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Mystery of Love

 

Forty years ago I left the Marriage Encounter weekend with two deep desires. The first desire was to grow my relationship with my wife. The weekend had taught me the need for communication to nourish our marriage and the techniques to do so. The second desire was to pursue a greater love of God, for on that weekend I had experienced God as Love at the center of reality and my life. From the convergence of those two desires, an intuition took root: If I could grasp the nature of marital love, that insight would guide me to greater love of God.

What moved my deep-seated intuition 40 years ago to today’s insight was reading “Will and Spirit” by Dr. Gerald G. May. The author was an expert in both human psychology and in spirituality. His analysis of both these subjects prompted me to make two discoveries. One, that the manifestations of love for both marital and divine love are basically the SAME; and two, that the manifestations are in reality a PROCESS—a transformative one at that.

As human beings, we have a mysterious, fundamental human longing for unconditional love. It manifests itself in different ways. In both marital and divine love, we experience narcissistic love, erotic love, compassionate love and agapic love.

Narcissistic Love. Hardly a true form of love, narcissistic love manifests itself in marital love when we are self-centered. Or when we seek to bolster our self-image. Or when we are more interested in receiving than in giving, more focused on self-preservation and aggrandizement than on the welfare of our spouse.

That is its manifestation in marital love. But can our love of God be narcissistic? Yes, when we adopt a coping strategy in our relationship with God. When we look to God only as the One who saves us from the problems and sufferings of life. This kind of mentality is hardly spirituality. Yet, religious institutions encourage it. The good news is that there is a redeeming quality in narcissistic love.

Erotic Love. As our empowering life force, erotic love is pleasure, is passion, is sexual that moves us to union with our spouse—and to the fullness of human life. In his book, The Holy Longing, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser says that we are born with fire in our bellies—eros—that drives us to love, beauty and creativity, or to destructiveness. Ultimately, it is what we do with that energy that matters.

What about our love of God? Can it be erotic? Should it be erotic? As erotic beings, we can’t love our spouses in one way and God in a different way. We have one mind-heart set for love. NOT a secular set to love our spouse, and a spiritual set to love God. Ultimately, spirituality seeks union with God—and with others. We must bring our erotic energy to bear on our spiritual life—in our prayer life and in our relations with others. Otherwise, our spiritual life will dry up.

The primary example of our need for erotic love is in our Eucharistic Celebrations. Jesus revolutionized public worship by creating a Love Meal intended to form the Beloved Community. Indeed, Jesus’ Love Meal is either an erotic experience or it is an experience that doesn’t nourish our relationship with God or our sisters and brothers. Unfortunately, the Church has turned Jesus’ Love Meal into a church service. We must make it happen for ourselves.

When does erotic love lead us astray? When we adopt a strategy of seeking emotional highs or irrational exuberance in our relationships with God and others. When we look at spiritual experiences as escapes from reality or allow the so-called “spiritual” to blind us to the problems and sufferings of others. Or when we are selective in our choices of persons to whom we relate.

Compassionate Love. In marital love, compassionate love is a committed, noncontrived giving of time, energy, attention and wealth to further the welfare and improve the life of our spouse. It flourishes when we have moved beyond the phase of seeing our spouse as the “intimate enemy” who must be controlled or manipulated to conform to our personalities. That breakthrough leads us to compassionate love of our spouse.

A similar breakthrough in our relationship with God opens us up when we have gone beyond strictly a need mentality or an escapist mentality. We must even eliminate a happiness mentality which conditions our relationship with God based on the proposition: if one lives one’s life correctly one will be happy. Not so. We experience negative feelings which rise from our human condition. Further, life provides us with many painful situations.

Like the marital life, the spiritual life requires us to experience purgation of those mentalities that prevent growth in love, hope and faith in God. The good news is that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, is an aggressive Lover who enlightens us and consoles us on our spiritual journey. Compassionate love of God blossoms in us when we discover that the Spirit of Love is at work in our lives and we foster that relationship.

Agapic Love. The previous manifestations of love—narcissistic, erotic, compassionate—are all conditional forms of love. Circumstances and personal whim can influence them. To a degree, our wills can control them. Self-serving motivations can enter into their expressions. But agapic love is ultimate, unconditional love. As such, it suffers from none of these defects. The only choice humans have in relation to agapic love, Dr. May writes, is whether or not to recognize its presence. We can neither magnify nor destroy it. That suggests to me that agapic love is pure gift, the gift of the Spirit of Love.

In both our marital and divine relationships, we can and should be open to reach the heights of agapic love. Dr. May gives us an insight into agapic love by contrasting it with erotic love. He states: “The world falls away in the ecstasy of erotic love. The ecstasy of agapic love is characterized by an awesome joining with all the rest of the world, becoming a part of it. In an erotic ‘high,’ the world disappears in love. In the spiritual ‘high,’ the world appears in love.” When marital love or divine love has brought us to moments of loving all beings and creation, we know that the Spirit has gifted us with agapic love.

Love’s Process. The above analysis suggests that manifestations of both human and divine love are basically the SAME. It also suggests a new perception of this mysterious phenomenon called “love.” First, the various manifestations of love are not stages at which we arrive at and must spend time. Ideally, love is a PROCESS—a flow from the narcissistic to the erotic, to the compassionate and to the agapic (if we are gifted). Second, seen in this light, love becomes our commitment to our spouse and God to surrender to love’s WHOLE process. That commitment and intentionality are our deepest expressions of marital and divine love.

We may begin with narcissistic love for both our spouse and God but we must strive for deeper love. What we can’t allow ourselves to do is to get “stuck” at any point in the love process. For example, we can’t allow ourselves to remain at the narcissistic, for that would be destructive of both human and divine relationships. Both our human and divine loves manifest the sensational—the highs of life. But we can’t allow ourselves to get stuck there. That would only block growth in our relationships. Further, couples must be capable of transcending their own relationships to reach out to others: that is the way the Spirit of Love operates—inviting us to compassionate and agapic love.

Love’s Transforming Power. Plutarch, the first-century Roman historian, recognized love’s process in his marriage and its transformative power. In his “Dialogues of Love,” he wrote: “Physical pleasure with a spouse is the seed of friendship and the participation in great mysteries. Though the physical pleasure is brief, from it grows day by day respect and grace, affection and faithfulness.”

Likewise, in the spiritual life the Spirit’s gifts of consolations (emotional highs) are joyful experiences on our spiritual journey to greater love, hope and faith. But the joy is not an end in itself. The gifts of consolations are invitations to transformation and spiritual growth.

What is the secret to love’s transforming power? Love generates psychic fire that is the agent of transformation—the fire of the Spirit of Love. However, that psychic fire is inflamed in committed unions. Committed unions—marital and divine loves—are the crucibles of love. Given that environment, love melts down our alienation from God, others and our spouses. That is why our divine union, such as in the Eucharist, and marital union are potentially so powerfully transformative.

Love’s Prelude. Since marital love and divine love are so similar, we can draw insights from either one and apply it to the other. From my pursuit of a deeper spiritual life, I have learned that it is what I do BEFORE a spiritual exercise that is most important. Here is what the spiritual life has taught me about love’s prelude for marital love and how I have applied it

One, we must approach both marital and divine union—conscious of their inherent mystery. As mystery, we are powerless to be the masters of our own experiences and must rely on the Spirit of Love. Before prayer or Eucharistic Celebrations, I remind myself that I have been programmed for relationship with an Infinite Being, an Infinite Lover, but I am powerless to live such a relationship without the Spirit’s help. Before marital union, I remind myself that my capacity to love is so deep within me that I am powerless to awaken it without the Spirit’s gift. Mystery, and the wonder that mystery evokes, helps prepare me for both divine and marital union.

Second, recognizing the mystery we are engaging in and our powerlessness in both divine and marital love helps us to experience self-emptying. We must strip ourselves of our masks (clothes are part of our masks), behind which we hide to enhance our false self. We must experience psychic nakedness. Then, we can put ourselves at the disposal of the beloved (human and divine), gifting ourselves, yielding ourselves, surrendering ourselves to the beloved’s invitation to union. We surrender into union.

Third, focusing on the transformative nature of both marital and divine love opens us up further to the mystery of our engagement. It is kind of like the leap of faith. We know that we are entering into a mysterious encounter and we believe that it will be transformative—how we don’t know. For divine union, I know from experience that making transformation of a personal defect my goal at Eucharistic Celebrations opens me up to the Spirit’s action and deepens my potential for union. For marital union, being aware of this union as being mysteriously transformative, helps us to experience more deeply our powerlessness and psychic nakedness that invite the Spirit of Love to gift us with unitive and agapic experiences.

Love’s Mystery. Love’s mystery begins with ourselves. Fr. Teilhard de Chardin has written that we are not human beings living a spiritual life. Rather, we are spiritual beings living a human life. Love’s mystery begins with our mysterious human nature.

This wisdom has been ignored when we have probed the mystery of marital love. Too much emphasis has been placed on biology and pop psychology to reveal the nature of marital love. Perhaps too the Church has taken possession of our understanding of divine love. As the result, for too long marital love and divine love have been isolated from one another. In reality, they enlighten and energize one another.

The Spirit of Love has used Dr. May’s book, Will and Spirit, to enable me to bring marital love and divine love together. My intuition 40 years ago was right. Grasping the nature of marital love guides us to greater love of God. But what has surprised me is how pursuit of a deeper love of God has revealed insights into marital love and has in fact reinforced that experience.

In the final analysis, the mystery of love is the mystery of the Spirit of Love. The Spirit pervades all of our life. The Spirit is the agent of all human creativity, all human inspirations, all human love’s aspirations.

When we attempt to relate to God, we find his infinity beyond our reach. The Spirit of Love makes encounter possible. Likewise, when we attempt to express marital love, we find our capacity to love is beyond our reach. The Spirit of Love makes it possible. Sure signs of the Spirit’s action can be seen when our marital and divine loves are transformative and transcending—driving us to go beyond our loves to love all beings and all creation. Indeed, the mystery of love is the mystery of the Spirit of Love.