October 12, 2010

The Love of God

"To lose yourself as though you did not exist and to have no sense of yourself, to be emptied out of yourself (Phil 2:7) and almost annihilated, belongs to heavenly not to human love. And if indeed any mortal is rapt for a moment or is, so to speak, admitted for a moment to this union, at once the world presses itself on him (Gal 1:4), the day's wickedness troubles him, the mortal body weighs him down, bodily needs distract him, he fails because of the weakness of his corruption and--more powerfully than these--brotherly love calls him back." (Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God, trans. G.R. Evans)

Most anyone who has tried to live a life of prayer knows what St. Bernard is talking about. The experience of God can seem to be fleeting. At one moment we feel an awareness of God's presence to us, but at the next we can't even seem to remember what it was we experienced the moment before. As we go forward in the spiritual life, the situation becomes more challenging, for two reasons. First, God himself becomes more mysterious. Of course God isn't changing, but as our concepts of God are purified of idolatry and superstition, the blessed and dazzling starkness of the Mystery himself comes more into focus. Second, as we become more free for the charity that is God dwelling within us, we will find that this charity calls us out of our recollection more and more often, and in greater ways.

We must not resent this experience. Yes, the experience of God is perfectly sweet and delightful. God is the best thing there is for us, by definition. But we must always be careful to run after God and not the experience of God. It is his will we seek, not the delight of his presence. God's presence feels fleeting for us not because God is sometimes here and sometimes not, but because his brilliance is so bright that we only see it as darkness. In the course of our prayer we are given little tastes of God, not so that we might chase after the savor in a kind of spiritual gluttony, but that we might follow God into the darkness and thus become savory ourselves, the salt of the earth.

What St. Bernard describes might seem like someone whose prayer life is a mess; even if his momentary experience of God isn't shattered by his own corruption and distraction, charity soon calls him out of his delightful recollection. And yet this is a description that belongs to Bernard's account of the highest degree of the love of God, in which we have passed beyond even loving God for his own sake to the place where we love ourselves and our neighbor only in God.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

What a wonderful post. I found it very helpful and explanatory of some of my experiences that I considered "broken" somehow. God bless you for posting it! I think I shall keep on keeping on and keep on letting God push me around.