The love of the Father cannot be in anyone who loves the world, because nothing the world has to offer–the sensual body, the lustful eye, pride in possessions–could ever come from the Father but only from the world; and the world, with all it craves for, is coming to an end; but anyone who does the will of God remains for ever.
1 John 2: 15-17
It is clear in the word and example of Pope Francis that we are not to despise but to love God’s creation, “our common home,” and all with whom we share it, especially the poor and disenfranchised. Yet, the writer of the first letter of John is describing a tension and conflict in our life of desire between our love of God and our love of “the world.” It would seem that there is a difference in this sense between the root of our love of God and our love of the world.
St. Teresa of Avila, in her exceptional capacity to capture her experience in words, speaks of the difference between a love that comes from spirit in us and that which comes from our pre-spiritual or pre-transcendent selves. In what we love, in how we spend our time, in what captures our attention, in how we give form to our lives are we serving our spirit or the desires and demands of our unconscious? To serve the spirit, so that, in Teresa’s terms, the spirit may be “lord” and not “slave” in us, requires that we diminish the clamor of our unconscious and self-centered needs. It requires of us that by little and by little we expand the attention we pay to God and to God’s summons to the spirit within us.
We all know the experience of which Teresa speaks, the joy that comes at moments of self-forgetfulness and attention to “the things of God.” Be it in a moment of prayer, a moment of abandonment to another in love, a moment of expressing in thought, word, or deed our unique life direction and call, we have all, at least for a momentary flash, known the profound joy of realizing our union with God and all that is. At such moments, we know the truth of which the first letter of John speaks: “. . . anyone who does the will of God remains forever.” In such moments we are not slaves to our incessant self-centered desires and the anxiety and fears of passing time but, rather, know the truth of our participation in “eternal life.”
There is no task in life more difficult than a serious commitment to the practice of prayer. In part, this is because to really give time to prayer requires that God and spirit become Lord to us rather than the demands of our own impulses and ambitions. In our time, we even think we must justify time for prayer in light of what it does for our own bodies and functional capacities. Although we basically recognize that it is only in total submission to God that we know true peace and joy, we, like Teresa, keep trying to find a way to harmonize this truth with our desire for autonomy and self-actualization. When we do give time to prayer, for example, we are often calculating how much time is left so that we can get on and about our own business. When engaged in conversation with another, we often find ourselves thinking about our next task or appointment or wondering what that new email or text message is about.
Recently I heard a podcast with Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England. He spoke of the value for our time of ancient spiritual traditions and practices, giving the example of the Sabbath. To practice the Sabbath today requires of us that we let go of, for a day of the week, our compulsion to keep up with our emails and text messages, that we leave aside the world of technology and, as Teresa says, “be shut within” ourselves. For many of us, the Sabbath has long since ceased to be part of our lives. What does it mean that we can no longer, even for one day a week, lay aside the priority we give to our projects and plans? Might it not be a disordered love “of the world”? In the world there is so little understanding and peace because everyone talks and few listen. It is in silence and prayer that we learn how to listen to what is at once deepest and most subtle in life. The way, however, to practice silence and prayer first requires that we tear ourselves away from a “love of the world” that is really not love at all but a craving for distraction from our own, and God’s, reality.
And, little by little, in beginning to talk to him, I discussed my prayer with him. He told me not to let it go, that it could in no way do me anything but good. I began to return to it, although not to give up the occasions of sin; and I never again abandoned it. I was living an extremely burdensome life, because in prayer I understand more clearly my faults. On the one hand God was calling me; on the other hand I was following the world. All the things of God made me happy; those of the world held me bound. It seems I desired to harmonize these two contraries –so inimical to one another –such as are the spiritual life and sensory joys, pleasures, and pastimes. In prayer I was having great trouble, for my spirit was not proceeding as lord but as slave. And so I was not able to shut myself within myself (which was my whole manner of procedure in prayer); instead, I shut within myself a thousand vanities.
St. Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, Chapter 7, 17