Peace, one and all…
‘And Jesus answered him, ‘The first of all commandments is, hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and with all thy understanding, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second commandment is like, namely this, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these’ (Mark 12:29-31)
This is a truly beautiful passage from the Gospel of Mark. In it Jesus (alaihi al-salam) responds to a learned Rabbi’s earnest question: ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ Our beloved master’s response, that love is the greatest commandment, is beautiful and profound.
I came across this passage once again, recently, and was struck not only by its beauty, but by its deeply evocative description of love as arising in life-giving oneness. Of course, Islam understands God’s nature differently than Christianity, but the oneness I refer to is not primarily theological in that sense. Rather, as I read this passage, I am struck by how it calls us to see the Divine as being behind, and yet mysteriously within, all things. I was also struck by the way in which it bids humankind to respond with everything to God’s call.
However, before proceeding any further, it is worth pointing out that I do not intend to explain these verses, as though ‘I’ know what they ‘really’ mean. This is for two reasons. Firstly, although, as a human being, humanity’s collective spiritual heritage is mine to draw on, I do not intend to interpret this Christian scripture to anyone, much less the worldwide Christian tradition. Secondly, what do I know anyway? No, my purpose here is simply to respond, to explore the profound beauty of these wonderful verses. Anything right or true, comes from God. Only the mistakes are mine.
Our verse begins with the Shema, the quintessential expression of Jewish monotheism: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Love arises first in the Divine, a Unity unto Itself. The world comes into being, and is sustained moment by moment by that love. To ‘love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and with all thy understanding, and with all thy strength’ is thus to come into harmony with that overflowing Divine love. It is also to use our every faculty in pursuit of that aim. Our hearts, our souls/personalities, understandings and strengths, must all be dedicated towards the One, the Source of All.
It is, therefore, surely noteworthy that Jesus (as) begins with the heart, long perceived as the intellectual and spiritual centre of the human being. Sufi tradition understands the heart as a kind of meeting-place, in which the physical and subtle energy centres of a human being meet. The heart is also the primary entry-point of spirit, the divinely gifted source of life. Our capacity to love thus arises in the heart, and is itself a gift from God. In other words, our ability to love is given to us by the Divine; we are given everything we need to respond fully to that call.
If the heart is the centre, the ‘soul’ is the place in which our everyday notions of ourselves arise. Sufi tradition understands, broadly, that the ‘soul’ (or nafs in Arabic) is born from a kind of union between spirit (ruh) and our bodies. By soul, I am also referring to our psychological constitutions, our personalities, and our egos. This verse shows me that I can and indeed must love God in the very depths of my soul. Moreover, we are here told that our egos are capable of loving God, of becoming an active participant in our transformations. I find this profound, because it echoes the deepest registers of Sufi thought, and also because it offers a healing truth: our individualities, our workaday selves are valuable and part of a deep and noble purpose.
‘And with all thy understanding’. That Jesus (as) should mention understanding after both the heart and the soul is interesting. It is interesting because it suggests that in truth the intellect is the servant of the heart and soul. It is also interesting because it suggests that mere intellection has its own limits, when not grounded in the heart’s spiritual reality. Moreover, it contradicts the idea that spiritual growth is somehow against learning and knowledge per se. Perhaps the real point being alluded to here is that intellect must also serve. It must not master us.
‘And with all thy strength’. Not only do we possess strength, we also possess weakness – which is to say that our strength has its limitations. If, however, we can open ourselves to Divine love, we can partake of the heart’s strength, which arises in the infinite love of God. That is, if we serve in love’s cause, ‘our’ strength is enfolded by His strength. An Arabic phrase expresses this beautifully: la hawla wa la quwwata illa billah (‘there is no power or might except in God’).
‘And the second commandment is like, namely this, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these’. By these words, Jesus (as) again draws on the deep roots of Judaism, being a re-iteration of Leviticus 19:18. Once we come into harmony with love, our path takes us beyond ourselves, out into the world. The perfection of love lies in service to others – with the understanding that service to God’s creatures is service to God Himself. To love our neighbour as ourselves means many things – ethical treatment, justice, respect, and beyond all of these a deep love for those around us, that runs beyond mere superficiality, beyond sentimentality. Moreover, from the perspective of oneness, it is God’s love that brings these relationships into existence. We are faced with the Divine regardless of the direction we look. The Quran expresses this most beautifully:
‘And to God belongs the east and the west. So wherever you turn, there is the Face of God. Indeed, God is All-Encompassing, All-Knowing’ (2:115)
May the Divine Beloved open our hearts, our souls, our minds, our bodies, and every relationship we partake of, to His overflowing grace, mercy and love.
May all that you do this day be blessed.
Wa akhiru da`wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.