“What do you love?” Years ago I read these words in Augustine’s Enchiridion, his “handbook” or catechism, which over the centuries has been the most widely published of all his work.
Responding in a letter to a question from a man named Laurentius, a Roman citizen who wondered about the fraying of the social fabric of his city and world—what many years later was described as “the decline and fall of the Roman Empire” –Augustine wrote that knowing what someone believed was not enough.
Anyone can say, “This matters most to me!” and yet if we looked carefully at the person’s life we would wonder whether the person is pretending to be someone that he or she really isn’t. With psychological and theological nuance he argued that it is only when we ask, “What do you love?” that we begin to really know someone, as it is in our loves that we are most fully and completely known.
I thought of this the other day when Meg and I were reading “A Jonquil for Mary Penn,” a short story by Wendell Berry. We have read it other times, but did so again, wanting to hear the sweet, painful story it is of married love. An honest account of deep hopes and daily heartaches, the stuff of married love for everyone everywhere, their life is formed by commitments to each other, to their farm, to their neighbors, and to God.
At one point, Berry writes of Mary’s husband, “At his best, Elton was a man in love—with her, but not just with her. He was a man in love too with the world, with their place in the world, with that scanty farm, with his own life, with farming. At those times she lived in his love as in a spacious house.”
Of course it made me think of many things, most of all about my own loves, about Meg’s loves, and about the longing to live within each other’s loves, longing to be “home” which is deep in all of us. Augustine was right. “What do you love?” is the most important question that we ask of ourselves, and of each other. The way we answer is the surest window into what matters most to us– and learning to love what matters most, matters most.