I will espouse you to me forever: / I will espouse you in right and in justice, / in love and in mercy; / I will espouse you in fidelity, / and you shall know the Lord.
When Jesus arrived at the official’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd who were making a commotion, he said “Go away! The girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they ridiculed him. When the crowd was put out, he came and took her by the hand , and the little girl arose. And news of this spread throughout all that land.
Yesterday I received a gift from a friend of the new novel by Julian Barnes. It is entitled The Only Story. I often respond very quickly to a book; often the very first page determines the depth of interest I have in continuing. This novel captured my attention from its very opening lines:
Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think finally, the only real question.
You may point out—correctly that it isn’t a real question. Because we don’t have the choice. If we had the choice, then there would be a question. But we don’t, so there isn’t. Who can control how much they love? If you can control it, then it isn’t love. I don’t know what you call it instead, but it isn’t love.
I think what so immediately drew me in and fixed my attention by these opening lines of Barnes’ novel is their description of the irresistible force of love. It requires a long hard formative, and sometimes deformative, maturation to learn the difference between love in its deeper sense and the mere affect and emotion that we call love. As all emotions, the one we each identify in ourselves as love is the product of our own biography. This is why no two of us mean exactly the same thing when we speak of loving someone or being loved. So, over time we must learn how to love even our enemies, to act in love, which desires the well being of the other, and not merely to seek the feeling for ourselves.
Yet, there remains a power in how we are drawn and attracted by “love” that is always insinuating itself into our experience. We pray, as does St. Francis, to become a channel of God’s peace and love, but we are always attempting to channel a current that is, as the narrator of the novel suggests, to a significant measure uncontrollable.
We live in a culture that does not really have much of an idea in how to form us in and for love. In a hyper-sexualized environment, we tend to restrict our lived understanding of eros to the sexual, and this leads us to end erotic tension before it can teach and lead us to its deeper meanings by repression on the one end or trivial release on the other. Perhaps above all other books of the Hebrew Scriptures, Hosea relates the passionate love of God for his people, despite their infidelities. If Israel would but know God’s love for them, they would then know the Lord. This would be not a mere cognitive knowledge but a total personal one. They would know God, and thus know themselves, as they are known—in God’s love and desire for them.
In today’s gospel we see the power of Jesus at work in the healing of the woman who touches him and in the raising to life of the official’s daughter. A week ago Sunday at mass, the pastor of our local parish spoke of these works of Jesus. He pointed out that when Jesus healed others it was at a great personal cost. He didn’t just wave a magic wand and heal or forgive; he encountered people with all his being and, as a result he was “drained” by the experience. Although it is not pointed out in Matthew’s gospel, in both Mark and Luke we are told that Jesus experienced “power” going out of him. There is, at a level very different from the level at which we live much of our daily lives, a power that courses through the universe, the power that created the universe, that is Divine love.
Jesus tells the flute players and the mourners who have gathered at the bedside of the dead daughter of the official to “Go away!” He then mysteriously says that she is not dead but asleep. Where Jesus is living, this is the case. That life can only be manifest, however, when the routinized and habitual responses to life are put out, so that the greater reality that lies in the heart of Mystery may be made manifest. Having learned the rules and customs of our societal lives, we live much of life by routine and habit. We know how to live and how to behave according to custom through every moment, experience, and event of life.
Yet, when love breaks through, we find ourselves at a loss. All of our certainties and proprieties are thrown into disarray. As Barnes’ narrator suggests, we feel out of control as our lives have opened up to a dimension where we find ourselves subject to a power and a force far beyond our capacity to fit into our habits, customs, and routines.
This past weekend our local region of brothers met for what has become our monthly time to be together and to share together, in recent months on our Fundamental Principles. We read together the passage that calls on us to “be of one heart and mind with your brothers.” What emerged for many of us was a recognition of how much we need and how deeply we are moved by expressions of “affection” for us. The experience of our actually speaking with each other about that need and about how expressions of affection are so significant in our lives was really quite astounding. We are accustomed to live together attempting to avoid showing in any way our dependence or need of each other. As my confreres spoke, I realized that as they shared this very vulnerable and “personal” side of themselves, I was experiencing affection for them in ways of which I am usually unaware. I know well that for the most part I respect them and even, at times, admire them. Yet, it is quite rare that I actually feel affection.
When I feel affection for another, my relationship to him or her changes. Perhaps we’ve worked so hard to distinguish and so separate eros and agape that we have over time lost contact with the truth of their inseparability. As we spoke in our group on Saturday, I could almost feel my heart expanding to the degree that it was figuratively embracing some who had before been at a distance. Perhaps, as the girl in the gospel story, I had been sleeping to the deeper life among us.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin famously wrote: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, humanity will have discovered fire.” When Jesus felt power go out of him, when he put out those who were responding by acculturated custom and habit to the mystery of life and death and then raising the official’s daughter from death, he was channeling the love that had created the world and that kept it in being. He did so at great cost: the cost of his life. He not only poured out his life on the cross, he did it in every personal encounter. For him it was never a question of loving less so he could suffer less.
Despite the words of Barnes’ narrator, however, we do have the choice to love less in order to suffer less. At least I am learning that I make that choice all the time. The impulse and energy of love is always drawing us into greater intimacy with the world. Every time we choose to be distant in order to avoid the inner pain of being close, we are choosing comfort and control over love. We behave as if we are invulnerable because it feels too painful and costly to do otherwise, And when we unconsciously collude in order to do that together, we are robbing each other of the greater and deeper life that comes from daring to bear the pain and the joy of the love that is our greatest desire.
In this storm of love two spirits struggle—the Spirit of God and our spirit. God, by means of the Holy Spirit, inclines himself toward us, and we are thereby touched in love; our spirit, by means of God’s activity and the amorous power, impels and inclines itself toward God, and thereby God is touched. From these two movements, there arises the struggle of love, for in this most profound meeting, in this most intimate and ardent encounter, each spirit is wounded by love. These two spirits, that is, our spirit and God’s spirit, cast a radiant light upon one another and each reveals to the other its countenance. This makes the two spirits incessantly strive after one another in love. Each demands of the other what it is, and each offers to the other and invites it to accept what it is. This makes these loving spirits lose themselves in one another. God’s touch and his giving of himself, together with our strivings in love and our giving of ourselves in return—this is what sets love on a firm foundation. This flux and reflux make the spring of love overflow, so that God’s touch and our striving in love become a single love. Here a person becomes so possessed by love that he must forget both himself and God and know nothing but love. In this way the spirit is consumed in the fire of love and enters so deeply into God’s touch that it is overcome in all its striving and comes to nought in all its works.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, II,C