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Love of Neighbor and Transcendent Openness 

June 21, 2010

agapeFor I desire goodness, not sacrifice;

Obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings.

               ~ Hosea 6:6

In the passage from the works of Oswald Chambers that is quoted for June 19 in My Utmost for His Highest, we read:  “If I am devoted to the cause of humanity only, I will soon be exhausted and come to the place where my love will falter; but if I love Jesus Christ personally and passionately, I can serve humanity though human beings treat me as a doormat.”    The longer one lives the more one identifies with the experience of Linus in Charles Schultz’s famous comic strip Peanuts:  “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.”  The truth of the matter is that for all our attempts to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love not only our friends but also our enemies, there are many times when we don’t like the people around us very much.  There is little doubt that for most of us the attempt to love others who often seem to us to be careless, mindless, selfish, arrogant, and on and on is, at best, exhausting, if not impossible.   Recently, as I entered the security line at an airport for an eagerly anticipated trip home both stressed and tired from a daylong meeting, I found myself increasingly frustrated and agitated by the perceived incompetencies of the security personnel and the slowness and inattention of my fellow travelers.  Later, on the plane, I sat next to a young woman who proceeded to take off her shoes, cross her legs, and dangle her bare foot in front of me for much of, thankfully, only an hour or so flight.  By the time I arrived home, I was very tired and significantly agitated and angry.  And all this from relatively minor, if not perhaps totally subjective, affronts.  Commonplace experiences such as these are potent reminders of how difficult it is to practice the spiritual directives that call us to revere and love the other.

    How do we, over the long haul, continue to work at loving those who feel like obstructions and impediments to us?   According to Chambers, it is a matter of our intention.  When our heart is devoted to the love of the Lord, it becomes possible to remain devoted to humanity, even as human beings hurt and frustrate us.  As Henri Nouwen has written, “It is important to remember that the first great commandment is indeed the first.”  As counterintuitive as it may seem to us, it is, as Hosea says, only through obedience to God, by loving God with “all our heart and soul and strength” that sustained devotion to the human world is possible.  Put another way, to grow in love for our neighbor over the course of a lifetime requires that we take the reality of our own sinfulness seriously.

    It is not by dint of will but only “in spirit and in truth” that reverence and love for others are possible.  It is only as the bodily and functional dimensions of our personality become suffused with the aspirations and inspirations of our spiritual and transcendent capacities that the love of which the great wisdom traditions speak becomes a lived possibility for us.  Any attempt to live out the call to universal love that is based on our vital and functional capacities as separated from our spiritual core is doomed to frustration and failure.  For when others invade my bodily space or impede my desired goal, I become angry and resentful at them.  So strong are my vital reactions and functional frustrations that my transcendent dimension’s capacity for awe and reverence becomes totally submerged.  As I enter the security line at the airport, my presence is restricted to my desire to get to my gate as quickly as possible.  As I take my seat in the plane, my goal is to be left alone and to get through the trip with as little interference and bother as possible.  Thus, I refuse the possibilities of spirit that constitute my deepest personhood and possibility – a possibility for an open, respectful, and awe-filled presence to the true personal reality of these situations.

    To become ever-increasingly conformed to the will of the Father is the true meaning of discipleship.  Chambers, as well as St. Paul, remind us that “the saving of the human race was the natural outcome of [Jesus’] obedience to the Father”.  The intention of Jesus throughout his life was pure and simple: to do the will of God.  And by doing so, He saves us.  So we too can only live out the ethic to love through learning obedience to God’s will, through subjecting our functional mind and will more and more to the life and direction given to us through our transcendent mind and will.  We shall never come to experience vital level affinity for all persons, nor shall we come to experience even most of them as collaborators and cooperators in common functional projects.  We can, however, come to recognize the presence of the Mystery in them which will evoke awe and reverence in us.  This will require of us, over the course of our lives, to allow our wills to be conformed to God’s will.   This conformation to God’s will, to the Reality of all that is, happens through our capacity for what Adrian van Kaam terms transcendent openness.

     Functional mind and will separated from our transcendent capacities, lead us to reduce our presence to the world and others and the Mystery that lies at their core.  On the other hand, our capacity for transcendent openness is of its nature expansive.  It draws us increasingly beyond ourselves and the limitations our self-absorption impose on the quality of our presence:

Each presence of the spirit implies an expansion of our transcendent potency and a pointing to the next phase of deepening spiritual presence.  In other words, our actual spiritual presence will inevitably give rise to a deeper presence the moment we are ready for it culturally and personally.  The only way for us to avoid the new horizon is to live in repressive refusal of all horizons of the spirit, to falsify them, to dwell willfully outside the light of the formation mystery.

We can thus distinguish a fundamental potentiality and a concrete readiness for deepening.  Only when both coincide does a new disclosure take place.

Adrian van Kaam, Fundamental Formation, p. 163

The obedience to which we are called and which carries with it the dispositions of awe and reverence for others is a willing “concrete readiness for deepening.”  It requires of us a way of living that fosters that in us which is openness to our ever expanding capacity for spiritual presence, for living in the light of the Divine Mystery of Formation.  Disobedience, then, is “the repressive refusal of all horizons of spirit.”

    How do we recognize when we are living this “repressive refusal” of spirit?  In Matthew 7, Jesus tells us one such symptom: noticing the splinter in the other’s eye.  Jesus then teaches: “. . . remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from the other’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:5)  That is, first restore your own obedience to the will of God, reconnect with your own transcendent openness, and then “you will see clearly” your relationship to and the deeper appeal of the other.

     The love of others to which we are called is not merely an ethical demand of our limited functional capacities that is doomed to exhaust us.  It is rather a life that we already share and which, if we cease to repress it, is always available to our transcendent potencies.

. . .we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity.

Thomas Merton, Asian Journal, p. 308

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