Very little in our culture makes it easy to love God and our neighbor. Too soon in childhood we learn to fear God and others. Fear gets in the way of love. Too soon also we learn to want things only because others have them; thus we are taught to be competitive with others. Fear, envy, and the desire to win out over others get in the way of loving others. Moreover, God can seem too distant and mysterious to be the sustained object of our love, and our love of neighbor may be limited to close family and friends. Many of us may well find these two great commandments beyond our powers to follow.
In the opening chapters of An Invitation to Love: A Personal Retreat on the Great Commandment, William A. Barry, SJ, names some of the difficulties a person encounters when trying to follow the great commandment Jesus identified: love God with everything I have and love my neighbor as myself. Jesus knew that every other aspect of a healthy spiritual life relied on this foundation of love. Jesus also knew that people have the capacity to love only through the bountiful resources of God’s mercy, wisdom, and power.
As a highly respected author of books on Ignatian spirituality, an expert on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and a spiritual director for many decades, Fr. Barry knows very well what gets in the way of spiritual progress. He also knows that the only real way to deal with the oppositions outside us and the conflicts within us is to deepen our friendship with God and grow in love out of that ever-nourishing relationship.
The real world, for believers, is this one world in which we live, created by God to be a world in which human beings cooperate with God in making it a place where all live harmoniously with God, with one another, and with the rest of creation. The two “great commandments” are God’s teaching on how to live in this world in such a way as to be part of God’s solution for our world’s problems rather than become part of the problem. In working your way through this retreat, you can learn to assist God in the great work of bringing about the kingdom of God.
How do we learn to cooperate with God’s loving work in the world? By growing in our friendship with God. Relationship and experience do the awesome work of spiritual formation. Thus, this latest of Barry’s many books is formatted a bit differently from all those that came before. An Invitation to Love is designed to be used in retreat, whether as an individual or as part of a group, whether at home on your own or away at a retreat house for several days.
Fr. Barry provides Scripture, some explanation where needed, and numerous opportunities to stop and do prayer.
Can you picture this scene? The group around Jesus, perhaps boisterous and happy as they approach the village of Nain, suddenly grows quiet as they meet the wailing and somber funeral cortege of the son of a widowed mother. What is Jesus like as he looks on her with compassion, touches the bier, and tells her not to weep? How does Jesus look as he tells the young man to rise? How do you feel as you look at and listen to him? What do you want to say to him? Tell him your reactions, feelings, and thoughts.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been at Catholic conferences and events, promoting the ministry and books of Loyola Press, and people have asked me, “Do you have any books a person could use on retreat?” Many of our books work well for someone on retreat, but An Invitation to Love is the first stand-alone book that is short and simple and provides everything a person needs to spend intentional time in prayer, rest, and meditation. This book is designed for personal retreat, and Fr. Barry brings to it his deep wisdom, his gentle encouragement, and his ongoing passion to help people learn, experientially, that God loves them and desires relationship with them.
So often, when we go on retreat, we end up simply trying harder at everything we’ve been doing. We feel this compulsion to arrive at the answers on our own, as if growing spiritually is an assignment God has given us.
But we are designed for community, and we grow in the context of give-and-take within this complex and ever-growing Body of Christ. And so, when someone like Fr. Barry offers us a gift like this little book, perhaps this will help us stop working so hard and feeling so pressured. Perhaps if we simply meditate on the Scriptures and answer some of the questions provided, we will feel the anxiety fall away. One aspect of this book I really like: from time to time, the author suggests that you stop for a while and rest from praying! As a long-time director of retreats, he knows how we are tempted to work and fret when God would rather we rest and receive.
This may be the nicest gift of An Invitation to Love: throughout the prayer sessions, you hear Fr. Barry’s voice and sense that he is right there with you, offering God’s welcome through a smile and unhurried conversation.