Come then, my love,/ my lovely one, come./ My dove, hiding in the clefts of the rock,/ in the coverts of the cliff,/ show me your face,/ let me hear your voice;/ for your voice is sweet/ and your face is beautiful.
Song of Songs 2: 13-14
And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Luke 1: 43-44
One of the dangers for those of us who occupy the world of religious and spiritual language is that our very words can become quite ethereal and abstract. An example can be our use of the word contemplation. When we read that Brother Ryken’s aspiration for his brotherhood was that the brothers would live “the non-dichotomized life of Martha and Mary,” we tend to think of a perfectly blended life of prayer and activity. In contemplation we are somehow to be “raised above” the demands of our physical bodies, our common lives, and our everyday works into the ether of some kind of Platonic union with the Divine. In action we are to leave behind this spiritual presence and return to the demands and the toil of our daily obligations and thorny relationships with others.
In the tradition of the Song of Songs and of the Incarnation, however, what we call contemplation is inseparable from love. One of the most attractive saints in the 20th century was the young Carmelite Therese of LIsieux. Although she spent her very brief adult life in a closed contemplative community, she became an inspiration and companion for people in all walks of life. Perhaps one of the reasons for that appeal lay in her struggle to discover her vocation. She saw in the saints and in those around her how they seemed to have realized and to live out the particular place they had in the Body of Christ, the unique call they were for the world. For some time, however, she was unable to recognize her own distinct place and vocation in the world. Finally, however, she recognized that her vocation was love. She was to live out love in her presence toward others and in her work, however insignificant or menial it may have been. In her very simplicity, she lived and taught the most profound truth: the inner and outer life, our actions and our prayer become one when they are animated by and carried out in love. Contemplation in action becomes demystified when we realize that we are called at every moment to remain in love and to act in love.
In the Song of Songs we recognize the voice in us that passionately longs for love. In the depth of our longing and desire, we are always restlessly seeking the one who delights in us. We hear of the lover, who is like the gazelle peering at us through the wall that separates us and calling on us to come to and be with him or her. How much we desire to be desired, that there be someone who longs to be with us as we with her or him. In the story from Luke of Mary’s “Visitation” of Elizabeth, we hear of how Mary goes “in haste” to be with her cousin and of the deep gratitude, born of a recognition of unworthiness, that Elizabeth has toward Mary (and the Jesus she carries) for the gift of her presence, a presence born of Mary’s love for her.
“And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me.?” There is in Elizabeth the gratitude and awe that only love can evoke in us. When we actually are touched in our core and our soul by love, we cannot help but express the gratitude, wonder and awe of Elizabeth. Such a love is not deserved or earned. It is grace and gift, a gift that stirs stirs to life within us all that we are called and meant to be.
We who live in cultures of affluence seem, in large part, to have forgotten the gratitude of Elizabeth, have ceased to experience all of what comes to us in life as a source of awe. Much of the pain and depression that is epidemic around us, we are told by mental health professionals, is due to a a pervasive sense of “entitlement.” For Elizabeth Mary’s coming to her and her presence with her is sheer gift. Far too many of us, however, live with a sense of deprivation and resentment that come from our sense that we are entitled to yet more.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to give because they have been freely given. “Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) The great mystery is that we already have been given, in surplus, the love that we most want and desire. The gratitude of Elizabeth and the joy of the child within her is due to the loving presence that has been brought to them, “in haste,” by Mary. The Song of Songs tells us that the one who loves us unreservedly longs to see our face and to hear our voice. We know the truth of this love far too seldom because we hide our face and silence our true voice.
What we receive is the gift we have to give. As St. John of the Cross writes: “For the property of love is to make the lover equal to the object loved.” (The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 28, 1) If this is so, then there is, in fact a certain priority to receiving. We can do lots of things; we can utter many words — yet if they do not spring from God’s love of us, they are hollow. “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor 13: 1) St. Therese of Lisieux realized that she was fulfilling her call whenever she performed every act in love. This is the non-dichotomized life. Nothing we do is too menial or insignificant when it is done in love. As St. John of the Cross writes in The Spiritual Canticle (Stanza 28): “I no longer tend the herd,/ nor have I any other work/ now that my every act is love.”
At Christmas we celebrate a love that refuses to be separated from us, no matter the cost. Although we continue, in our self-regard and busyness, to reject the love that is always coming to us, that is “peering through the lattices” at us, God is always waiting for us. As Simone Weil wrote: “God waits as a beggar for our love.” May we take the time in the hours and days ahead to dare to present ourselves to God, to be present to the love for which we long, that receiving that love we may become a present in love to others.
Let those, then, who are singularly active, who think they can win the world with their preaching and exterior works, observe here that they would profit the Church and please God much more, not to mention the good example they would give, were they to spend at least half of this time with God in prayer, even though they might not have reached a prayer as sublime as this. They would then certainly accomplish more, and with less labor, by one work than they otherwise would by a thousand. For through their prayer they would merit this result, and themselves be spiritually strengthened. Without prayer they would do a great deal of hammering but accomplish little, and sometimes nothing and even at times cause harm. God forbid that the salt should begin to lose its savor [Mt. 5:13]. However much they may appear to achieve externally, they will in substance be accomplishing nothing; it is beyond doubt that good works can be performed only by the power of God.
St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 29, 3