Jesus said: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)
Anyone who has worked to love another, knows how much energy this requires. It is easy for us to say that we love someone, but life shows us how much love can demand from us. Spouses realize over a lifetime of marriage that love requires a great deal from them – demands things they never imagined would be required if you truly desire to love someone. Parents bring their children into the world, and desire to love them, but again learn that love demands much of us in ways we cannot even imagine. Just on a daily level, even when things are going well in our family, we realize that loving, forgiving, apologizing, overlooking faults, dealing with personalities drains a lot of energy, and yet this is what love requires.
Wrestling with love occurs in our lives as Christians as well. Desiring to be a Christian while living in the world tests the limits of our love. This was also the experience of monks who left everything to follow Christ. It is easy to imagine that going to a monastery – where one naively believes “everyone is committed to Christ and Christ’s love just like I am” – will be the perfect world to work out one’s salvation. But in the monastery too, love puts its demands on us – to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ.
The elders were keenly aware, from their own personal experience, of the high cost of fulfilling the commandment to love. Their reading of Scripture served to confirm this sense and to encourage them to risk loving even under extreme circumstances. It is startling, as we listen to the monks talk about the requirements of love, how literally they took the words of Scripture. Poemen’s interpretation of one Gospel text illustrates well the particular kind of demands love made upon the monks in their life in the desert, and how their reading of Scripture helped them to respond to these demands.
Abba Poemen saw the text, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13) as referring to just such a situation: “If someone hears an evil saying, that is, one which harms him, and in his turn, he wants to repeat it, he must fight in order not to say it. Or if someone is taken advantage of and he bears it, without retaliating at all, there he is giving his life for his neighbour.” Fulfilling the commandment, then, entailed having the courage to love in circumstances where one’s natural response would lead one in precisely the opposite direction. (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 264-265)