because it brings all who live by it into conversation with God, and it is by this divine—and yet very human—conversation which man reaches his final end of union with God.  

Active love is the new way of life that comes from the epiphany that each man “is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual…every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man” (Dostoevsky 194). This may seem like a poetic exaggeration, but it holds true in the Catholic tradition that each man is somehow “personally ‘guilty’ before all, each, and everything, including all nature” (Browning 516). Each person is responsible for everyone because “every human person is given to every other,” and each person is “the guardian of holiness, guardian of man’s dignity in every woman and in every man” (Wojtyla 7, 10). Due to this entrustment, “the hearts of all those whom in some way [a man] bring[s] closer to God…are [his] in some respect,” but the hearts that a man even accidentally turns from God are also his, and their failure is, to some extent, his failure (Jaegher 102). 

As the actions of one man teach another how he should act, it is by his action that he helps or hinders others on their path to holiness. When a man acts, therefore, he must consider that others are entrusted to him, and his goal in acting should be the same as Saint Thérèse who wanted to teach mankind “to love God as she loved Him” (Combes 138). He must also consider the drastic effect one small action could have on a soul and the weight of the consequences. Dostoevsky’s narrative reveals this quite clearly:

You pass by a little child, you pass by, spiteful, with ugly words, with wrathful heart; you may not have noticed the child, but he has seen you, and your image, unseemly and ignoble, may remain in his defenceless heart. You don’t know it but you may have sown an evil seed in him and it may grow, and all because you were not careful before the child, because you did not foster in yourself a careful, actively benevolent love. (Dostoevsky 383)

One hateful action, then, can condemn another soul to an evil life and this must be avoided at all costs. However, entrustment requires something beyond simply refraining from an evil act. A man cannot just blandly pass by the child. Rather, he must strive to radiate love, because “to the degree that [his] good example does not ennoble the sinner now or later[,]…[then he] also [is] guilty” (Browning 521). However, even in man’s goodness, he provides “a woefully inadequate example,” and everywhere he goes, albeit unintentionally, he “leave[s] the traces of [his] foulness after [him]” (Browning 520, Dostoevsky 383). Still, he should not give up this trying to love, because it is his vocation. In his continuous striving for the good, active love can become his “crown of life” as he nears union with God through it (Dostoevsky 194). 

The Catholic Church, it seems, has an even greater responsibility to love actively because she is not oblivious (as most of the world is) to the value of souls. She knows her call is to love all so that all may be unified with God. As Saint Thérèse realized, “the Church had a Heart and that that Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE. …it was love alone that made the Church’s members act…LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS” (Martin 194). This love is the way of life by which the Church must live, because she “is the servant of the human race…[and] in and with Christ, [each Christian] must strive to sanctify humanity by [his] loving presence, by [his] joyful witness for the faith” so as “to contribute to the salvation of souls” (Kaam 45, Jaegher 99). Because they love Christ as His Mystical Body and see the good of each soul, all members of the Church have an intensified calling to be “acutely concerned with the fate of all,” just like Christ, and should a member fail, his guilt will be greater than that of a non-Christian (Ryan 12). 

Because this is the calling of all men, each man should know how to love actively. 

The first step is for a man to realize that he is responsible—even guilty—for all. This will make him aware of and sorry for his own sinfulness, so that he can accept the humiliation of this truth, “and act accordingly in loving and selfless service” for all others (Williams 115). In realizing his guilt, he determines a new, solemn purpose to life: his “obligat[ion] to improve things through active love” (Trepanier 201). 

Once he has realized this purpose, he must learn how to love actively. Saint Thérèse’s ‘little way’ is the cornerstone of active love as “active love is not concerned with grand gestures but small moments of giving and receiving” (Roberts 8). Therefore, the man who seeks to actively love must seek to carry out each hidden, everyday thing with great love, and in doing so, “each event becomes an encounter with reality, with all being, with the Lord Himself” (Kaam 13). Although “active love is, as Dostoevsky depicts it,…the most mundane, everyday phenomenon,” it is also “the most beautiful, divine thing in the world,” and it is in realizing this truth that a man becomes eager to love in this radical way (Roberts 8). 

A man also must “always decide to use humble love” (Dostoevsky 383). To “use humble love” is for him to be gentle with others and himself because he knows just how easy it is to fall. Furthermore, he must “love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love” (Dostoevsky 382). He loves in this way by “bearing with the faults of others, in not being surprised at their weakness, in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue [he] see[s] them practice” (Martin 220). He should also “hate [a man’s] sins and pray for him, that [he] may imitate Christ” (Isaac 387). Even more radically, if the man “can take upon [himself] the crime of the criminal [his] heart is judging, [he should] take it at once, suffer for [the other man], and let him go without reproach” (Dostoevsky 385). To love like this is to “instinctively long to see others as God sees them, in their grandeur and dignity, and to experience their defilement as insupportable and blasphemous” (Ryan 14). 

For this humble love, a man needs to be attentive to the individual reality that is before him, recognizing that God gave him this particular reality as a loving gift through which He beckons the man to be involved “so that He can sanctify the world in and through this involvement” (Kaam 28). It is most important for a man to be attentive to and love the man before him, recognizing Christ in that particular other. Just as the saints “would willingly have died to save one single soul,” so must this ordinary man “recognize the richness in each human person” and sincerely love the individual before him (Jaegher 100, Wojtyla 4). He should even love the most hateful individual, being attracted by “Jesus hidden in the depths of [his] soul; Jesus who makes sweet what is most bitter” (Martin 223). Saint Francis’ encounter with a leper provides a perfect example of this love of the particular. When he saw a leper in his path, he first turned his horse away, and then “understood what he had done,” turning back toward him (Corstanje 41). He became “aware of the glory of Christ breaking forth from this maimed body. He was conscious of Christ, who is present in all our tears as hidden joy…then Francis again became conscious of the real leper standing before him and understood what he had to do. He had to be reconciled. He kissed the man, hoping to be kissed by the leper” (Corstanje 41-2). Saint Francis’ recognition of Christ in a man abandoned by all others and his eagerness to love this particular wretched man who had been shunned, despised, and robbed of human contact due to a physical disease, made him perfectly disposed to serve the man in the particular mode that he needed—human touch. This reveals that a man must be attentive to the reality in front of him in order to recognize Christ in that reality and express his love in the way that best befits the situation. 

Of all particulars, a man should have a special love for those people and creatures who are in some way little, because they are closer to God, to Love Himself, and it is these who best teach the man to love. For example, Saint Francis considered the lepers, those who were most lowly, “his greatest benefactors,” and “the poor were always to enthrall him as the possessors of a divine mystery” (Corstanje 42). In having less, these particular men have more, and by loving them, man can learn from them. Similarly, man should “love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels; they live to soften and purify our hearts and as it were to guide us” (Dostoevsky 383). Man should even “love the animals” in this special way, recognizing that unlike men, “they are without sin,” and so man can learn from them (Dostoevsky 383). Saint Francis reveals yet again his attention to the particular little individuals in his behavior towards the animals as “he often talked to the flowers of the wayside, the birds in the trees, and insects on the ground. Whenever he did this he would become enraptured and forget the world around him” (Corstanje 70). Saint Francis recognized the innocence and goodness of these little creatures as something extraordinarily great in them, something he should strive for, and in his humility, he sought to learn from them. Being amazed at their goodness and at what they told him, how could he refrain from joyfully lifting his heart in prayer? Although most men cannot converse with animals, each man should seek even to love each of the little animals before him and to be in awe of their goodness, because Christ is with and “has been with them before us” (Dostoevsky 351). When he truly loves a particular, man recognizes how “unnaturally” that the other particular and himself as well as the whole of reality have been “separated from one another” (Dostoevsky 363). He now realizes that all particulars are part of a united reality; it is this understanding derived from actively loving that “reintegrates isolated individuals back into a community,” uncovering the natural unity between all of God’s creation that comes from them being His (Trepanier 201). 

When he recognizes that all of creation is God’s and that all creatures—no matter how small—are in some way good, a man naturally avoids “appropriat[ing] that gift” of goodness in others (Wojtyla 11). Instead of using creatures, he longs to serve them and be united with them. Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima perfectly expresses this longing that stems from love: 

Why cannot I be a servant to my servant and even let him know it, and that without any pride on my part or any mistrust on his? Why should not my servant be like my own kindred, so that I may take him into my family and rejoice in doing so?” (Dostoevsky 381) 

Like Saint Thérèse, the man who loves in this way desires “to be the [nurturer] of souls” and to “maintain [his souls, his children] by his toil, his prayers, his weariness, and above all by his love” (Vos 997). Like a mother who constantly labors and sacrifices for her children in the deepest love, so must the man love souls.

Furthermore, he must strive to love “not only occasionally, for a moment, but for ever” (Dostoevsky 383). This requires constant attention to the particular because “the moment [a man is] no longer simply and wholly with and in the situation, [he] become[s] split, tense, broken up” (Kaam 14). He cannot love without living fully in each present moment, and this is exceedingly difficult. Active love is “a form of work that is never complete” (Roberts 8). The man must never stop loving; this becomes his way of life, and it requires him to “every day and every hour, every minute, walk round [himself] and watch [himself], and see that [his] image is a seemly one” for the sake of those around him (Dostoevsky 383). Because “love is not born without a measure of self-regarding…but it must speedily be left behind,” the man must train himself to be selfless and pure in active love, and this “often involves a process of quiet inner struggle” (Williams 111, Roberts 8). Therefore, he must never forget that he loves for the sake of God, and he should pray for God’s guidance as he strives to love as Christ. 

The more a man loves actively, the more he becomes Love, nearing union with Christ. When he loves actively, he slowly comes nearer to union because he increasingly sees the world in a new way, with “a fresh sense of the world as God’s world,” and he loves this world first for God and then as one deified, as God Himself (Williams 179). Because “God gave the world to man for him to find God in it and so also to find himself,” the man only finds his personal calling to be Love when he finds God, and he finds God in actively loving His creatures (Wojtyla 2). Active love allows a man to see the good in all things. He understands that “the Word is for all. All creation and all creatures, every leaf is striving to the Word, singing glory to God, weeping to Christ” (Dostoevsky 351). He knows, then, that all things have something God-like in them because each tries to be as like God as they can be in their own particular mode. Because he recognizes this truth, for him to love them is for him to love God. Loving them causes him to lift his mind and glorify the God Who made them and pours out His love upon them. The whole world, then, becomes his conversation with God, and like Saint Francis who “in the quietness of prayer…was overpowered by the love that permeates the whole of creation,” he recognizes and rejoices in the Divine Who surrounds him in creatures (Corstanje 45). Just as “the undercurrent of everything [Saint Francis] said and did…was surprise,” the man who loves sees God’s ever newness, His mystery, in each encounter (Corstanje 60). At this point, he realizes that “the world is a perpetual revelation of God about himself to humanity; it is…a means of communion, of this constant, free, and joyful encounter with the only content of life—with the Life of life itself” (Schmemann 34). 

Once man sees God in the world in this new way and each moment becomes a purposeful encounter with Love, he “will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love,” and he enters into a God-centered union with all of reality (Dostoevsky 383). Alyosha experiences this “indescribable rapture of sharing in a cosmic wholeness and earthly paradise” in The Brothers Karamazov when he kisses the ground and is forever changed (Browning 524, Dostoevsky 436). It is only after man obeys the command to “look around [him] at the gifts of God, the clear sky, the pure air, the tender grass, the birds” that he can love creation as God does, and this makes him understand that “life is heaven”  (Dostoevsky 358). It is in understanding this truth that life “will at once be fulfilled in all its beauty, [those who understand this] shall embrace each other and weep” (Dostoevsky 358). These are the men who have learned that “the end of the life of grace is to find God in every experience and activity, to be ‘everywhere at home,’” and they are ‘everywhere at home’ because they are everywhere with God (Williams 136).  All that the Father has is theirs now, too, because they have loved and become Love, and He has shared all with them. Now, the world is to them a paradise because even here, at every moment, they are united with Him Who is their final end, their purpose; these are the ones who have discovered that they are constantly in the presence of God and they rejoice with all creation in this truth.  

Active love is, most immediately, a giving of the self to the other that comes from a man’s knowledge that the other is entrusted to him, and “it is in the gift of self that a person becomes more and more an image of the living God” (Ryan 14). In active love, the man gives of himself through his small actions of gentle mercy, his hiding the sins of others and his remembrance of his own sins, his love for each particular creature, and his careful watching of himself to set an example of love. He continues to give of himself in love until he becomes totally other. Seeing all things as God sees them, he finally becomes his long sought for Love. Unlike all other creatures who are ever straining toward God, man—poor and sinful man—can become God! Not only can he become God, but he is called to become him. The path is not easy, but the painful way makes the end all the more joyful and the thirsting traveler all the more radiant when he finally drinks eternally the draught of Love that he has long sought.  

Works Cited

Browning, Gary L. “Zosima’s ‘Secret of Renewal’ in the Brothers Karamazov.” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 33, no. 4, 1989, pp. 516–529, https://www.jstor.org/stable/308283?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. 

Combes, André. The Spirituality of St. Thérèse, trans. Philip Hallett. Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1950. 

Corstanje, Auspicius van. Francis: Bible of the Poor, trans. David Smith. Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1977.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Random House, 1950. 

Isaac. The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Canada: Friesens, 2020.

Jaegher, Paul de. The Virtue of Love. New York: P. J. Kenedy and Sons, 1955.

Kaam, Adrian van. On Being Involved. Denville, New Jersey: Dimension Books, 1970.

Martin, Thérèse. Story of a Soul, trans. John Clarke. Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996. 

Roberts, Peter. “Love, Attention and Teaching: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.” Open Review of Educational Research, vol. 5, no. 1, 21 Nov. 2017, pp. 1–15, 10.1080/23265507.2017.1404434, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eue&AN=133714264. 

Ryan, Jerry. “Masked Mysticism: Everyday Suffering, Everyday Sanctity.” Commonweal, vol. 137, no. 22, 17 Dec. 2010, pp. 12–14, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=CPLI0000511767.

Schmemann, Alexander. O Death, Where is Thy Sting?, trans. Alexis Vinogradov. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003. 

Trepanier, Lee. “The Politics and Experience of Active Love in the Brothers Karamazov.” Perspectives on Political Science, vol. 38, no. 4, 2009, pp. 197–205, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=45146479.

Vos, Adrian de. Divine Intimacy, trans. Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Boston. India: Baronius Press, 2020.

Williams, Rowan. The Wound of Knowledge. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1990. 

Wojtyla, Karol. A Meditation on Givenness. Communio: International Catholic Review, 2014. 

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