“O my dove in the clefts of the rock, / in the secret recesses of the cliff, / Let me see you, / let me hear your voice, / For your voice is sweet, / and you are lovely.”Song of Songs 2:14
“For the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”Luke 1:45
Yesterday as I was speaking with a friend he raised a question: “What happens to us when we don’t love?” The context of our conversation was about the effect on a person’s life and development of living a rule-oriented and regulated life of hard work and dutiful responsibility but without love. Since our conversation I have not ceased to be moved by the question, for I recognize that it may contain an unequaled challenge. In myself and in others, I can see the kind of anxiety, resentment, and judgment that arises in all of those places in us that have not been touched and animated by love, that do not live in the longing and the pain of seeking union with the beloved.
The Song of Songs is, perhaps, the strangest book of the scriptures. It is strange, at least to the ear of our expectations of “sacred words,” because of its impassioned eroticism. Its description of the excitement and longing of the experience of love is in stark contrast to the teachings of the Law and the history of the people. Yet, its insertion in the scriptures reminds us that there is more than a cognitive dimension to the relationship between Israel and the Lord. God’s “choice” of his people is due to God’s love of them and longing for them. Thus, the people’s response to God is one that must spring from what Adrian van Kaam calls our “love-will.”
We tend to think of will as mostly a matter of power, and so we speak of “will power.” This is how we tend most often to think of our relationship with God. It is a “reason” of the mind, an assent to God’s existence and the will to submit to God’s law, more than a “reason” of the heart. Yet, in the first encounter between John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus, when they are both still in their mothers’ wombs, John “leaped for joy.” The correspondence between the words of the Song of Songs and Luke’s gospel is unmistakeable. It is in the experience of love and in the presence of the beloved that our heart leaps for joy, and, perhaps, only in that experience. There are many and varied forms of satisfaction in life, satisfaction of the body and the mind, but true joy of heart comes only in the experience of loving and being loved.
One of the greatest of the poems of St. John of the Cross is The Spiritual Canticle. This poem is the fruit of John’s reflection on the Song of Songs in light of his own experience of God’s love, God’s love for him and his own desire for God. Stanza 11 of John’s poem reads:
for the sickness of love
is not cured
except by your very presence and image
What John calls the sickness of love is really the presence of some degree of love. As John writes: “. . . those who feel in themselves the sickness of love, a lack of love, show they have some love, because they are aware of what they lack through what they have. Those who do not feel this sickness show they either have no love or are perfect in love.” (The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 11,14.)
The only “cure” for this lovesickness, says John, is “the presence and image of the beloved.” As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “The love of Christ impels us. . . .” (2 Cor. 5:14) In his poem St. John describes what life is like for one who has tasted and known something of the love of God, and so who suffers the “sickness” of love in the longing that the love be consummated. John says that the soul that “has not even a single degree of love . . . is dead.”
If we pause and reflect, I think we all know that for the human soul to live means to suffer. The goal of that “world” that is contrary to God and God’s will is to deaden us, our senses, and our soul. It is to satiate us with power, possession, and consumption so that what is truly human in us atrophies. Van Kaam says, similarly to St. John, that we know dissonance only in light of consonance. What he means is that we can only recognize those false aspects of our lives in light of our experience of the true. We can only know our longing for God in light of the experience and knowledge we have of God’s love.
The story of the encounter of Elizabeth and Mary, which is also an encounter between John the Baptist and Jesus, reminds us that we, as John the Baptist, have leapt for joy at the presence of God. Our unconscious has not only an infra-conscious, that is what we repress of our lives out of fear and shame, but also a trans-conscious, that is a “knowledge” of the image, presence, and love of God. Our conscious life often refuses awareness not only of those things that have traumatized and terrorized us, but also of the love that is our greatest desire and possibility. Even before our birth we, as John the Baptist, have a spiritual awareness of this love for us that is also a call to us to love in return.
So, how come it is then so relatively easy to live without love, to live as if love was not our deepest desire and goal? In part, it is because of the truth that to love is to suffer. It is to be in the world in the truth of who we are, with all our longing and vulnerability. To grow in love means for us to shed that character armor we have developed for that diminished life of safety that we fear is necessary to survive. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, perhaps we shall once again read or watch Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge endures because it touches the deepest longings of our hearts. Given the grace of the visitation of the ghosts of past, present, and future, Scrooge sheds the character armor he has grown for a lifetime to preserve himself from his own fear and loneliness. And, in offering and receiving love, he finds joy.
Traditional and conventional religion has hit upon hard times in what we term “the developed world.” The moralism and willfulness that is presented as “revelation” has no appeal to young people, and probably rightfully so. What we call “Christian” in American life has much more repression, prejudice, selfishness, and xenophobia about it, rather than love. Perhaps our reaction to the Song of Songs can help us to measure how far we and our religious lives have drifted from real life. As St. John of the Cross points out, without love our souls are dead. We may be dutiful, successful, upright, and apparently comfortable, but in truth we are dead. It is when we suffer the longing for what we lack, the fullness of love whose joy we have so far only barely touched, that our souls are truly alive, even though “weak and infirm because of [their] little love.”
What happens to us, then, when we live without love? For whatever appears to be our success, or our place of power and influence in the world, we cease to be really alive. It is when we suffer the weakness and infirmity of our desire, need, and vulnerability as human beings that our souls truly live. In such openness to love, we grow healthier as the love we seek increases in us. This is how we live in spiritual awareness, not repressing that which is the core of our lives but daring to be human that the presence and image of God may become flesh for and through us.
The reason lovesickness has no other remedy than the presence and the image of the beloved is that, since this sickness differs from others, its medicine also differs. In other sicknesses, following sound philosophy, contraries are cured by contrariness, but love is incurable except by things in accord with love.
The reason for this is that love of God is the soul’s health, and the soul does not have full health until love is complete. Sickness is nothing but the lack of health, and when the soul has not even a single degree of love she is dead. But when she possesses some degrees of love of God, no matter how few, she is then alive, yet very weak and infirm because of her little love. In the measure that love increases she will be healthier, and when love is perfect she will have full health.St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 11,11