Man and woman are made in the image of God, and yet one constant temptation is to see in others not an image crafted by God but an idol crafted by ourselves. What do I mean by this? It is dangerously easy to harbor misapprehensions and faulty judgments concerning other people we interact with—or, at times more perilously, other people we don’t interact with. In either case, whether through an awkward half-awareness or through a notional familiarity which leaves unquestioned unflattering impressions, we can go on for tremendous lengths of time without taking or having the opportunity to correct our misunderstandings of another person. When this happens, we have made a sort of idol of our fellow—we have developed a habitual mode of conceiving of this person that does not respect his or her true identity and authentic image.
The Dominican historian and spiritual writer Vladimír Koudelka captures this phenomenon in a series of letters written to a young Dominican nun named Sister Růžena:
People have a bad habit of trying to form others after the image they hold of them (you may not create any image of God nor of others). Thus copies are created. Weak characters accept it, carry masks and play games—even their whole lives long. Strong characters fìght against it—then they are said to be disobedient. We must respect the individuality of the other, even in monasteries—we should accompany them but not put them into straitjackets. (7 August 1994)
In contrast to this temptation to create and enforce our own images or expectations of others, Fr. Vladimír emphasizes the healing possibilities of the image of God that we bear in our souls:
I believe in the communion of saints, I believe in the community of saints. This communion is a prolongation of the communion among the three divine persons; God is love and is One. In love there is unity. We humans make everything so complicated; we make our life complicated, too. Love should simplify it. After all, we carry the image of God, of his love, in us; we are capable of the Infinite. (1 November 1994)
For Fr. Vladimír, a recognition of the Infinite possibility offered by the image of God that we bear leads to a recognition of the image of God in others:
If we are the children of God, and are created in God’s image, our neighbours also are the same. But all we can see of them is the exterior—we are repelled by it. However, every person has a human history and a history of salvation. The human history often causes deep wounds in the person. The person is suffering, and that shows up in behaviour. Mercy and compassion can heal these wounds. It depends also on us. … God normally acts through people. The condition of love of neighbour is the love of ourselves. To love oneself as the image of God. (10 October 1995)
Although love of self can easily become disordered and self-centered, Fr. Vladimír insists that love of self is properly ordered when it flows from the recognition of God’s love for oneself. An ordered love of self flowing from a recognition of God’s love impels us to allow the love of God which has been poured into our hearts to overflow into love of our brothers and sisters:
Our yielding to God whom we cannot see shows in our yielding to our neighbour who is near to us. Love of God will change our viewpoint. God is also their father and they are our brothers and sisters. I can love myself because God loves me, because I mean something to him. But God also loves our neighbours. When I do not love my neighbour, I do not love myself but only an illusion I make of myself. (20 October 2002)
Instead, the love of God allows us to love others not only insofar as they are good, but even despite their weaknesses:
I may like some good quality about others. I must love them despite their bad qualities. I love the image of God in the person. Because in our communities we only like the others, there is so much human coldness and suffering and loneliness in them. As I know from my own experience, others will not become better if we throw abstract pious words at their heads but if they feel we accept them as they are and show them our real love. That is what Jesus Christ did, although it scandalized the Pharisees. (10 November 1995)
The fundamental difference between human love and divine love is that while human love can only respond to what is already good, true, and beautiful, the love of God creates, restores, and sustains the Good, the True and the Beautiful in persons that are flawed, fallible, and flailing. Our love responds, whereas God’s love initiates. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit who has been given to us, however, we can be lifted up from merely human love to a sharing in God’s mode of loving, however limited and provisional our experience of this mode of loving might seem in this present life.
God’s love has shown itself most of all in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son so that we might have eternal life. Christ loved me, and gave himself for me—and he loved us, and gave his life as a ransom for many.
Let us love, because he loved us first.
Image: Google Street View, 1728 Lanier Pl NW (April 2014)
Note: Fr. Vladimír Josef Koudelka (1919-2003) was a Czech Dominican friar and a historian who spent most of his Dominican life in Rome and Switzerland. The letters quoted in this essay come from the volume Dear Little Sister… : Letters from Father Vladimír to Sister Růžena (Kostelní Vydří: Karmelitánské nakladatelství, 2005), a selection of letters which has now appeared in Czech, English, French, and German. In the Spring 2013 issue of the Dominicana journal, a translation appeared of Fr. Vladimír’s meditations on the nine ways of prayer of St. Dominic.