One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12: 28-31
Nothing is more central to the faith than the two great commandments to love God with all of our being and our neighbor as ourselves. At the same time, nothing is more mysterious. What exactly do we mean when we say we love God? Are we speaking of an essentially emotional experience? Clearly it is analogous to what we call love in our human experience. In fact, Jesus, by teaching the two commandments as one, seems to say they are inextricably linked. Yet, in our actual experience, they are not the same. At least for myself, my love for/of God is not the same experience as my love of my best friends or my confreres or family. At moments I recognize that each of my “loves” occurs within a wider and deeper context, but to effortfully attempt to stir up in myself the feeling and sense of the love for God that I feel in my most intimate relationships is fruitless.
But perhaps that says more about my problem with love than it does about the possibility of the love of God. When I say I am unable “to stir up” in myself a comparable “feeling and sense of love” for God, perhaps I am not really speaking of love at all. If a protracted life is worth anything, it is most of all worth being schooled and formed in love. As Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us, “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” Perhaps a consistent truth is that every act and experience of love in life is also but a preparation, a being schooled in the love of which Jesus speaks.
In Book X of the Confessions, St. Augustine asks himself the question, “What do I love when I love my God?” He goes on to say it is not “material or temporal beauty,” which is always an aspect of “earthly” love for us: it is not “the brilliance of earthly light: / not the sweet melody of harmony and song: / not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; / not limbs such as the body delights to embrace.”
Yet, he says, “when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace; / but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self,
when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space;
when it listens to sound that never dies away;
when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind;
when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating;
when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfillment of desire.”
As beautiful as they are, the words of Augustine have probably never been easy to comprehend. For those of us formed, even in our religious formation, in a secular form tradition, they can seem well nigh inscrutable. On the one hand they are readily accessible and straightforward, but experientially they seem ethereal and remote. Augustine seems to say that the experience we know when we love the beauty of another or the world, when we are attracted by light, sound, smell, taste, and touch is related to our love of God but that the love of God is different in kind. It is to know these loves in the way that we love our inner selves.
To know our love of God requires of us that we love from our “inner selves,” or, perhaps better put, that we know the love that our “inner selves” are always sharing with God. When Augustine speaks of seeking God outside, he is speaking also of looking for himself outside. When I think of the course of my life formation, I have to say that much of my early formation, well into young adulthood, was an increasing dissociation from my inner self. In every aspect of my being, I was involved in creating a persona, an identify to conform to the one that I interpreted outside influences demanded of me. This included my religious or spiritual life. I wanted to become good or worthwhile, and my measure of that was what I perceived as the outer demands of significant others and the world on me. To whatever degree that required me to ignore or distance myself from aspects of my actual identity, I was willing, and even at times eager, to do so.
In Augustine’s terms, therefore, the harder I worked to achieve what I thought was loving God I was actually increasingly distancing myself from God. In practice I forgot the beginning of the command of Jesus drawn from Deuteronomy. “Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God is God alone!” This is sometimes translated, “The Lord is One!” To love God, who is the God of all and is One, we cannot increasingly become two. To seek to love God by conforming our lives and our presence in accord with the outside is fruitless because the one we are conscious of is not ourselves, in our original sense. Our inner self is loving God as God intends, but our dissociated self and its efforts is the one of whom we are aware.
From a totally different tradition, we hear of the Buddha’s injunction to awaken, to pay attention. When we are dissociated or separated from our inner selves, we are then also distanced from every aspect of life. The way back to ourselves, says the Buddha, is to practice unceasingly paying attention to things as they are. The false or dissociated self does not experience the light, sound, fragrance, taste, smell, and touch of life as it really is, rather only its ideas of these things. To see, hear, smell, taste, and touch what truly is we must do so from the inner self.
In my own dissociated state, I now realize that I was living, for the most part, in my own thoughts, in my own head. I experienced times of depression because, without realizing it, my ideas, my defenses from the world kept me from truly experiencing its wonder and joy. The greater the distance from myself and the more I lived not in the world but in my own thoughts, the less I could experience the wonder and the eternal in the ordinary and so the primary disposition of our inner selves which is awe was unavailable to me. So, the wisdom of the Buddha is that it is by learning to pay closer attention to each moment, to each stimulus, to each experience that we begin to find our way back to ourselves. We cannot do it by thought, for it is, in fact, our thoughts, that are distancing us. We can only do it by releasing our thoughts and by becoming, through attention, more aware of what truly is.
Paying such attention creates a kind of “cognitive dissonance” in us. Receiving feedback from the world and from others begins to short circuit the arrogance of our false form, of our dissociated selves. It is the shock or realizing how profoundly mistaken we are that is the “humiliation” or “being brought low” that is the beginning of recognizing our self-alienation, our distance from our inner selves, the selves that never cease loving the One who is their life.
In the writings and poetry of some of our greatest mystics, we hear all this put in a much more affective way. For Teresa of Avila, or John of the Cross, or Hadewijch, or Mechthild of Magdeburg, or Julian of Norwich, or Térèse of Lisieux, we hear the call to be at one with God and our inner selves in terms of intimacy. The experience of the love of God that they seek to communicate is an experience of communion, of being at one. Love is the knowledge, not merely cognitive but personal knowledge, of identification with God. The pain of this life of which they often speak is the pain of dissociation. It is the longing for real life, for our true life that in this life is always somewhat limited and even conflicted. John of the Cross expresses this in the words of a poem: “I die because I do not die.”
In Ephesians 3:16 Paul writes, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” In our own depth we are already and always caught up in the love of God, our love of God, God’s love of us and of all. The formative and deformative project of the building up of an autonomous self is our dissociating and distancing from the love of God. Who we truly are is a lover of God; who we take ourselves to be is quite conflicted between that love and love of our self-creation. So the mystics would say to us that our problem is one of intimacy. We are made for intimacy but we must, by practice, learn how to become intimate, at one with ourselves and the world, again. As St. Theresa of Avila writes, we are to seek ourselves in God and seek God in ourselves.
Soul, you must seek yourself in Me
And in yourself seek Me.
With such skill, soul,
Love could portray you in Me
That a painter well gifted
Could never show
So finely that image.
For love you were fashioned
Deep within me.
Painted so beautiful, so fair;
If, my beloved, I should lose you,
Soul, in yourself seek Me.
Well I know that you will discover
Yourself portrayed in my heart
So lifelike drawn
It will be a delight to behold
Yourself so well painted.
And should by chance you do not know
Where to find Me,
Do not go here and there;
But if you wish to find Me,
In yourself seek Me.
Soul, since you are My room,
My house and dwelling,
If at any time,
Through your distracted ways
I find the door tightly closed,
Outside yourself seek Me not,
To find Me it will be
Enough only to call Me,
Then quickly will I come,
And in yourself seek Me.
St. Teresa of Avila, Seeking God