Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye, but Ruth stayed with her.Ruth 1: 14-16
Naomi said, “See now! Your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her god. Go back after your sister-in-law!” But Ruth said, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
Perhaps no legal relationship is the subject of more humor and sometimes conflict than that of child-in-law to mother-in -law. Yet, the story of Ruth and Naomi is among the most beautiful and tender in all scripture. In love she decides to stay with Naomi, to go wherever she goes, to lodge wherever she lodges, to join her people and to devote herself to Naomi’s God. The result, in retrospect, is that what we call “salvation history” is profoundly affected by this action, as Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of David.
Often we have a tendency to separate the world of personal relationship from the larger sense of history. Especially in our time, personal affection and even love are often compartmentalized as only “personal,” as opposed to those works and activities that influence the wider world. This view prevails because in our time we tend to see love as principally a matter of affect between persons rather than a participation in that energy that, as Dante say, “moves the sun and the other stars.”
In the scripture story we read today, Naomi tells Ruth to go back to her people and her god as her sister-in-law Orpah has done. Ruth, however, has come, in love of her, to see Naomi as her family, Naomi’s people as her people, Naomi’s God as her God. That is, although not related by blood, Ruth is, because of her love for Naomi, unable to separate her life and destiny from Naomi’s. Her home is now Ruth’s home. True love of another means that one’s entire field of formation is now changed. It is a shared field. As William Sadler writes: “Because existence in love finds itself in a world where personal histories interpenetrate and complement each other, one has the sense of discovering unbounded and elevated space.”
The power of the story of Ruth and Naomi is that it illustrates that the unique experience of the love we have for another person has social and historical implications. Because of her love for Naomi, Ruth becomes a pivotal character in the story of the Hebrews, and so of Christians as well. The love of God bestowed on us in Jesus is the love that leads Ruth to refuse Naomi’s injunction to leave her and return to her people and her god that she may pursue her own future. Rather, it alters the existence of both of them, and of all of us who follow from them, by committing to a shared future, not to the fulfillment of herself but to the fulfillment of both of them — and those who will follow.
Yesterday we wrote of how the great struggle in the “spiritual” life of each of us is to overcome our primary narcissism. The principal manifestation of the pride form in us is our incontrovertible sense that the world exists for us. It is our isolated self, our own past, present, and future that is our primary and often sole focus of attention. From this perspective others exist as either helpful conditions or inhibiting obstacles to the seeking and development of our own desired future. The conscious and unconscious forces that give energy to that narcissism are very powerful. Our life of affect is very much conditioned by these forces and this solipsistic perspective.
Yet, creation is sourced by a very different type of energy. It is a personal energy that creates anew in its movement out from the self. It is an affective love that is essentially effective; it creates life and effects change. What is happening within Ruth that she would forsake her land, her people, her very beliefs in order to seek fulfillment as an “us” with Naomi. Ruth declares that she no longer has a future direction, a home, a people or a god that is not also Ruth’s. In love we become a new creation, a new “self” that is not solipsistic but now shared.
We institutionalize and sacramentalize this reality in marriage. Yet, the story of Ruth and Naomi reminds us that every real love and friendship is also generative and transformative. As the personal worlds of those in love and friendship change, so does the wider world as a result. In our day, our constricting of love to the romantic denies the reality that our experience of love is participation in the love that sources and directs creation. Friendship and love in this sense is not “égoïsme à deux.” It is a conversion of heart and mind, by which I cease to be preoccupied with my own individual concerns and future. As Sadler writes: “In love I am alive in a world that is constituted by a reciprocal exchange and mutual presence which opens up a horizon of vast new possibilities.” By opening to this new horizon of vast possibilities, we are inserted in the world in a new way. Once we have cracked open the shell of our own narcissism in favor of a shared world and future, we discover that all others also share that space. We are impelled by this love, as St. Paul says, to offer this “duality” in service of a new and transformed creation.
In the role that Ruth comes to take in the line of David, we see this truth concretely. It is her love of Naomi, her refusal to return to a world that was not also Naomi’s, that made possible her marriage to Boaz. Adrian van Kaam says that in every experience of “bioeros” there are the seeds of “transeros.” As we are reminded of the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, we are reminded of the presence of God’s love and creative spirit in the urgings of our own eros. As St. John of the Cross writes:
One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
– ah the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
In love we are impelled to “go out” of ourselves into a world beyond. In love and friendship it is the love of another that first draws us beyond ourselves and now to live out our entire field of formation, our entire life, with that of another. Now we are no longer restricted to our “own world and possibilities.” We have broken out of our self-encapsulation and burst into the wider world. Once we have experienced the “horizon of vast new possibilities” which this new way of being and seeing has evoked in us, we have no desire to close down again either to our own world or simply the world of the two of us.
Recently a friend told me that a formation director of his once said that one should not take a vow of celibacy until he or she had experienced his or her heart being broken at least three times. Falling in love, being in love is a perilous risk for us. The risk that Ruth takes is that of losing everything: her home, her people, her god. Even as Naomi tells her to return to her old and her own world, she refuses. For she is trusting at this moment in the other person, to be sure, but beyond that to the truth of her experience of love. Not rarely, our hearts are broken when we love, when we dare to offer our whole lives and mutuality is refused. Adrian van Kaam says that bioeros is transformed into transeros in the experience of disappointment. hus, the advice of repeatedly experiencing a broken heart.
There are those, says St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, who speak in the tongues of humans or of angels, who have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, who have a faith that can move mountains, who give all they possess to the poor and give over their bodies to hardship but who do not have love, and, thus they are nothing. The reason is that without love our life and our future remain bounded by our primary narcissism. We may do a lot of good things, but without love we are not sharing in the creative possibilities of the love that is “common to all.” We remain, in all we do, merely self-interested.
In my experience, every summons to love is filled with a powerful tension between fear and desire, possibility and trepidation, passion and caution. While there is no possibility without risk, there is also the experiential knowledge of what happens when that risk is based on an illusion. Just because we long for mutuality, for a shared life and future, there is no guarantee that our longing will be reciprocated. Almost inevitably we shall place our trust, at times, in the untrustworthy. The challenge is that we not cease to trust, even in our brokenness. For finally, there is always the love of God that can be trusted. Finally, there is the actual world, that is God’s world, that is the life and the future to be embraced.
St. John of the Cross, fired by the urgent longings of love, goes out, “my house being now all stilled.” In his imprisonment, in his continual disappointments with his community, he has come to experience the transcendent love, the transeros, that goes out of oneself and into the world mindless of its reactions to him, its reciprocity or lack of same. If God’s will is to be done in our lives, we must learn how to live in a world other than that of our own self-preoccupation. We do this by learning to love. It is in love that we experience the far greater possibilities for life and for the world that exist beyond our own narcissism.
We discover in loving another that we have confined life to our own concerns and that in this love of the other we now share “unbounded space.” We also discover a zest for life and an appreciation of creation that had been unknown to us. We shall, as we learn, at times be fools for the sake of love, but that foolishness is but a manifestation of our breaking out of our own solipsism. It is as fools that we are formed into disciples of Christ. As Ruth must have seemed foolish in her forsaking everything that had constituted her identity for the sake of her love of Naomi, so it must be for us.
Moving to the tune of love existence unfolds in a unique direction; that is, love provides existence with a unique intentional structure which is not readily apparent apart from the perspective of love. The history of this new structure is not directed exclusively for the sake of my existence; it is directed toward the fulfillment of us. In contrast to the direction of singular existence en route toward an individual achievement or the realization of oneself, the space of love is structured in terms of being at home with another: “The names of country, heaven, are changed away for where thou art or shalt be.” This home-space is neither yours nor mine; it is ours. Because existence in love finds itself in a world where personal histories interpenetrate and complement each other, one has the sense of discovering unbounded and elevated space. The testimonies to such space will be falsified if interpreted in individualistic or subjectivistic terms; the discovery of unbounded space in love pertains to the awareness that here, in the world of love, I am no longer restricted to my own world and its individual possibilities. In love I am alive in a world that is constituted by a reciprocal exchange and mutual presence which opens up a horizon of vast new possibilities. The space of love is not subjective; it is intersubjective. The spatiality of love is characterized by duality.William A. Sadler, Existence and Love, pp. 186-187