If we take what has been described as the two principal parts of our spirit, the intellect and the will, and look closely at how they operate in us, there would probably be a strong inclination to say that they essentially concern themselves with our worldly safety and material comfort. Survival instincts, on the level of all animals (plus or minus some refinements) seem to be built into the intellect and will. It would seem that this is the deepest foundation of the soul’s attachment to our humanity. Yet, I think there is often untapped and unexamined bedrock that is even deeper and more fundamental than that.
Though our complex lives in the world present us with a landscape cluttered with useless debris and minefields of self-centered fears, that’s not all there is. Beyond these, if we make the effort to navigate it, is an often nebulous soul that propels us in ways of which we are normally unaware. It urges us toward You. This urging, based on the routinely cultivated functions of the intellect and will, can make us uncomfortable and doubtful of our self-supremacy. We don’t like that. So we become very good at side-stepping, ignoring, and burying it to the extent that, over time, we can make ourselves believe it’s not there. But it is! It always is. It’s in every one of us – even those we might consider evil. This is because this deepest of all impulses is the grace with which You’ve gifted each one of us to the extent that it, despite our protests, claims us as Your own. It is a continual spark that, no matter how dim, never dies and can be fanned into flame when we find, recognize and foster it.
Despite strong evidence to the contrary, the soul’s pervasive leanings are toward the supernatural, not the natural. This inclination is a low-voltage current that can be transformed upward by the judicious use of the very channels in which it rests: the intellect and will. Love is defined and refined by knowledge and choice. They are the bellows that enlighten and enflame the spark.
There is much compact beauty and truth in the statement I read somewhere that “God became man so that man might become God.” I always get the feeling that the centuries of Your relationship with the Jews as recorded in the Old Testament was a period in time when the “patriarchal” approach to mankind served as a well-calculated set-up to Your physically coming on this earth. It was the needed warm-up act to get our attention for the feature. The way we understood and interpreted Your desire for us to be Your people may, then, not have included any comprehension of what it meant that You wanted to draw all things to Yourself – that all might be one in You. And so, historically at just the right moment You became one with our nature that we might become one with Yours. And it was in You, Jesus, that we began to see more clearly what it was all about.
We know that God became man, but do we really ponder the ways in which that knowledge has enabled us to become one with God? The expiation of Your passion and death would have been all that was needed, but it was not all that You came for. Your life was the living example of disposing ourselves to the love of God. It was the precursor to the openness to redemption as the Old Testament was the precursor to the New. It was the blueprint for man to become God. Your death was the seal of God’s guarantee that this unity was there for all who chose to accept and follow His Son. When we bring our true selves to this blueprint we become one, a little more each day, with God. If I, like Thomas, am to touch You, You must be allowed to touch me first.
God’s “grand plan” is inscrutable and simply demands acceptance. Being God, when man turned away from His will to follow his own, He could have abolished the existence of such an unfaithful creature; or, being God, He could forgive and redeem all mankind forever with a simple act of will instead of directing the death of One for the expiation of all. He also could have somehow guaranteed man a life compatible with His original plan. But the fact is, HE didn’t. And, if examined, the reason is because He’s God. He did not make a mistake in creating us. We are the ones who made the mistakes. Our being reflects our source even when we turn away from that source. Like the angels, good and bad, we were not destroyed so that the choice to love be not extinguished.
To show us how to live in our fallen state so as to return to God, You became one of us. And by the single expiating act of Your death for us, we are guaranteed some share of what was originally our destiny. GOD made and set in motion everything in the way it was supposed to be. WE messed it up! You could have originally made it so that we couldn’t mess up. You are God. But without CHOICE from the very beginning we would never have been able to generate even a part of the love in Your choice to create us. In fact, without that choice there can be no love. As much as we like to “anthropomorphize” You, we must understand that Your ways are not our ways.
The “problems” of being human, the “problems” of being social, and personal: none of these problems ever existed that could not be solved by a right understanding and exercise of love. Love is not desire, fixation, passion, or investment. Love has no memory. Before I existed and after I am gone, love is. More than anything else, love is, as Anthony DeMello points out, the ability to see the other clearly, devoid of emotion. “Problems” of any kind vanish when we are able to do this. The trouble is, we are seldom, if ever, able to do this. We are bombarded with the images of a culture that equates passion and emotion with love.
Our brains are washed regularly in the waters of the arts, the media, and advertising. Rather than solving problems, popular notions of love usually create them. When and if we can ever get to the point of abandoning desire because of affection based on an urge to possess, or a desire to explore or exploit outward attractiveness, or desire to be loved in return in at least the same degree that we “love” – when we can vaporize such desires, then we have at least begun to sweep the way clear to love; for all such desires cloud our true vision of another.
The love I am talking about wants nothing from the loved one. All it seeks is a communion of clear, true perception between two people. Each of us is a barrier to this because we usually do not have a clear, true perception of ourselves. Seeing another clearly has a great deal to do with transcending one’s own self and filling that space with the self of another. In most cases our “problems” in life have to do with a variety of perceptions of another person. Love can take us clearly into that other person in a way similar to the way we delve into ourselves and see, when we see clearly, the problems dissolve.
The life-blood of holiness is love. The varying degrees of pure, unselfish, unconditional love are correlative to the varying degrees of holiness. But it is clear that we are sadly lacking in both our desire and ability to love well. Our flawed humanity persists in poisoning our efforts.
Your life just “is.” You are love. Our love is always “because.” We are not love. The inner life, the life of the spirit, the life of holiness, is a constant war with ourselves to get beyond the “because” and its conditions. It is not bad if I love because I am loved, or because its God’s will, or because I want to please someone, or because I want to be holy, or because I want to imitate You, or because it makes me feel good about myself, etc., etc. This is not bad. In fact, it’s good. It is probably the best a human can do. But it’s not pure. It’s not perfect; for in each instance we do not love because we are love, like You, but rather because of something else.
Life in the spirit, then, becomes a constant striving to go beyond the “because.” The perfection of this is humanly impossible, but some saints have reached a very high degree of it. They have learned to love by being open to love. This is precisely the capability we have that we don’t ponder very much – to be open to love, not only in receiving it but, more importantly, in the variety of ways we live it. Our best may be an open acceptance of the ways we are touched by the love of others and the way we are moved, by these touches, to extend love.
Very often we fight or ignore these feelings. Each time we do this we slam shut an open door. The saints, with great trust, courage and humility, walked through these doors. We do not always feel sure about where love will lead us. Some of the prospects actually frighten us. But when we close or ignore the door, we will never find out. There is always the strong chance that the paths through such doors lead beyond our “becauses.” Every condition I place on my love diminishes it. Every time I interiorly hold onto the “but,” the “if,” or the “because” in a statement or demonstration of my love, it is diminished. Perhaps it is in the desire to love without condition – to love as You do – that pleases You and consoles us.
The spiritual life, the inner life, is very much a process of learning how to bridge-the-gap between loving You for our own sake and loving You for Yourself. The implicit snag in much of our Catholic upbringing has been a very real (if unintentional) emphasis on “winning” Your love and “winning” heaven. In this, the focus is on us and what we do to accomplish these goals: we love because that is what we must do to save ourselves. This philosophical base is observably the foundation from cradle to grave of many good-intentioned people. But, if one truly thinks about the nature of genuine love, there is no self in it.
It seems so natural to us to regard our own being as the center of love. But this is exactly the bridge that must be gapped to grow spiritually. Our eyes must, by whatever means, be opened to the reality that there is only one authentic reason to love You – and it is not to save ourselves. Rather, it is quite simply because You are so loveable.
In my own life I often measure my love for You with the love I have for my wife, and, in so doing, I can ever see the self looming large. My wife is very deserving of love without condition, as You are; but so often I give my love to her and to You on a conditional basis – looking for some return. “Self” and “expected return” are the nearly synonymous culprits that, by our very natures, continue to derail our attempts at pure love. Love is not centered in me but reflected. Purifying our intentions even in such things as going to Mass and receiving communion as well as prayer itself need to be reexamined and cleansed of “self” and “expected return.”
Because You are so loveable, I want to show You my love, but too seldom do I consider that the best way of doing this is to dispose myself to being loved by You. You are the magnet of all love. You are love, and our love is a reflection of that. To love is to give, not get. There is nothing that You can get from us that You need. Your sole dynamic is that of “giver.” What, concerning the nature of love, can we take from that?
I have a huge dependence upon You as a friend. I also depend upon other friends in my life but, in the final analysis, the dearest friendships I have exist because I see You in them. Thus, all my friendships are dependent upon Your friendship. What draws me closest to people is seeing You in them, just as seeing You in me is what draws the Father to me. This is the hallmark of the Christian example: that others are drawn closer to someone because they see You in that person. This summarizes the importance of Your friendship to me.
Yet, I have serious concerns about whether the Father sees You in me and, hence, if others see You in me. If people saw You in me, I would have more close friends – but I don’t. The fault is in me. I call You my best friend but I fail to reflect Your friendship to others. There is something terrifying about hypocrisy in a friendship. What has my friendship to offer You? There is nothing I can really offer You other than the desire to be constantly close to You. One way to do that is to serve others, who, I must realize, are also Your friends. So, it might be said that even though You don’t depend on my friendship as I do upon Yours, the desire to show You my friendship is strong in me and may best be expressed by an ever-increasing desire to draw closer to You and to show my friendship in service to Your other friends.
In a prayer from Thomas Merton he talks about the importance of the desire to please You in all things. This is what friends do. If I consider You my best friend, I need to magnify and enhance constantly all the ways open to me to please You.
There are some components of life that one might describe as “energizing.” Happiness, expectation, and accomplishment are energizing; so is compassion, belief, and intelligence. But above all, without question, love is the most energizing. We explore and pursue myriad ways of both expressing and receiving love. This is as true of our spiritual life as it is of our worldly life. We are energized by the love we receive from You and by the love with which we search for You.
The gift of contemplation is another energizing component of life. It can be the fuel of a love that propels us toward You. In my own life I have a tendency to equate contemplation with centering prayer where the objective is to rest, still and silent, in Your presence. But, surely, it is a gift - something that is infused through the channel of a disposition toward prayer that is itself a gift. It does not come through the senses but is “a general loving knowledge” according to St. John of the Cross. It comes from deep within us; a place where You are and we long to be. Neither intellect, nor will, nor imagination is its source, yet it energizes each of them. The gift of contemplation grows in a setting that provides ever more enhanced consciousness of Your presence in us and in all things around us. It continually enhances our consciousness of “the search” as well. It is indeed energizing and it is in this sense that the grace of contemplation is nearly synonymous with the grace of spiritual growth itself.
Contemplation is different from the single focus of centering prayer. It is more than centering prayer. It is not a “sit-down-in-a-chair” or a “go-into-a-church-and-be-contemplative” thing. It is a way of life doled out piecemeal. It is like the pieces of a puzzle, fitting together one at a time as life moves on. It is not monasticism, even though monasticism often appears to be its most open channel. It removes the masks, facades and hypocrisies of our lives and pierces our “armor” with pinholes through which micro-rays of light peep, and this is, indeed, a most energizing gift.
I retain a memory of a beautifully poetic description by Anthony DeMello of pure unconditional love wherein he describes a tree, a lamp, and a rose. How helplessly and indiscriminately a tree gives its shade to everyone, good or bad, young or old, high or low, to every creature, even to one who would cut it down; or a lamp which gives illumination to anyone who would seek to walk by its light; or a rose that withholds its fragrance from no one. All three give and ask nothing in return. All three so enjoy giving that they are blissfully unaware of themselves.
In connection with this, I got to thinking about the notions of love found in two gospel parables: the prodigal son, and the good shepherd. The father, in the story of the prodigal son, is a person who could have easily turned darkly despondent over his poor parental judgment in turning over to his prodigal son his inheritance. He could have hated himself and become drenched in anxiety, worry, and self-pity. Or, he could have simply loved – nothing more! Like the tree, the lamp or the rose, understanding was unnecessary for the father, just selfless, unconditional love. The son cared not for the lamp’s light. Darkness was fine. He did not stop to smell the roses. Such an aroma was masked by the smell of money. Yet the lamp and the rose still offered these gifts whether he regarded them or not. In the same way, the father’s love was always there, whether the son regarded it or not. When, in the end, he did regard it, it was not withdrawn or modified for the sake of discipline or punishment. It was, if anything, magnified with joy.
In the story of the good shepherd, one might puzzle over the risk involved in abandoning a good flock, an obedient, docile and loyal flock to go, headlong, without direction after one whom, more likely than not, had made a habit of straying. Just as in the story of the prodigal son, hesitation is not even a consideration. In the heart of the shepherd the stray is loved, and in that love needs to be gathered up. There is a notable difference though between the prodigal son and the sheep, but not a difference between the father and the shepherd. The love of both was like that of the tree, the lamp or the rose despite the fact that the prodigal son returned willfully out of dire need and the lost sheep had to be pursued. The love emanating from each was blissfully unaware of itself.
These are paradigms of Your love for us as well as paradigms of what our love for You and others should be.
Not only, as I’ve mentioned before, is it You who find us rather than we who find You, but the way by which You find us is unique to each individual. While I think I work pretty hard at cultivating a personal relationship with You, it is, despite my efforts, You who seek even more passionately to meet me where I’m at, to accommodate our relationship to my individuality. This is purely love.
In reflecting upon this, there surfaces a great lesson of the charity of accommodation. It is at the core of every relationship between individuals, but it takes concentrated effort and is quite difficult for us. We each want desperately to be loved, to be sought and found on our own terms. If this truly is what each of us wants, then we are all in conflict. In a relationship between two individuals, what is most important for each one is not receiving love, not being sought or found, but rather in giving love, in seeking and finding the other on their terms. This is what You do for us and would have us do for each other. The difficult but well-worth-cultivating skill here is to be able to set aside our own terms for a relationship and study the terms of another’s individuality that dictate his/her needs. To jettison entirely the terms of our own needs and wants in order to latch onto and even assimilate those of another is counter to our very nature but the very epitome of love.
You know well that in my relationship with You and with others, I am too selfish to have much success. But with You, I rely on Your love, Your mercy and forgiveness. Your non-failure here is the constant nutrient of my hope; and, because of this, it is not hard to love You. With You it is allowed that it is not impossible to be in love with You without loving You well, or without loving You better than I do. You make the adjustments to my impoverished individuality. With others it’s not so simple.
Too often we are adamant about accommodating our individuality and too often we are up against that overwhelming desire that everyone else should think and believe as we do. Our sense of justice becomes very myopic and we frequently perceive ourselves as victims of misunderstanding. In our narrow imaginations it is easy to conceive of You being in this position because of the way we often treat You, but Your love far outdistances our selfishness and takes all our individual failings into account meeting us where we are at. This is the model for our love for each other.