“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Mark 12: 32-33
Last Tuesday I listened to a podcast from The New York Times entitled Change Agent. It is the story of an 80 year old woman, who had been been a widow for some seven years or so. Much to her surprise she finds herself falling in love with a widower whom she meets at the senior center. She is totally surprised by the deep and all consuming effect her desire for this person awakens in her. She comes alive in ways she had not felt for a very long time, if ever before. She has joy and interest in life and the world, in living her life more fully, to a degree that is a source of amazement to her. After some time, she discovers that the man has met and married another woman. She, of course, feels great disappointment and loss. Yet, interestingly enough, she begins to investigate how, in her words, she can discover a source of such life and joy within herself “that does not depend on someone or something outside of myself.”
We all know that it is love that calls us to life and which seems to be a prerequisite for joy. We are also aware that at various points in our lives we find ourselves, as C.S. Lewis put it, “surprised by joy” and love. As for the woman in the podcast, it can invade our lives at times unbidden and unexpected. We also know, however, that love is ambiguous and complicated for us. The love that surprises and overwhelms us is often an experience of infatuation. It may have about it more excitement about the pleasant and gratifying feelings that are evoked in us than a heartfelt appreciation of the other and longing for communion with them. And, as the woman in the podcast, we discover that the life that this person has evoked in us is dependent upon them. So we, as she, might find ourselves wondering if it is possible to know a fullness of life, a joy, and a love that is not dependent on the will and decisions of others.
We readily understand that Jesus’ linking of the two great commandments constitutes a teaching of their inseparability. Yet, in our primarily secular consciousness, we usually interpret this connection in one direction. That is, we remind ourselves that one cannot love God without loving one’s neighbor. Yet, the teaching also reminds us that we can never truly love our neighbor without first loving God, with all our heart, understanding, and strength. This suggests to us a very basic reality about love: love, in its truest sense, is always the same love. So, on the one hand, we must love “One” with all of our heart, understanding, and strength, while on the other to truly love anyone or anything is to love “the One.”
We have a tendency in religious thought and living to separate, and often even to place in opposition, the experience of attraction/infatuation and love of God. Yet, we do so at the peril of separating ourselves from our deepest desire and call. The woman in the podcast realizes the significance and truth in her experience of being awakened to life, love, joy, and her own possibilities by her attraction to and infatuation with the man she meets at the senior center. As she relates the experience, the voice of this 80 year old sounds like that of a young woman. A hidden “joy of her youth,” as the scriptures would put it, has emerged out of her experience of falling in love again.
It is both wonderful and painful for us to have such an experience. To realize at any age, in one or another of life’s moments, our capacity for excitement, gratitude, and joy in and with our own life is a sense of awe and wonder in our own being that reminds us of who we really are and what the gift of our life is for. Yet, the experience is also painful, for it reminds us of how much of our lives we live in sloth, routinization, heaviness, boredom and even resentment, that is, how often we live without love.
One reaction we can have to the pain that is part of our occasional and passing experiences of infatuation is to repress our bodily feelings and reactions. Because of the transient nature and frequent disappointment of the experience of falling in love, of “falling for,” another person, we can repress our vital sensibility. We can cease to be awake and alive to our world and its beauty and joy. We can reduce our life to our work and responsibilities, becoming hardened and closed to what is offered us by willfully reducing our experience of life to control and management. On the other hand, we can become willess and live our lives as the object of those personal and impersonal forces that surround us. Love can be reduced to a life of reactivity, positive toward what or who gratifies us and negative to all that fails to do so.
As a young man, perhaps like many of us when young, I often found myself torn between repression on the one hand and willessness on the other. Often because of lack of appreciation and understanding of the call to love and life that my vital sensibility was, I both feared it and craved it. I knew the scriptural teaching of the two great commandments, but I did not at all understand their inextricable connection. A psychotherapist friend of mine undertook some research on the universal human experience of infatuation. He did this in light of a study group we were engaged in at the time on The Dark Night of St. John of the Cross.
John begins his poem with the following stanza:
One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
– ah, the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
At least for me there has always been a mysterious aspect to this description. How is the poet both “fired with love’s urgent longings” and at the same time experiencing his “house being now all stilled”? Is it possible that the “urgent longings” we know in the experience of infatuation are an invitation to know yet deeper ones? The key may lie in the last line of the stanza. At the vital level, our longings leave us not at all still but, as we’ve noted, excited and extraverted and even dispersed. We, perhaps, are to receive these feelings gratefully but also learn to sit and be still with them. In this way, as “our house” becomes stilled, we may discover even deeper longings that manifest themselves and form us somewhat differently from the initial merely vital ones. These are longings for a communion with ourselves, with the cosmos, and with God. It is a single love that encompasses and includes all our other loves.
This is not somehow an alternative to our loving of another. It is rather the context of that love. It is realizing that the temporal and fleeting sensibility that our experiences of infatuation arouse in us have their true place in our love of God. Many years ago, in the study group I referred to earlier, a Sister in the group spoke of her difficulty with the teaching of St. John of the Cross that he expressed as, “Love not one person more than another.” She told us that at some point, however, she realized that he was not saying that we should love anyone less, but rather that we should love all more.
Most of us have a least an intimation of the experience of seeing the one we love as a beloved of God. We know in the experience of the love of him or her that this love we feel somehow participates in a universal love. To love our neighbor as ourselves is to love them in such a way that we know the love of God for them as we experience the love of God for us. Our experience of love is a sometimes intense experience of our desire for communion. This is what the scripture means by a love of God that is singular, that is with our whole heart and understanding and strength. It is a lifetime’s work to learn the ways of love. We are never proficients in love, and yet, every experience of love is an opportunity to learn its ways, to be formed into one who is able to love with one’s whole heart and understanding and strength.
There is a moment when a spiritual communion begins with another person, which changes all the feelings we have had for that person until then; then we forget that they could ever have existed without that person. This spiritual communion only comes into being with the discovery of a world in which each shows the other what he was already on the point of seeing unaided; here every truth is bathed in an inner light which converts it into beauty; here every thing that is seems to melt into a desire which is no sooner born than fulfilled.
. . . . . . . .
Although there exists in all human relationships a reflection and indeed a foretaste of true spiritual communion, they are all poor substitutes, and sometimes they even prevent it from coming to be. For true communion is far removed from the kind of attachment which chance or common desires create between two individuals, and which may be more or less strong and more or less satisfying. It begins only when two people become conscious of a presence which they are content to explore, and into which they enter by mutual mediation.
Two souls can draw together only if they inhabit a single spiritual country. To discover another spirit is to discover other eyes meeting our own in one and the same light. Then it may be that we find a communion so pure that it seems purged of all matter, and as soon as the analytic mind discovers some, it becomes slightly less perfect.
Louis Lavelle, The Dilemma of Narcissus, pp. 171,172