The day after Easter, I was rereading Benedict XVI’s new and brilliant encyclical, Spe Salvi. I have three different copies of this remarkable document, one printed from the Vatican on-line system, one from L’Osservatore Romano, English, and a bound version published by Pauline Books and Media. I was reading this latter publication when, as often happens, I ran across a sentence that did not strike me the earlier times I had read this encyclical.

This is the sentence: “Heaven is always more than we could merit, just as being loved is never something `merited,’ but always a gift”.

What struck me here was the analogy between heaven-merit and love-merit. Behind this issue stands the whole controversy in the Reformation about whether we could by ourselves “merit” salvation by our works. The orthodox doctrine, of course, is that we cannot “merit” salvation as such. If we could, we would already be gods in no need of it.

But if heaven is “more” than we could merit, it does not follow that it may not be offered to us; but it will not be offered firstly as a result of merit. This is the ultimate surprise of what it is to be a human being, that both heaven and love are offered to us as a gift, probably because they are the same thing. Nor does it mean that we cannot “merit” anything as a result of our own deeds. It is just that we must first be graced before we even think of doing something that may be meritorious of our final end. Indeed, such a gift incites us to do what is meritorious to others. With it, we can and will do things that we would not otherwise either think of or carry out.

The other side of the analogy has to do with love, which is the basis of redemption as we know it in the first place. We must be careful to catch the nuances here. If we are “loved,” – do not love, but are loved – it is “always a gift,” not just in heaven. Being loved is not a response to our good looks, such as they be, to our brains, brawn, income, clout or virtues. These may be the occasions for our being noticed by someone. Such qualities are not what it is ultimately that which is loved. That is to say, if someone really loves us, it is not principally because of something we do to make us worthy, even if we should strive to be worthy. Love essentially makes us worthy by first penetrating to the core of what we are.

It is said that if we are not first loved, something we have first received, we will never be able to love someone else. The familial and personal status of every human being is bound up with this principle. That is, if we think that the object of love is our worthiness caused by something we do, we will never really be loved for what we are. This is why both heaven and love have to be free, and for the same reason. They are both gifts first.

The concept of a “gift” is one of the most profound ideas of our existence. It goes against practically everything in our culture that constructs the world on the basis of “rights,” on what is first “due” to us from someone else. If we spend our lives defining and demanding our “rights,” chances are we will never be much loved, even though there may still be those who love us none the less. We will think that we can demand love. We can accuse those of fault who do not choose to love us. I cannot think of a sadder assumption than this.

A gift is not essentially the “what is given,” the flowers, the box of candy. First, it is rather a human effort to concretize, make incarnate, something that is spiritual and invisible, yet real and bodily. If we like our gifts because they are expensive, we probably do not know what the love of the giver is, nor what heaven is for that matter.

This view, however, does not mean that expensive gifts are essentially alienations. Quite the contrary, gifts also have that quality of being sacrificial. The sentimental story of the little boy who works all summer to give his mother a $20 gift, instead of buying something for himself, is also symbolic of the nature of a real gift. There is no reason that a very wealthy man may not give expensive gifts because he in fact loves someone. But everyone who loves can and indeed should at times give gifts. This is itself a sign that, among us, love is already incarnate, already has taken flesh.

“Heaven is always more than we could merit, just as being loved is never something `merited,’ but always a gift.”

The foundations of the world are not based in justice. There is something more than justice, without denying that justice has its place. There can be, and usually are, those who love us in spite of the fact that we do our best to be unlovable. But once we know that we are loved, it is not a virtue not to do all we can for those we ourselves love. The first-being-loved is itself a powerful force for knowledge and action.

Love is always a “gift,” and as such it is unmerited. The whole of the physical and human cosmos is based on this truth. We ourselves exist first as gifts. The first metaphysical question that we need to ask ourselves is whether we are the sole origin of what is gift-worthy in us. If we think we are, we will never understand the universe that is.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a professor of government. He can be reached at AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT . appears every other Friday, with Fr. Maher and Fr. Schall alternating as writers.

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