For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8: 38-9
The two most recent issues of the New York Review of Books contain a dialogue between the writer Marilynne Robinson and President Obama, In that dialogue, Robinson says that if she could ban one word from the American lexicon it would be competition. She says:
Basically it’s a language of coercion that implies to people that their lives are fragile, that is charged with that kind of unspecific fear that makes people—it’s meant to make people feel that they can’t get their feet on the ground.
It is a constituent experience of the human condition to be anxious, but Robinson is touching on an experience in contemporary life in which many, if not a majority of the population, live with a profound sense of precariousness. In a National Public Radio interview today, outgoing speaker of the House John Boehner speaks of his experience as being in “the loneliest place in the world.” Many of us, although perhaps not to the extreme degree of Washington politics, experience the deformative power of competition born of fear in our relationships with each other. As Marilynne Robinson says, our pervasive national dispositions have left us with a sense that we can never get our “feet on the ground.”
In Romans 8, St. Paul speaks of a very different experience. It is an experience of solidity in ourselves and in our relationships because the ground of our life is “the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.” To live in that love is to realize that all of what disturbs us in life has no power over us. To have no ground under our feet is to experience everything and everyone as a potential threat. John Boehner says that in the Speaker’s office he is surrounded by people who come in and out but whose presence never affects the loneliness. In many ways we all experience, despite the increase in certain types of socialization that technology makes possible, the increased sense of an isolation and loneliness that feels impenetrable. We can never experience intimacy with persons with whom we are in competition, at the conscious or unconscious levels. We also can never know the depth of love as long as our relationships are based on manipulation or gratification. We cannot know as a person another who remains merely an aid or obstacle to our personal projects. Could it be that the power of the presence of Pope Francis’s visit for John Boehner lay in Boehner’s experience of a presence that had no demand or expectation of him but that merely “looked on him with love”? Could he have realized an alternative to the ambition, competition, and so loneliness of his office in the light of that presence?
When love is based on what we can or cannot do for each other, it is easy for us to be separated from it. But to realize “the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord” is to know a love that is at the heart of every life experience, painful or pleasant, success or failure. It is to have our feet firmly planted on the ground of truth. If we know that our life is Christ’s life in us, then there is no need to compete with another, or to try to attain what another has. Instead of what we need from others, we become attentive to what, in our own small way, we can offer to them. When we bear love in each moment and relationship, we can never be separated from it. As St. John of the Cross says: “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.” Although this may impossible to our fallen human nature, it becomes possible when the love offered is “the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
To exist with is an ethical category. It does not mean to live with someone in a physical sense, or in the same way as that person lives; and it does not mean loving someone in the mere sense of wishing that person well; it means loving someone in the sense of becoming one with the other, of bearing the other’s burdens, of living a common moral life with that person, of feeling with and suffering with the other.
Jacques Maritain, as quoted in the blog, Contemplative in the Mud