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May 10, 2010

new commandmentBut if I am true to the concept that God utters in me, if I am true to the thought of God I was meant to embody, I shall be full of God’s actuality and find God everywhere in myself, and find myself nowhere.  I shall be lost in God:  that is, I shall find myself.  I shall be “saved.”

     ~ Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 37

In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples:  “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.  If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once. . . . I give you a new commandment: love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”  (John 13: 31-2, 34)  The acts of love that constitute each moment of the life, and now the impending death, of Jesus are acts of God.  So the “new commandment” is new only in its recognition of the source of the love whereby the Disciples are to love one another.  That is, their love for each other is the love of Jesus for each of them and through them to others.

     Despite our ready acknowledgement of the centrality of love in our lives, our actual life experience, especially our lives in relationship to others, is always reminding us of how difficult it is to love others.  So much of life in relationship is a life of reaction.  When we experience being liked or confirmed by others, we feel a kinship with them and affinity for them.  When the other is difficult or antagonistic, we react with anger, resentment, dismissal and distance.  We experience care for those who are “ours” or who depend on us and evoke our sympathy, but we experience fear of and aggression toward those whom we experience as strange or difficult.  In this respect, one of the most difficult sayings of the gospels for us is:

If you love those who love you, what thanks can you expect?  Even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what thanks can you expect?  For even sinners do that much. . . . Instead, love your enemies and do good, and lend without any hope of return.  (Luke 6: 32-35)

     For the pre-transcendent dimensions of human life, this “command” of Jesus is impossible.  This is not the love that we speak of, think about, write about and declare to those who are most important to us.  It is something very different, and the difficulty of its practice points to the fact that the life and the love described in the gospels is, in many respects, quite foreign to us in our daily experience.  If we deeply reflect on our experience of relating to other human persons, we might begin to appreciate that, in fact, we, as we ordinarily take ourselves to be, are incapable of such a love.  Perhaps such love is only possible by an act of transcendent willing, by means of the love with which God has loved us (John 17: 26).

     Adrian Van Kaam speaks of love in this transcendent sense in the following way:

Love, in a supreme transcendent sense, becomes. . . the simple will to love in the midst of utter detachment.  This love-will or purgated willfulness or appreciative abandonment represents the basic consent of our whole person to any consonant appeal in our formation field. . . . This innermost choice is always rooted in our basic option to trust in the love-will of the mystery for us. (Transcendent Formation, p. 21)

Love, in the conventional sense, involves a positive reaction to someone or something that appeals to us in both senses of the term:  it is gratifying or appealing to us, and it asks something of us to which we desire to respond.  On the other hand, love in the “supreme transcendent sense” occurs “in the midst of utter detachment.”  We hear the appeal of the person or situation regardless of its appealing or unappealing nature.  This is possible only when our own willfulness has been purged, and we are present to the moment in appreciative abandonment.  As Merton puts it, “I shall be full of God’s actuality and find God everywhere in myself, and find myself nowhere.”

     In van Kaam’s understanding, when we live in consonance with our own founding form our will is a manifestation of God’s will, or what he calls God’s love-will. This consonance with our founding form requires living in “utter detachment,” that is, it requires that, in Merton’s terms, I find myself in my actuality by becoming “lost in God.”  In his Counsels to a Religious on How to Reach Perfection, St. John of the Cross writes:  “In order to practice the first counsel, concerning resignation, you should live in the monastery as though no one else were in it . . .” St. John recognizes that our secondary foundational life form, the alternative construction of our identity, is created through conformity to and comparison and competition with others.  This secondary form of life is built up over the course of a lifetime and its feelings and reactions are the result of our entire life experience.  Thus, our experience of others is never a direct experience of their unique identity but a construction out of our memories and past experiences.  In this sense, our will to love is never simple; it is rather the result of what Sigmund Freud called transference. We react to the other based on the hopes, fears, needs, desires and resentments of a lifetime that the other person (as a reminder of those from our past) evokes in us.  The practice of solitude to which St. John calls us is the practice of detaching from the deformative dispositions of heart that our past experiences have created in us.  It is a forsaking of the biases of our secondary form of life in favor of the capacity of our transcendent will to serve as an instrument of the love-will of God in the face of the appeal of the given moment.

     When St. John calls on us to live in the world as if “no one else were in it,” he is not calling us to solipsism, for he knows that when we detach from the ties that bind us to others in comparison, competition, resentment, and need, we create a space in which to know directly God’s love and God’s will in and for us.  Detached from our life of reaction to the world, we can know our deepest potency to receive God’s love-will for us and to express it in our own unique way.  The alternative to living a life of reaction, one that constrains our freedom to love in the way each moment calls for, is to live a life in the presence of God.

     Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a seventeenth-century lay Carmelite, practiced such a life in a way that is simple and available to all of us.  At each moment throughout his daily life, Brother Lawrence maintained an ongoing discourse with God.  In the classic text The Practice of the Presence of God a simple but striking example is offered.  Brother Lawrence who was lame and felt most incompetent in business affairs was asked to make a journey by boat to buy wine.  He spoke to God of his fears and misgivings and reminded God “that it was God’s business he was on” and went ahead to accomplish his task.  Brother Lawrence thus turns all that is within his heart and mind into a direct and open conversation with God.  Such living in open communication and communion with God slowly but inexorably detaches us from our falseness and pretensions.  It leads to a purgation of that willfulness that arises in us as we attempt to assert into the world our own mistaken and false sense of identity and opens us in appreciative abandonment to the consonant appeal that reality makes to us in the present moment.

     In our daily lives the demands of love, especially as Jesus speaks of them in the gospels, can seem beyond our capacities.  Yet, the new commandment reminds us to love as we are loved.  The power to love comes not through our own efforts but rather through “the simple will to love in the midst of utter detachment.”  As we live more and more in appreciative abandonment of the love-will of God in our own and the world’s regard, we become channels of that love in each of the moments of our lives.

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