Jesus said: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Our having love for others is the behavior by which all people should readily be able to identify any of us as a Christian. While loving others might be practiced by anyone on earth, Christians are supposed to be recognizable through this love. Loving others is not an option for us.
It is within Christian community – family, parish, monastery, prayer group or wherever 2 or 3 gather in the name of Jesus – that we have opportunity to practice this love. St. John Cassian who is often credited with having brought the ideals of monastic community to the Christian West, wrote a great deal about what it takes for Christians to survive in community and for the communities to thrive.
“Therefore God, the Creator of all things, knowing better than anyone else how to right his handiwork and that the roots and causes of our offenses lie not in others but in ourselves, commanded that the company of the brothers should not be forsaken and that those persons should not be avoided who have been hurt by us or by whom we think that we have been offended. Instead, he orders that they be won over, for he knows that perfection of heart is attained not by separation from human beings but by the virtue of patience. When this is firmly possessed it can keep us at peace even with those who hate peace.” (John Cassian, The Institutes, pg 212)
We learn to love and we practice our Christian love by dealing with other people. We cannot learn patience with others by living alone or avoiding others. It would be self-deception to go and live a solitary life and then imagine you have learned patience with others. We learn patience, love, compassion, empathy, sympathy, charity as Christians by dealing with all kinds of people, including those we have offended, those who we don’t particularly like, and those who have offended us. Our love will not grow by avoiding those we have offended or who have offended us, though it might grow cold!
St. Basil the Great once questioned solitary monks, “Whose feet will you wash?” He was of course referring to the foot washing Gospel lesson in John 13:1-17 in which Jesus tells us to imitate his humility, his servant leadership, his love for others. If there is no one around us whose feet we are to wash, then we cannot imitate Jesus.
Dealing with others requires patience, and patience is not a passive ideal, but rather an active form of love.