I write often about love, but there is always something more to ponder about it. If I believe that love is an unconditional giving of oneself, how might I account for the varying degrees and measures of love I dole out to different people?
In Anthony DeMello’s metaphorical comparison to Your love of the flower’s aroma, the lamp’s light, and the tree’s shade, we see that each is offered to all indiscriminately and equally. I have a wife, children, relatives, and friends and this list pretty much summarizes the hierarchy of the degrees and measures of my love. Whatever is left over from that goes to others.
My imaginitive consideration that You love the Father, or Your Mother, or the saints morethan us seems to support the idea of degrees and measures of love. Yet, such a notion is most probably an artificial construct of our own desire to define love. If You, indeed, are love, then what we are able to see of You in others affects our ability to humanly describe it. It is folly for a mere mortal to even begin to attempt to define the love of God even in inviting metaphors like the flower, the lamp, and the tree. But we are on firmer ground when we try to describe it in terms of the human experience.
The idea that we humans love in varying degrees and measures is an expression of our response to that which we perceive as loveable in another. The degrees and measures of this perceived lovability generate varying degrees and measures of love in us. Your love in us is the constant. What varies is how we accept it and live it in ourselves and how we perceive it in others. My lack of love is always based on some blind-spot to You. Where I see You clearly I love most. Where my perception of You is fuzzy or dim, I love less. When I cannot see You, I do not love.
Being what I am then, it seems inevitable that, at the very least, I place the “condition” of lovability on my love. What is loveable in the other is the condition by which I dole the degree and measure of my love. It is an imperfect reflection of Your love which is contained by no such perceptions, measure, or degrees – it just is!
Love is the music of the dance. Love is the currency spent on a life well-lived. I think there is so much to learn about love that a lifetime may not be enough.
Two qualities of love seem most prominent: love takes the initiative and love builds up the loved one. When love takes on the meaning of something we think we deserve or something we think we do not, we’re taking a “receiving” stance. Such a stance is basically all about “self.” It is the attitude of our “me-first” world. ‘Here I am – love me, or don’t!’
To take the initiative in love means to forget entirely about receiving and focus purely on giving. Shedding the “self” in such a bold and complete way as explained by Bernadette Roberts in her book The Experience of No Self is pretty much beyond me. But what I do find is this: with an intense and purposeful focus on things which manifest my love for others, the “self” melts away. Many times we do things for the other to express our love because the other has done something loving for us. We respond to their love with our love. This is good. But how much better it is to take the initiative, act first, and do it without any expectations of response or fear of negative feedback – just concern, compassion and love for the other without condition or solicitation.
Then there is the matter of building up the other. This thought precludes taking the initiative for we do not wait to respond to another when we want to build them up. What it means is paying self-effacing attention to the smaller building blocks of love. To support, encourage, cheer on, congratulate, celebrate, and sympathize with the other. This is building up love. Such building up pushes the lover to the wings while placing the loved-one center stage. I cannot help but think of St. Theresa’s “little way” in regards to this. She may not have thought about it this way (and that’s all the more to her credit) but what she did was build up the other and then take the initiative in the seemingly most insignificant and mundane matters of the cloister’s daily routine. If I could but do that I too could lose my “self” in love.
Cardinal Newman once said that to be perfect we have nothing more to do than to perform the normal duties of the day well. What does that mean? It seems to say that to grow spiritually all I have to do is what I usually do but to do it well. What becomes the ordinary is, at some beginning point, something I desired.
You asked the two disciples, the blind man, Bartimaeus and the lame man at the pool, what it was they desired. You granted what they wanted and, over time, sight and the ability to walk became ordinary. Thus You are very much concerned with what is ordinary in our lives. And, if You are concerned with it, we should be too. Hence this concern for the ordinary should translate into doing something about it, which is what Newman is saying. Spectacular displays of kindness, generosity, and compassion are not necessarily what it’s about. The saint of brilliant simplicity, Theresa of Lisieux, grasped this. Sorting out the really small things of our daily lives, the mechanical, unconscious actions, the mindless voluntary and involuntary motions can be most enlightening and enriching when considered consciously in Your presence.
Doing the ordinary well means attributing consequence to what we normally ignore as inconsequential. Love gives consequence to actions. Love for others and for You is the perfection of all activity. When love is found in doing laundry, cleaning the toilet, painting the house, shopping, or driving the kids to school and all similar “mindless” tasks we begin to grasp St. Theresa’s “little way” and Cardinal Newman’s path to perfection.
There are those who might say the best thing they’ve ever done in their lives is write a book that was published; or that they founded a successful and widely recognized business; or that they parented a wonderful family; or attained public recognition and fame through performance; or that they were named a pastor, bishop or cardinal of the church; or that they won a state or national lottery; or that they own a world record or championship ring in some sport; or that they came up with a unique and world-changing invention; or that they were a successful part of a benevolent and envied government. These and many more are all great things.
In my own life I might say the best thing I have done is marry my wife; or serve in the Peace Corps; or teach English to thousands of middle school students; or study for the priesthood; or perform in various jazz bands. But all of these things in the lives of others and in my own life are not the best things one can do in one’s life. In fact, they are all pretty meaningless except as vehicles for the truly best thing anyone can do in his/her life - love!
To love is absolutely the best thing any human being can do in life. All human accomplishment and glory pales in significance to the act of love. If I, or others answer the question: What is the best thing you have ever done in your life? -with anything else but love, then we’ve missed the point of life itself. Each day gives us another chance, in whatever we’re doing, in whatever state of existence, in whatever life-style – to love! Miss it and we miss the best thing we can do. We miss the meaning of life. Each new day is another series of chances to love, and we so often miss them, ignore them, or flat-out reject them. Love is selfless and we are too much concerned with ourselves. That is the problem. That is what we must struggle with in order to love.
The things that become habitual in our daily lives grow devoid of thought or reflection. Yet, every once in awhile something encased in habit will jump out at us giving us pause. How often we mindlessly mimic the lector’s psalm responses between readings at Mass! But recently one caught and grabbed me: “God fills us with laughter and music.”From somewhere in our culture comes a certain uneasiness in associating You with laughter and music; and when I reflect on it, I’m not sure why. Maybe this psalm response is meant to remind us that they both come from God and are good.
When we speak about the blessings of God in our lives we generally refer to our family, friends, health, successes and other more evident ways in which You touch us. But there is a seeming lack of gratitude for fun, surprise, pleasure, laughter, and music which are each a valid part of our lives here just as are family, friends, health, etc. Each is a gift of special grace from You. The fact that there are varying degrees of each of these present or absent in the lives of different individuals should make those favored with such gifts even more grateful and reflective.
I have written to You before about my firm convictions concerning the spiritual qualities of music. The fact that the medium of melody and harmony can touch our heartstrings in profound and wordless ways is a gift meant to be considered and enjoyed.
In religious art it strikes me as a near travesty that there is a most negligible consideration of the gifts of laughter in the paintings and sculptures of You and the saints. Isn’t it odd that in the taking of a photograph of someone we love we admonish them to “smile,” but we would think it odd if all the paintings and statues in church were smiling back at us! I have a print of a drawing by Kozak called “Laughing Jesus” which I like to look at because laughing is such a joyful human emotion, and to consider You laughing makes me smile and bonds my humanity with Yours.
The psalm response referred to above probably came from David. It makes sense, knowing that he was a musician, that he would wish to show his appreciation for the gift of music; and, though we have no record of it, I think we can assume that he appreciated a good laugh too. Constant seriousness masks our vulnerability. Laughing involves a risk – like so many other things in the spiritual life.
Life depends on so much that is beyond our power to control. Consequently there is much in our lives for which to be grateful. When we reflect on this we can think of a lot of things close to the surface for which we express gratitude to others and to God. These things are things we usually want or need, and when we get them we are indeed thankful.
But aside from what we desire, how often do we consider gratitude for the things that actually help us but for which we never asked? There are actually a whole lot of things at any given time in our lives that we just take for granted but for which, if we thought about it, we should be very grateful. In fact, in hindsight, there are a lot of things which, if given the chance, we would have avoided and for which, at the time, we might not have been grateful. Among such things are illnesses and our recovery from them; the death of a loved one and the ability to grieve and mourn; humiliations and embarrassments and the assessment they bring of our pride; and especially the times we are “forced” into situations we would not choose and the denial of self they necessitate.
It seems there are many “back door” things that have shaped us – especially spiritually – for which we should be thankful. This underlines and verifies Fr. Anthony DeMello’s tenet that “suffering teaches.” We learn effectively about life and about our spirit through what we suffer.
Therefore, more often than not, we should be grateful for the times we suffer. Such a statement may sound strange until one stops to consider how so many unpleasant and uncomfortable things in our lives actually have formed us – more than those that are comfortable and pleasant.
It seems to me that Your gifts and graces are actually bestowed equally upon all. There may be different graces and gifts, as is alluded to by scripture, but I think the measure of gifts and graces is equitable despite the more popular idea that You may favor some over others. The reality may be that any differences rest solely in our recognition and acceptance of them and in our subsequent responses. Again, quoting St. Paul, “There are many gifts but only one spirit.” That spirit, which is itself Your gift, is the same for all. It imbues all – and that’s the tough part; recognizing it in places and in circumstances we might not otherwise be prone to discovering it.
I really feel that there are many gifts and graces in my own life that I miss. As a race, we are prone to look where we want or where it seems most logical and rational and even comfortable for Your gifts and graces. How many times, if ever, do we catch ourselves responding to Your gifts or graces in people we don’t like; in circumstances we try to avoid; or in modes of life we deem unacceptable or inappropriate?
It is difficult to realize that Your gifts and graces may lie in latent anticipation of our response in such instances – yet we must admit that the one spirit is there too. People are very selective and that’s a shame in one sense for we then miss the graces in what we do not select – possibly more abundant and more enriching gifts and graces than in what we do choose. We would do well to try to see and respond to Your gifts and graces in places we might not want to look.
If everything we need to know about life and about God has been said and done in You, why do we need to go any further than the four evangelists of the New Testament who recount all of this for us? Actually we don’t; for that is most certainly the foundation of life as we are to live it. What we seek in reading the saints and spiritual writers is magnification, illumination, and personalization of what You’ve already given us.
If God has spoken to us unequivocally in You and if I accept this, I am consequently compelled to accept the true nature of man in You. Therefore everything in my earthly life and in the earthly lives of others becomes relevant or irrelevant in correlation with the realization of this.
The preaching and teaching part of Your life is our liturgy of the word, and Your death is our Eucharist. The guidelines for fulfilling our destiny are all right there – in You! But we must do more than look. We must endeavor to see. Looking at “historical Jesus” is less valuable than seeing Jesus in my daily world here and now. It’s so easy to take the gospels as history and dismiss the timeless messages they contain. We have a penchant for glomming on to whatever is “the latest.” I think that’s why we so often look to spiritual writers.
Two-thousand years since Your life makes You an ancient character and, therefore, more easily dismissed by time. But time is the jar in which we all live and move and have our being. Past, present, and future are all contained inside. This gives a mystic oneness to all life – a unity of containment. Only the narrowness of our own perception excludes or dismisses the relevance of all things with which we are mutually contained. And again, it’s more than just looking at someone or something – it’s seeing it!
Therefore, what we know from You in the gospels is as much a part of our present and future as it is of our past. In this sense all time melts into one present, and everything that melts in is relevant. It is apparent to me that this is Your intention for us.
In feeble defense of rampant American materialism we might consider our nurturing of the cult-like status, from birth to death, of “the gift.”
Commercial mercantilism has established and enhanced a calendar that drives retailers to advertising frenzies bigger, better, and more psychologically subtle each year. We, the people, are the target. From the time we are toddlers the cult of “the gift” is hammered home. To expect a thing, an object we prize on regular occasions repeats the lesson of the goodness of goods. Birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, anniversaries, weddings, showers, baptisms, first communions, graduations, even a dinner party at a friends’ house all necessitate a gift. Moreover, on each of these occasions a gift is expected. And the cycle continues over and over, year after year continually enflamed by slick retail promotions.
We are immersed in the cultic waters of “the gift,” and, worse, the expectation of gifts. We even make “wish lists” so we’ll get the gifts we want. How does one fight such attachment to materialism? How can we Americans, so totally blanketed by its veneer, expect to be able to disengage from our attachment to goods?
First, we must understand why we need to abandon our attachment to things, and then we must become aware that it takes “specialized” tactics.
There’s nothing wrong with gifts in themselves. If love is about giving, then a gift is an expression of love. You Yourself have bestowed and continue to bestow many gifts on us. “There are many gifts,” says St. Paul, “but only one spirit.” Of course that spirit is love. Ideally the gift of things is not made so we love the things but rather the giver. If we assume that the spirit behind all gifts is love, then our love and joy in the gift is properly placed on the giver, not the gift. Therefore, correctly understood, all the material goods and possessions with which we are gifted are tokens of love we receive from the giver. But it takes a special tactic in this area to accept and embrace such a mindset because too often our love and joy is placed on the gift.
To give of oneself, of one’s time, energy and compassion is the greatest gift but somehow we don’t consider it enough. We feel compelled to attach a “thing” to it – something tangible that the recipient can touch. Maybe that’s sort of the way God felt when He gave us You. In either case the tangible “thing” is a sign of the giving of self.
When we ask for or expect a certain object on a particular occasion we are negating the freedom of the giver to bestow what he/she will out of love. Our
focus is on the gift and it is to that objective that we become attached. This happens continuously in our relationship with You. The wish lists we pray for become our focus and we become nearsighted to the love of the Giver. You show us the unconditional love of gift-giving. We should think about this.
I have read many descriptions and definitions of mysticism and contemplation. Some are very good and truly speak to my own conceptions of the mystic/contemplative. A few are so good and so rich in meaning that I keep going back to them and even memorizing bits and pieces of them – not to reiterate them to others but to lock in my heart as in a safe. It is always the simplest ones that strike the most memorable chord. And yet, I continually wonder how these awesome gifts arrive at a particular individual.
The person we might term a “mystic” or a “contemplative” is what he/she is because he/she is AWARE that God initiates and sustains His love in him/her and he/she agrees to WELCOME that love in an ongoing manner. The awareness is itself Your gift to be accepted or ignored. Its acceptance is not an abrupt yes or no but rather a gradual dawning over time. Some, it seems, put so many things in the way of that gradual dawning that they never fully arrive at an awareness of You.
I think that God initiates signs of His love in every individual but not every individual arrives at a disposition to make himself/herself aware of it. I am wondering how that happens. Is it completely the fault of the individual that they never reach such a disposition and, hence, awareness? Or is it a bending to the natural inclination of just being human that blankets spiritual inclinations and, hence, dispositions toward an awareness of God’s love?
If we never stop to smell a rose, we never know its scent. So, I guess in answer to my own questions it seems fairly apparent how God initiates and sustains His love in every single individual by gifting each of us with it; but we may choose to not become aware of it or welcome it by not disposing ourselves to it – which isquite the opposite of what the mystic/contemplative continually seeks to do.