November 2022

BOOK REVIEW: A love letter from God

In The Law of Love: Modern Language for Ancient Wisdom Richard Leonard SJ makes a positive contribution in addressing the tension between Christian liberty and obedience. Reviewed by Tracey Edstein.

While there are many excellent writers in the fields of theology and spirituality, not all of them Jesuit, there is much to be said for more Australian voices in the field.

Accomplished author Richard Leonard’s latest book, The Law of Love: Modern Language for Ancient Wisdom, has so much to recommend it. It is immensely readable, but not at all ‘lightweight’. The writer is generous in sharing elements of his own and his family’s story in ways that ground the premise of the book. And it has a flavour that will appeal particularly to Australian readers – but don’t be put off if you’re not Australian!     

The book’s subtitle, Modern Language for Ancient Wisdom, captures well Leonard’s aim. He offers for contemplation a variety of familiar pieces of scripture such as the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer – and it could be tempting to skip over the passages because you know how they end. The skilled homilist then breaks open the words in terms that are thought provoking, accessible and engaging.

For example, Leonard explores thoroughly a reimagining of the Ten Commandments, demonstrating that they are as relevant today as ever. “You shall not commit adultery” is reinterpreted as “Mean what you say.” Leonard shares the heart-breaking story of Aunt Mercia. If you have been sceptical about annulments, this will make you think again. The story has a happy ending: “We all understood that we were celebrating forty-three years of their saying what they meant and meaning what they said. We were standing on holy ground.”

In considering the fourth commandment, ‘Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy’, Leonard has a salutary swipe at the contemporary cult of busyness. “Have you noticed how many people answer the question “How are you?” by saying, “I’m tired, exhausted, finished, or spent.” And that’s the day they come back from holidays!”

Leonard’s tone is cautionary: “As Christians we must be careful about this busyness competition. Being active in our lives … is a gift, but if we are honest about our busyness, we must admit some of it is … about denial, avoidance, or trying to keep up with the peer group.” After all, Christ came to bring peace.   

In addressing the Beatitudes, Leonard’s breaking open of ‘Blessed are the meek’ is particularly enlightening, and challenging. With reference to Xenophon’s The Art of Horsemanship, the writer explains that our understanding of ‘meek’ as dangerously close to ‘namby pamby’ is far from the truth.

“In Jesus’ time, a meek person was one who could have been as bold and extroverted as nature dictated but was open to grace building on that nature in and through their formation in Christ. The meek can be forceful and determined but obedient to God’s law of love. The meek inherit the kingdom of God not because they are pushovers but because they have the humility to submit to a greater cause, a higher power, and to discipline.”

There is much in this book that is encouraging, and isn’t that what we need at a time when living the Christian life is increasingly challenged? In considering heaven, he says, “I am confident that Our Father in heaven will not deny a homecoming to those of us who faithfully, lovingly, and hopefully live our lives as best we can. The Scriptures give us confidence to know that God is not concerned with small matters.”  

Hopefully, these ‘tasters’ give you a sense of Leonard’s scholarly and yet always user-friendly approach. Throughout he invokes stories, just as Jesus did, to embody his thesis. There are helpful insights into the Jesuit way and plenty of wry humour.

As Advent approaches, it’s good to be reminded that “Jesus is God’s ‘love letter’ to the world, sent gift-wrapped, express, and priority … It’s our privilege then to respond by grace to God’s self-disclosure not primarily by following words about Christ, but by being Christ, embodying ever more the nature of God, which is to love.”

In fact, why not consider this book for your Christmas gift list?

Richard Leonard SJ, The Law of Love: Modern Language for Ancient Wisdom, New York Paulist Press (2021)



Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a freelance writer and editor based in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.