My husband Jerry and I recently spent a long weekend in the knobs of Western Pennsylvania, mostly cycling on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail. This trail runs 150 miles between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Maryland, and we hauled bikes to various points along the trail each day. Autumn is my favorite time of year, and the leaves were approaching their peak colors, bright orange and red against the stunning sky.
We were on one of the busiest parts of the trail on a Saturday, and saw hundreds of people, nearly all of them in pairs or groups, out for day trips as we were. There were families with small children, clusters of friends, youth groups, retirees. Some people carried picnic baskets or fishing poles (this section of the trail runs along the Youghiogheny River). Very few were trying to get somewhere fast. All of us were enjoying the perfect weather and companionship.
On other days we cycled different, less traveled sections of the path, and I noticed the people less and the scenery more. Long stretches of nothing but trail, trees, river and sky. We talked some, but much of our speech was about the beauty of the place. Climbing down to rocks, we ate lunch with our feet inches above the noisy rapids.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [from Matthew 22]
Jesus gave a time-honored answer to a question that was designed to be a test. The two greatest commandments are: love God and love neighbor as you love yourself.
Did you ever wonder why those are the greatest commandments of our faith? There might be a hundred right answers to the question of why, but here I propose a single one: because loving God and loving others makes us more human.
I come home from all our outdoorsy vacations renewed in a way that other vacations don’t quite do for me. This was no exception. I watched people smiling, enjoying each other, sharing time and experiences, carrying small children on the backs of their bicycles, eating under a tree. The happiness shared spilled over as they passed others on the trail, calling out to strangers about what a beautiful day it was. Joy was simply in the air. Jerry and I, too, shared great conversation about family, work, life in general, not so much out on the trail, but later, over supper or just while relaxing.
Encountering the “neighbor” in those we care about, and even in strangers, connects us to our common humanity, our shared community. These others remind us that we have a responsibility to care for each other and that we don’t walk the earth alone.
In addition, it is difficult to see the majesty of water, sky, tree and rock without also, mostly unconsciously, seeing the creator behind them. We’re renewed by the filling of our senses with color, the scent of musty leaves, the roar of water over boulders, the wind on our skin, the taste of autumn. Even if not verbalized, the presence of God permeates our awareness, seeps into our pores, fills our souls.
It is when we lay claim to such experience, when we acknowledge our connection to each other and to God, that we somehow develop our own humanity. Loving and knowing God, seeing God, allowing the beauty of creation to move us, molds who we are. Knowing and loving others, getting close to their joys and hurts, shapes us. We are continually changed, constantly formed, by our relationships with the other, and with the divine.
Love God. Love neighbor. And love the self you are becoming because of them.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2011