From My Bright Abyss
Sorrow is so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, or at least any understanding of our souls that we are able to attain, that every experience is dyed with its color. This is why, even in moments of joy, part of that joy is the seams of ore that are our sorrow. They burn darkly and beautifully in the midst of joy, and they make joy the complete experience that it is. But they still burn.
And why this sorrow? Why its persistence, its involvement with all that is my soul? Childhood was difficult, and most of it remains inaccessible to me, but I was deeply loved. And I am capable of deep love now for the people in my life, for my work. I love the life that I have been granted in this deepening shadow of death. And it is not the prospect of my own death that sustains sorrow, for it preceded my sickness by many years, by all the years of my consciousness, in fact. And that is surely the reason right there – consciousness, which, at least as I have grown up understanding and developing it, is a setting apart from reality, when reality is the only possibility of God.
For many people, God is simply a gauze applied to the wound of not knowing, when in fact that wound has bled into every part of the world, is bleeding now in a way that is life if we acknowledge it, death if we don’t. Christ is contingency. Christ’s life is right now.
I hear someone say on TV that one need only think of the million innocent children killed in the Holocaust to annihilate any notion of a benevolent God. True enough, I think, but that’s a straw god, and not the real one who felt every one of those deaths as his own.
Felt? I listen to a radio segment about scientists measuring the radioactive decay after such large-scale catastrophes as September 11 or the 2003 tsunami in Indonesia. It turns out that nuclear decay, which is, if not a constant, as close to such a thing as we can get, inexplicably increases after these events. As if contingent matter echoed or shadowed or even shared our sufferings (and our joys?). As if creation itself cried out with us.
Christ comes alive in the communion between people. When we are alone, even joy is, in a way, sorrow’s flower: lovely, necessary, sustaining, but blooming in loneliness, rooted in grief. I’m not sure you can have communion with other people without these moments in which sorrow has opened in you, and for you; and I am pretty certain that without shared social devotion one’s solitary experiences of God wither into a form of withholding, spiritual stinginess, the light of Christ growing ever fainter in the glooms of the self.
What this means is that even if you are socially shy and generally inarticulate about spiritual matters – and I say this as someone who finds casual social interactions often quite difficult and my own feelings about faith intractably mute – you must not swerve from the engagements God offers you. These will occur in the most unlikely places, and with people for whom your first instinct may be aversion. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that Christ is always stronger in our brother’s heart than in our own, which is to say, first, that we depend on others for our faith, and second, that the love of Christ is not something you can ever hoard. Human love catalyzes the love of Christ. And this explains why that love seems at once so forceful and so fugitive, and why, “while we speak of this, and yearn toward it,” as Augustine says, “we barely touch it in a quick shudder of the heart.”
There is a kind of insistence on loneliness that is diabolical. It expunges the possibility of other people, of love in all its transfiguring forms, and thus of God. It does not follow, however, when one is freed from one’s addiction to, or sentence of, loneliness, that loneliness “ends.” But it becomes – even in love’s afterimage, even when a love is taken from us – a condition in which God can be. Loneliness, when it passes through love, assumes an expansiveness and active capacity. “The body becomes an easy channel for the invisible,” as Fanny Howe writes. “You may be lonely but are not empty.”
(How I pray for this condition for my wife, that she might know, when I am gone, this holy porousness, this presence that both stills and fulfills the ravages of absence, this gift beyond grief.)
Last night we wondered whether people who do not have the love of God in them – or who have it but do not acknowledge it, or reject it – whether such people could fully feel human love. I was reading Hans Urs von Balthasar, who suggests that this is the case: God obstructs man, pursued man, haunts him with “a love that runs after him, pulls him out of the pit, casts aside his chains and places him in the freedom of divine and now even human love.” And now even human love. For Balthasar, the man pursued by God may very well have loved another person, but not fully, not in the freedom of ultimate love, which scours the ego and urges one toward the spark of divinity within another person. It is those sparks that must unite; that is the only fire that time and change will not snuff out.
I have a complicated reaction to this. When my wife and I fell in love eight years ago, both of us – spontaneously, though we’d been away from any sort of organized religion for years – began praying together. The prayers were at once formal and improvisational, clear-spirited but tentative, absolute but open ended. They were also, for all the whimsy of them (we would often laugh), deeply serious and, as my illness made clear when it came slashing through our lives, sustaining. Our passion had a religious element, which danger clarified and intensified. I don’t think the human love preceded the divine love, exactly; as I have already said, I never experienced a conversion so much as an assent to a faith that had long been latent within me. But it was human love that reawakened divine love. Put another way, it was pure contingency that caught fire in our lives, and it was Christ whom we found – together, and his presence dependent upon our being together – burning there. I can’t speak for other people. I only know that I did not know what love was until I encountered one that kept opening, and opening and opening. And until I acknowledged that what that love was opening onto, and into, was God.
But reflect, daughters, that he doesn’t want you to hold on to anything, for if you avoid doing so you will be able to enjoy the favors we are speaking of. Whether you have little or much, he wants everything for himself, and in conformity with what you know you have given, you will receive greater or lesser favors. (Teresa of Ávila)
There is much in this passage that clearly anchors it in, and limits it to, an earlier time and consciousness – the uncomplicated personification of God (“he wants”), the presentation of God as a kind of endlessly craving and endlessly jealous father figure, and (worst of all) the assumption that there is a direct link between the quality of your prayers and offerings and the quality of God’s response: what you give is what you get. But there is also a deep truth in the passage that transcends all of this. In any true love – a mother’s for her child, a husband’s for his wife, a friend’s for a friend – there is an excess energy that always wants to be in motion. Moreover, it seems to move not simply from one person to another but through them, toward something else. (“All I know now / is the more he loved me the more I loved the world.” – Spencer Reece) This is why we can be so baffled and overwhelmed by such love (and I don’t mean merely when we fall in love; in fact, I’m talking more of other, more durable relationships): it wants to be more than it is; it cries out inside of us to make it more than it is. And what it is crying out for, finally, is its essence and origin: God. Love, which awakens our souls and to which we cling like the splendid mortal creatures that we are, asks us to let it go, to let it be more than it is if it is only us. To manage this highest form of loving does not mean that we will be showered with Earthly delights or somehow be spared awful human suffering. But for as long as we can live in this sacred space of receiving and releasing, and can learn to speak and be love’s fluency, then the greater love that is God brings a continuous and enlarging air into our existence. We feel love leave us in unthreatening ways. We feel it reenter us at once more truly and more strange, like a simple kiss that has a bite of starlight to it.