How the study of theology helped me discover the source of authentic love
As a counselor at a local pregnancy center, the Women’s Care Center, every day I meet women at the margins of society who are facing an unplanned pregnancy amidst broken and abusive relationships. Many of these women return year after year, again in a similar situation. These women are thirsting for love, and often seek it in fleeting relationships, pleasurable experiences, or flattering words. In some cases, their hearts are hardened as they resign themselves to the idea that love does not exist and is just an unrealistic fairy-tale notion. They are victims of a world that so often muddles authentic love and are caught in the crossfires of indifference.
Then they hear the soft drumming sound of a heartbeat on an ultrasound or feel the kick of the child in their womb, and sometimes a glimmer of hope shines through: The mother surrenders her will for the good of the child. The pressures to reject this life are replaced by a love that is self-giving and self-sacrificing. Grace and love penetrate the indifference and despair; the Cross claims its victory over death.
Our lovely university is named after a very holy woman, the most perfect of all women, who said “yes” to life and to love amidst circumstances that parallel those of many of the women I encounter at the Women’s Care Center. She was young and unmarried; yet, filled with faith and humility that stemmed from her knowledge of God and His love, a knowledge she inherited from the traditions of her Jewish faith, she birthed Life and Love. This love was an active and free response to a God she carefully meditated on and studied daily in the Scriptures.
As a student at Our Lady’s University, it was through my study of theology that I was most challenged to profoundly reflect on the nature of love. Through an immersion in the great theological texts and thoughts of the Christian tradition, the Revelation of the Father and His Son incarnate led me to a greater understanding of the true nature and source of authentic love, the sin that inherently causes me to repel this sacrificial love, and the grace that rectifies the rupture between the Divine and me. My education is by no means over, and my theological study taught me that growing in love requires a constant life of study, prayer, doctrinal understanding, participation in the sacraments, and, ultimately, comes at a cost and requires the Cross.
Knowledge alone does not suffice to bring about perfection in love, but it at least allowed me to deepen my realization that the true end and meaning of my life is rooted in Him who is the source of all life and love. Slowly, knowledge about God through my studies about Him resulted in an increased desire to know Him through prayer and bring His love to others through acts of service and charity, constantly struggling to overcome my inclinations to seek my own comfort and needs.
During my years at Notre Dame, it seemed natural and fitting with her Catholic identity that she would pride herself on a unique commitment to service. As efforts are made to minimize the university’s theology requirements, though, I wonder how Notre Dame can authentically continue to encourage students to give themselves fully in love and service to others, while neglecting to teach them about He who is the source of that love.
In any pursuit of service, including in my own non-profit work, there is a temptation for the work to become sterile, to replace persons with abstract ideologies that measure success in terms of mere quantitative rubrics, resulting in solutions that only serve to further cultivate indifference and separate people from authentic love. A life of service divorced from a proper understanding of authentic love, as firmly rooted in Christ and the sacrificial gift of self as a proper response to a person, erases the inherent dignity of a person as an unrepeatable individual. It is this erroneous schism between service and the authentic love of Christ that sometimes leads me to focus solely on statistics and “success stories,” rather than responding with love to the dignity of the unique woman who is sitting before me at that very moment. Also, absent from a deep theological foundation, the university’s push for service creates students who view justice and charity merely on a global scale, while disregarding these principles in areas of their own personal and private life. The pursuit of the knowledge of God seeks to transform the person who contemplates Him, thereby slowly transforming the world in an authentic way.
Notre Dame stands in a unique position to re-teach the world about the true meaning of authentic love, a love oriented towards the good of man, and to remind the world, by first reminding her students, that love is not the fleeting, sentimental notion promulgated by the secularized culture, but a decisive gift of self. This cannot be achieved without a robust theological education—where knowing God, who is the source of love, is the primary object of study, and students, drawing from the fruits and wisdom of Catholic tradition, are properly educated in love.
It was Our Lady’s knowledge of God, rooted in her own Jewish faith, and the revelation of His grace, which resulted in her fiat. If Notre Dame wants to stand as an exemplar of service and counter a world that bases a person’s worth and right to live on utilitarian measures, it should seek first to foster a deeper study and reflection of God. Amidst ignorance of the reality of a love rooted in Christ, the most vulnerable ultimately suffer and are crushed by indifference and confusion—including, as my own work is a testament to, poor women and children.
The opposite of this oppressive indifference is Christian love. Love is both rooted in and leads to the Cross, inherently requiring sacrifice and death to self. This discovery is both illuminating and challenging. At its best, my theological pursuits at Notre Dame transcended the realm of academia and challenged my classmates and I to respond to Christ on the Cross, to seek to know Him in our personal spiritual life, and discover the proper response and cost of this love, which strived for no less than imitating Him and seeking Him in even the most ordinary occurrences of our daily life.
The measure and perfection of our love, fundamentally, is an outpouring of our loving response to the knowledge of God’s love. How can one respond to what they do not know? When a woman is allowed to experience a personal encounter with her baby through an ultrasound, she is more capable of responding with love to her own child, regardless of her feelings and intentions for the pregnancy. In the same way, unless we know about God and His nature, and thereby are seeking Him personally, we are rendered less capable of responding to Him and His grace acting through us.
In her spiritual autobiography, Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux remarks, “My vocation is love,” referring to a life lived in response to a merciful Father who loved her before she even knew Him. Just as this is a part of every person’s unique vocation, this is fundamentally at the heart of Notre Dame’s institutional vocation: to orient its students to seek the love of the Cross.
My prayer is that Notre Dame may continue to deepen its efforts to challenge its students to discover their “vocation of love,” by educating the mind and the heart and forming them, through the study of theology, to emulate Christ in all areas of their life and model the Lady watching over and praying for her sons and daughters on the golden dome by bringing Him to a world that so desperately needs the transformation of His love.
Angela Bermudez is a 2014 graduate of Notre Dame. If you have suggestions on places to visit in South Bend or recipe suggestions, email Angela at email@example.com.