Indeed, if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
Romans 5: 10
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Souls. We pray for all who have died in the belief that our love of them and prayer for them continues somehow to strengthen them in their soul’s journey to God. We sense, out of our own experience of formation, reformation, and transformation that for them, as with us, the process of becoming the unique image of God we are each called to be continues, even beyond death.
Any one of us who has ever with all her or his heart desired to love and to be for another knows the imperfection of his or her love. We know that day by day we are learning what love requires of us and even having revealed to us the measure of our own inauthenticity. To dare to desire deeply, to allow ourselves the experience of wanting to truly love another is to experience the pain of how far we always are from the reconciliation of ourselves to God that Jesus attained for us.
We speak often of the words of Adrian van Kaam that to be human is to be “always and everywhere in formation.” This formation occurs, he says, through a continual process of differentiation and integration. At all moments in life we are integrating a coherent sense of ourselves that enables us to live out our lives in the world, yet, no sooner does such an integration occur than life’s reality and demands begin to differentiate us once again. Some years ago the psychotherapist Mark Epstein wrote a book on a Buddhist perspective on psychotherapy entitled Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart. Life is a continuing process of the “going to pieces” of what we have “put together.” Van Kaam points out, however, that such a differentiation is in service of a deeper and more authentic integration.
Much of our own personal suffering is caused by our resistance to such a “going to pieces.” It is our fear that when our own integration shows itself as tentative and temporary, we shall discover that underneath we are nothing. This fear is focused in our fear of death. When our body ceases to live, it seems to us that we are dead. As the familiar reading from Wisdom says: “They seemed, in the view of the foolish to be dead; / and their passing away was thought an affliction / and their going forth from us, utter destruction.” (Wisdom 3: 2-3) Today we pray in light of our fellowship with the dead and in the ongoing journey that we share. The great change that occurs in death is but a culmination of the ongoing differentiation and integration that is the continuing formation, reformation, and transformation of our entire lives.
Soren Kierkegaard speaks of this process in a very striking way. He says that we set out on the path of life with God with the belief that God will love us according to our idea of love. We could say the same of any experience of love in our life. When we “fall in love” it is with the hope and expectation that we will be loved in the way that we desire to be loved. Be it with another person or with God, however, we in time discover that the way we desire to be loved and the way that the other desires to be loved are different. Our immediate experience of this truth is one of disappointment, and usually painful disappointment at that.
A couple of days ago a friend was reminding me of the data that shows that the long term commitment rate is no different between arranged marriages and marriages based on the initial love and attraction of the partners. Now one must be very careful in terms of the lessons drawn from this. We can say, however, that in both cases each partner must experience a detachment from her or his understanding of how to be loved and learn something of how to love in light of the other’s understanding. It may well be true that in both cases what is requisite to maintain the commitment and relationship over time is the same.
Kierkegaard points out that this is the same process in our life with God. We begin expecting God to love us in accord with our understanding (and demand). To commit ourselves to “the Way,” however, means to submit ourselves to being taught by God (“through the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life”) how to love God according to God’s understanding.
This purgation that is the experience of becoming reconciled to God, in St. Paul’s terms, is a continuing experience “of death and rebirth.” Because it involves a continual death, ongoing differentiation, it is a painful experience for us. It is, in the image of John of the Cross, like the burning that purifies the metal. According to John, it requires of us a passing through a “dark night.” John says it is our “urgent longings” for love that drive us into that experience of darkness, and in that darkness all that has seemed as light to us (e.g. our idea of what it means to be loved and to love) will be taken away.
Because we know we are going to die and because we fear that loss of self, we desire above all permanence and certitude. It is a great failure of some types of “religious beliefs” to actually enhance that illusory desire. No human person or institution can lay claim to absolute truth, because God’s idea of what love is will always be so different from ours We can only come to approximate, and in God’s time to know, God’s idea of love through the purgation of the dark night, through what Kierkegaard calls “this excruciating painful operation.” As God leads us along the way of growing in love, we, for the most part, will experience greater darkness rather than light, a growing need for faith, hope, and love in uncertainty rather than permanence and certitude.
The greatest obstacle in life to growing in knowledge and love is that of which we are already certain. As we see repeatedly in the gospels, those who know God and who the messiah will be are those who are not disposed to be taught by Jesus. Every true human insight brings with it a more profound sense of our own ignorance. As I age, I am aware that what I have learned is much more about the inadequacy of my idea of love than it is a sure knowledge of God’s idea of love. Yet, the mystery of grace, is that the more we realize our own ignorance and inadequacy, the more the experience, if not the idea, of God’s love enters into us.
Thomas Merton famously prayed that he could not know if he was doing God’s will, but that he trusted that his desire to do God’s will was, in fact, doing it. What St. John of the Cross describes is an ever growing longing, desire, and urgency for God’s love. “One dark night,/ Fired by love’s urgent longings,/ Ah, the sheer grace, / I went out / My house being now all stilled.” Except for the longing for God’s love, all else (thought, compulsion, ideas) is stilled and in darkness.
Although God’s idea of love is so mysterious to us, we know from experience that it involves what is often “excruciatingly painful” for us. This is the repeated deaths of the self we “put together” and so take ourselves to be. The good news, the sheer grace, is that this is a continuing reminder that we are, in God’s sight and love, so much more than we take ourselves to be. Although we may be quite ignorant of the idea of being loved that the other has, in our human relationships we can trust that the truest idea they have is that in our love of them we may serve their becoming the person, the unique image of God, they are called to be. This is also God’s idea of love of us. God wants us to love God, as we are truly called to be. As Merton also said, if we are truly to become ourselves “we must give up all that we thought we wanted to be.”
Together with those whom we love who have died, we are all being formed, reformed, and transformed into the truth of who we are. This is a process of purification and purgation. It is a burning with longing for the love for which we have been created, and a dying to all the lesser ends to which we are attached. So, we are reminded to pray for each other as well as to become a servant of each other’s call to become that unique image of God that we are called to be.
This is the truth. Really and truly. Anyone who has the faintest idea of what it actually means to die to the world knows that this does not take place without terrible agonies. No wonder, then, we cry out, sometimes even rebel against God, because it seems to us as if God is deceiving us, we who from the beginning became involved with God on the understanding that God would love us according to our idea of love but now see that it is God who wants to be loved and according to God’s idea of what love is. But, of course, God is still infinite, infinite love. Just hold fast to this — that it is out of infinite love that God performs this excruciatingly painful operation. Yes, it is painful, yet it is all the more necessary.
Soren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, II, 126