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

An Approach to Life in Fullness

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

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

Thou Shalt Love

In love?  Here we come back to Johnny and Betsy, to the experience of falling in love.  Now we see what falling in love is meant to do for us in life’s plan.  It is to open our eyes.  Love makes blind, one says.  True enough.  A pleasantly selective blindness strikes us when we fall in love.  But in a different respect love opens our eyes.  We suddenly see the bliss of belonging.  And, deep down, that sense of belonging is all-embracing.  On the surface, it may focus only on the limited object of our infatuation, that charming creature with freckles.  But it is as if a window had been opened onto one little corner of a wide landscape.  This is a start.  If we keep looking, we will sooner or later discover a whole new world.  By exploring what we glimpsed when we fell in love, we will grow in love, in gratitude, and so in aliveness.

Growing in love means drawing out the implications of that “yes” which our heart sings out spontaneously when we are at our best.  But drawing out these implications is not an easy task.  Falling in love happens by itself; rising to the heights of love costs an effort.  It demands no less determination, attention, and precision than the soaring spirals of the Windhover, the “falcon, in his riding,” that stirred Gerard Manley Hopkins to one of his finest poems.  Rising in love demands precision and attention, because we must be ready, moment-by-moment, to face unforeseen implications of our “yes” and to quickly make the right response.  It demands determination to rebuff the big wind, to bridle up when indifference threatens to overpower us.  Falling in love is barely the beginning of a great love.  The glimpses we catch of our great, blissful belonging are merely a challenge to growth in relationships, a challenge to grow to our full human stature.  Only on the wings of love will we rise to that challenge.

The image of a great bird soaring on wide wings suggests the stillness of a fully dedicated will.  When Christian tradition speaks of love, the accent falls on our human will, not on our emotions.  This is another indication that the notion of passionate attraction is far off the mark when we search for the essence of love.  Love is not a feeling, but a freely chosen attitude.  Only so does the command, “Thou shalt love,” make sense.  No one can command us to feel one way or another.  Feelings are simply not subject to commands.  Neither are our thoughts.  Only our will can obey.  As our will makes a vigorous effort to overcome the inertia of indifference, it will take our thoughts and our feelings along step-by-step.

“Thou shalt love” is a command that calls for three steps: first saying, “yes,” to belonging; next, to look and see what our “yes” implies; finally, to act upon that “yes.”  One step leads to the next.  If we have said the first “yes” with full conviction, we will surely care enough about those to whom we belong to inform ourselves about them.  This includes exploited brothers and sisters at home and abroad.  (We might even discover that we are among those who exploit them.)  It includes the sea otters and the whales.  It includes the rain forests.  “Thou shalt love” implies all the effort it takes to find out what I personally can do to act upon my “yes” to belonging in a given case.  And, little as it may be, there is always something I can do.  Most importantly, therefore, “Thou shalt Love” implies that I go ahead and do what I can, because I belong and have said, “Yes, I will.”

This response of love is a grateful response.  Here, too, love and gratefulness meet.  When love acts upon the implications of its “yes” to belonging, there is no mistaking its response for the rushing-about of do-gooders who expect thanks for their service.  Here the service itself is an expression of our thanks for the opportunity to serve.  It springs from a deep inner listening, an openness for all that a given moment contains, because we belong to it all, and so we care.  Every moment is gift.  We have seen this before.  But now we must stress that the gift within each gift is opportunity.  It may be opportunity to enjoy; it may be opportunity to patiently accept what cannot be changed; but it may also be opportunity to get up and do something about it.  “On strong wings love rises to every opportunity and so shows itself grateful for it.”  If we miss this point, gratitude becomes a passive, bloodless affair.  But if we look at every moment as an opportunity to say again and anew the “yes” of love with all its implications, then love will be seen as a power that can change the world.  Yet, love will change the lover first.

We grow in love when we grow in gratefulness.  And we grow in gratefulness when we grow in love.  Here is the link between the two: thanksgiving pivots on our willingness to go beyond our independence and to accept the give-and-take between giver and thanks-giver.  But the “yes” which acknowledges our interdependence is the very “yes” to belonging, the “yes” of love.  Every time we say a simple, “thank you,” and mean it, we practice that inner gesture of “yes.”  And the more we practice it, the easier it becomes.  The more difficult it is to say a grateful “yes,” the more we grow by learning to say it gracefully.  This sheds light on suffering and on other difficult gifts.  The hardest gifts are, in a sense, the best, because they make us grow the most.

We know that our deepest joy springs from living in love.  The key to that joy is the “yes” which love and gratefulness have in common.  Thanksgiving is the setting in which that “yes” is most naturally practiced.  This makes gratefulness a school in which one learns love.  The only degrees one receives in that school are degrees of aliveness.  With every “yes,” one relationship or another grows deeper and broader.  And aliveness can only be measured by the intensity, depth, and variety of our relationships.  If the fullness of gratitude which the word grate-ful-ness implies can ever be reached, it must be fullness of love and fullness of life.

Growth in grateful love is also growth in prayer.  Love has its own world prayer, just as faith and hope do.  We saw that faith ventures forth into a world of prayer, whose countless forms are so many ways of “Living by the Word.”  Hope opens itself in the stillness of waiting to a world of prayer that is still at the brink of beginning, still open for untold possibilities, the Prayer of Silence.  Love belongs to a world of prayer at the intersection of Word and Silence.  Love’s prayer is action.  The Word, received in faith, falls as seed into the silent soil of hope and brings fruit in love.  There is no willingness in love’s action, only a willingness to bear fruit.  And yet the active aspect is so striking here that love’s world of prayer goes by the name of Contemplation in Action.

This name will strike us as strange if we remember our chapter on contemplation.  Action is a constituent part of contemplation, one of its two poles.  The other pole is vision.  The “con” in contemplation welds vision and action together.  Unless action put it into effect, vision would remain barren in this world.  The opposite of Contemplation in Action cannot be inactive contemplation.  That would be as contradictory as blind contemplation.  Action belongs as much to contemplation as vision.  Why, then, single it out when we speak of Contemplation in Action?  Here is an explanation.  In love’s world of prayer, action does not does not only flow from contemplative vision, but that very vision flows also from contemplative action.  Here is a parallel from daily experience.  Sometimes you want to do something, but you say, “I don’t see how it can be done.”  Then you try it anyway, and the doing shows you how.  “I see!” you exclaim.  Thus, vision can spring from action, even the vision of God’s glory.

Every genuine form of contemplation is committed to putting its vision into action.  But not always does the vision spring from active engagement itself.  Often our vision quest demands that we disengage ourselves from activity.  For love’s world of prayer, however, the intense engagement of Contemplation in Action is most typical.  This does not mean that contemplative disengagement is inactive or lacking in love.  Not at all.  But the “yes” to belonging makes love what it is.  And that “yes” implies availability for engagement.  Thus, love is most easily recognized in contemplation, the more the engagement aspect is stressed.  Suppose you want to draw a picture of a pencil.  You will most likely make two parallel lines and add a point in front.  But you could just as well draw a small circle with a dot in the center.  That’s a front view of a pencil.  Front view and side view show the same thing.  But one is far more easily recognized.  That is why we speak of Contemplation in Action as love’s world of prayer.  Love is most easily recognized in it.

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