PRAYER: Love—A “Yes” To Belonging (Part Two) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Love—A “Yes” To Belonging (Part Two) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

My and Mine

We can test this understanding of love against the precept to love our enemies.  Now things look different.  The notion of romantic love just wouldn’t fit.  But we and our enemies certainly belong together – obviously not in the same way as friends belong together, but it is a belonging, nevertheless.  Moreover, by choosing our friends, we choose our enemies.  If we have no enemies, maybe we have never had the courage to take sides.  The command to love our enemies implies that we must have enemies.  How else could we love them?  God certainly has enemies.  “As it is written: Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated,” (Malachi 1:2f; Romans 9:13).  Yet, the same God is love.  When the psalmist makes God’s enemies his own, he sings: “I hate them with a perfect hatred,” (Psalm 139:22).  Perfect hatred may treat enemies with outrage, with determination, even with cunning.  But it will always treat them with patience, with respect, with fairness.  Perfect hatred cares.  It will cultivate all possible lines of communication with the enemy.  If we could purge the word “hatred” of any connotation of indifference we could put it this way: perfect hatred is loving hatred.  It opposes its enemies clearly and strongly, but it never forgets to affirm: we belong together.  Whatever I do to you, I do it ultimately to myself.

It is the concept of self that expands when we come to understand what love really means.  The current idea of love identifies our self with our little individualistic ego.  This little ego translates, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” into a series of incredible mental acrobatics.  Step one: imagine you are someone else.  Step two: try to whip up a passionate attraction for that imaginary other.  Step three: try to feel for someone who is really someone else the same passionate attraction you felt for yourself (if you did) when you were imagining that you were someone else.  That’s asking a little much, isn’t it?  And yet, the command is so simple: “Love your neighbor as (being) yourself.”  That means: realize that your self is not limited to your little ego.  Your true self includes your neighbor.  You belong together – radically so.  If you know what self means, you know what belonging means.  It costs you no effort to belong to yourself.  Spontaneously, you say, “yes,” to yourself in your heart.  But at heart you are one with all others.  Your heart knows that your true self includes your neighbor.  Love means that you say, “yes,” from your heart to that true self – and act accordingly.

Belonging is always mutual.  This is true even in the case of things that belong to us.  We tend to think of our relationship to belongings as a one-sided proprietorship.  This colors our love for things.  It gives it the wrong color.  Rightly understood, love for things, too, is a “yes” to belonging – to a mutual belonging, whether or not we are aware of this.  You may think your car belongs to you merely in the sense of being your property, serving your needs.  But the car knows better.  She won’t serve your needs for long, unless you serve her needs in turn and have her serviced.  It’s mutual: “I’ll take you there, if you keep my oil level up.”  If you really love your car, you’ll be sensitive to her needs.  You will intuitively understand that the two of you belong together.  Love takes that mutual belonging seriously.  Love cares, even for things.

Mutual belonging has, of course, degrees of depth and intimacy.  On the level of things it is least demanding and most easily dissolved.  My Swiss army knife makes very few demands on me for the excellent service it provides.  And if I should lose it, anyone who finds it would quickly be able to become its happy owner.  The plants I have raised may not so easily take to someone else.  And when it comes to lost pets, we realize that we are dealing with a far more intense level of mutual belonging.  It may be hard to tell who feels the loss more deeply, the one who lost a dog or the lost dog.  My little niece sent a picture postcard from vacation to her poodle and signed it, “Lisa, Your Owner.”  The poodle, however, leaves no doubt about considering herself Lisa’s owner, like the pig in Denise Levatow’s delight poems, who speaks of the family as “my humans.”

Among humans, mutual belonging can obviously reach an intensity far beyond anything we experience in our relationship to things, plants, or animals.  It is here that we speak most properly of love.  Some people would, in fact, insist that the English word, “love,” should be restricted to human beings and to God.  But I have made an observation.  Among my acquaintances, the people who are most pedantic about the grammatical distinction between loving and liking tend to be the ones who are least sensitive to the fact that belonging is always mutual to some degree.  The same people often find it difficult to think of our relationship to God as genuinely mutual.

I must admit that, for a long time, I myself found it somewhat presumptuous to address God in prayer as “my” God.  At that time, ownership was the main meaning I gave to “my” and “mine.”  And ownership meant to me the right of possession, with no thought of the duties that go with the right.  Gradually, however, I came to see that I myself somehow belong to everything that belongs to me, that belonging implies a give-and-take.  Maybe this insight came to me when I discovered that the tomato plants in my corner of the garden would wilt when I forgot to give them water; that my white mouse insisted on being fed, or else she would nibble on things I didn’t want to give her; that even my roller skates demanded a certain care from me.  I discovered also something else: things belong more to me, the more I belong to them.  The little word, “my,” means more when it refers to my pet turtle than when it refers to my shoes, and more still when it refers to the group of friends to whom I belong.  If I belong most of all to God, it follows that God belongs more fully to me than anything else I could call my own.  In fact, I have since come to realize that the only time when “my” rings really true is when one says, “my God.”

This tells me something new about the word, “my.”  It shows me that “my” is most appropriately used when its meaning is least exclusive.  Let me put it differently: the more something is truly mine, the less it is exclusively mine.  We realize this in those moments when we are most awake, most alive, in moments when we get an inkling of God.  In those moments we experience total belonging.  We simply know for a moment that all belongs to us, because we belong to all.  In the light of that experience we can say from our heart, “All is mine.”  But “mine” is not the least bit exclusive.  It comes from the heart, where each is one with all.  The heart says, “yes” to this universal belonging and knows at once that “Yes” is a name of God.  For me, this sheds new light on the truth that “God is love,” (John 4:8).

The moments in which we experience this are key moments for understanding what fullness of life means.  That is why we have to refer to them time and again.  They are also moments of overwhelming gratefulness.  We have seen this before, but now we are in a better position to understand why this is so.  At the very beginning of our investigation of gratefulness we discovered: the turning point between receiving a gift and giving thanks is the “yes” to the interdependence between giver and receiver.  Gift-giving and thanks-giving turn on the pivot of this “yes.”  Giver and receiver belong together in thanksgiving.  And the “yes” to this belonging is no other but the “yes” of love.  We have seen how difficult it is at times to say the “yes” of gratitude in our daily life.  But in moments when our heart beats high with aliveness, we experience the interdependence of all with all as freedom, as joy, as fulfillment.  Our heart catches a glimpse of home, and home is where all depend on all.  No wonder that a “yes” springs from our heart like a long sigh of relief, of liberation, of homecoming.  It is like being in love with the whole universe.

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