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Francis X. Clooney, S.J.October 30, 2008

Sunrise in ChennaiCambridge, MA. In last week’s entry to this column, I explained how I attempted to write a piece for the Sunday New York TimesModern Love section, on loving God. I explained that I thought that we should be able to speak of loving God in a modern, accessible way. My piece was not accepted, hence my decision to publish it here. As such, it was not written for a blog, and it may seem out of place in America. To remind readers of its origin elsewhere, I put it in quotation marks, though it has not appeared in print elsewhere. I welcome readers’ comments, and likewise urge you to think of how you would write of your love for God, for Modern Love or in other such contexts.
      “I fell in love unexpectedly on a summer night in 1966, in New York, when I was 15. Awake in the night, I felt a fiery touch that burned its way inside me; and although I hardly knew myself at that time, I knew it was God. It was a kind of captivation, a most physical experience, even if — since it was God — it was also not to be seen, nor heard, nor for any words I knew at the time. I had just read The Brothers Karamazov, and saw in myself what had happened to the young monk Alyosha, when he no longer knew himself, fell to the earth, and then was given everything back, even the heavens, all at once. It was then that I started loving God all the way, in a fullness I could never have chosen for myself.
       “Things like this cannot be easily explained especially when you are a teenager, so I told no one about what happened — it seemed — in the night, but I needed to act out the possibility in some way, so I decided to be a priest, to live in that space between God and everyone and everything else. So in 1968, as the world around me turned upside down, I paid no notice, instead entering the Jesuit seminary just outside Poughkeepsie, New York. I had just turned 18 and I still did not, could not, really know what I was getting into. Even now, I can hardly say what it means to love God body and soul, mind and heart. I stepped aside, followed a more obscure path that was the only way I could travel. I kept on it, and a decade later was ordained a priest, and so I have been all these years.
     “Loving God can take your breath away. Sometimes it is all about not-loving and not-being-loved close up. Jesus had nowhere to lay his head, the Gospel says, and for me at least being a priest has been to be homeless, the wayfarer watching out for God, here, nowhere, everywhere. Being a cleric, a priest, a Jesuit can be quite comfortable, but it also means never marrying, and so it signals what hasn’t happened, chances not taken, how it is to live apart from the ambiguous flesh and blood encounters where others make their homes: no spouse, no partner, no living together with just one person, the emptiness of a narrow bed always only my own; many brother priests, and dear friends — but no lovers, no body on body, nothing but sporadic spurts of love, inside out, imagined, growing cold. But such loss is also a cure, the awakening, since in the loneliness He comes near again, every moment, in the touch of every thing. When I awake, He is there. Sometimes when I stop and take a deep breath at midday, He is so close it takes my breath away, and ordinary things seem impossible, until I see that here too He is nearby. At night, the day folding in upon itself, He takes it all back, it is once more the night we met.
      “God has never been my only love, but the other loves keep seeming impossible. At 25 I found myself in love with one of my fellow students, quietly, because I did not know how to say that I loved her. He was keeping me apart, bereft of words, and so the moment passed, and there she was, with someone else. I thought of filling this empty space by becoming a monk, but then He came back, this time not in fire but light, as if to say, “I am enough for you; all this is yours — so let go.” In my 30s, I fell in love twice more, each time never telling her how I felt, for still there were no words, God in-between, mastering my words, holding my silence. Since then too, I have reached the far borders of love, but after the first steps it has remained beyond my reach, God again seizing the moment, making me turn and look Him in the face. I cannot speak for other Jesuits — who may think this odd indeed — but so it has been for me, emptied inside, dug deeper, hollowed out for the bliss of my drowning. Life, given back, is simpler still, because He is near as no one else can be. It is not that I have not loved, but no one else can fill the space when He is there, and He is always there.
      “Loving God is hard to talk about, but I do not live in silence, I live in words. Most Sundays I say Mass in a small parish in Sharon, MA, and there I keep finding my place with God, especially there with God’s most amazing people, living our most ordinary lives. What I say in church is mostly from the book, but in the middle I give the homily, the Word of God on my tongue, as in desperation I allow God to make my word His word, just for a moment before it passes back into unwritten silence. I leave out the most important things, yet sometimes people seem to find their way to God as I speak, as if words are windows through which we see ourselves, our God.
      “I am also a professor and I use many words that way too. Lectures, ideas, arguments, so many questions and opinions, but this too is about clearing the mind, opening spaces where we can think honestly, no longer afraid of finding our way back to God, on campus, in the seminar, the lecture. I am a Christian theologian, but for nearly forty years I have also given myself over to studying Hindu wisdom, images, sounds, sacred places, all so strange yet very familiar to me right from the start. To some, I think, my love of India has seem a kind of adultery, the priest turning to other gods, but it is a purification — losing Christ, finding Him still further on, things turned upside down, lest I imagine Him small and easy, a well-known thing. Christian and Hindu words mingle inside me in a disturbance that sets God free, encountered as if for the first time. I write too, as professors must, but even my bookish words are pulled one by one from inside me. I have been told that I always seem to be writing about myself, and so it is, but really it is of God that I write.
      “I will be 60 soon, and as my life becomes settled, slower, slightly more fragile, loving God has become a most familiar thing. He comes and goes like an aging wife asleep beside me, as ordinary as breath and food and sleep. It is Christ I see in the mirror, older, lined with my memories, the radiance I lose by the day. Perhaps that’s it, nothing else will change. Or He will come again as in the beginning, fierce new love even for the end time, or I will find the words to write a very different book, the diary of this peculiar love, my last word, made flesh.
      “As for the very end, I cannot say. But when I die, He will be there as in the beginning, Love taking life and giving it back, perhaps killing me, becoming then too my after-life. Love is stronger than death, they say, and so it shall be, death reborn, arising.”

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15 years 6 months ago
I am very glad you decided to post your story on this blog. I think it is an extraordinary story. I will keep it so that I can refer to it again and again. I think people who have had an unexpected and strong experience of God will be helped by this story. Or it could remind them of that moment. I am 63 years old. I am glad that this story reminded me that at my age I am fragile. Paradoxically my fragility and poor health have given me the opportunity or willingness to unburden myself more and more. With time my love for God also becomes a more familiar thing. These days my love of God is a liberating experience. Perhaps it will continue to be that kind of experience or perhaps not. I don't live alone. Nevertheless I spend most of my time silently and alone. I am grateful that these days I am given more opportunity to pray and to be with God. It is interesting my favorite priest to talk to is an American monk who was a friend of Bede Griffiths. My friend has lived in southern India several times and is very attached to the Hindu traditions. I don't know much about the Hindu tradition. I am not a scholar of Buddhism, however, I have been reading a little about Buddhist mindfulness most days. I find it helpful. Being a human being is about being like Jesus. I came across this quote that I like, 'He who has his eyes fixed closely on the [space] of the heart, penetrates into the center of the lotus cup, and excludes all else from consciousness, will, O Beautiful One, partake of supreme joy.' (Vijnanabhairava Tantra)
15 years 6 months ago
Thank you for this beautifl piece- the part about Jesus having no place to rest, fills me with tears - its so true.
15 years 6 months ago
Thank you for sharing the drama of your relationship with Christ. My heart broke for you when you fell in love with your student. But even the best of marriages have such temptations, and you weathered yours with courage and resolve. I was especially touched by the reference to Alyosha in your reading of the Brothers Karamazov. I almost entered the convent when I was in my twenties. At 68, I responded to a ''second call'' when I came to the Northwest to join the Jesuit Volunteer Eldercorps. I, like you and Alyosha, was given everything back. But I had to fall to the ground before that happened. At 76, I am still on the receiving end. I've learned that it is never too late to follow your call. Thank you for this beautiful essay on what it means to love God. I'm a New York Times subscriber, but I'm disappointed in its decision to reject this powerful piece.
15 years 6 months ago
I wonder if it didn't take a sort of courage to write this article? You write about how much you love God, but you don't say much about how God loves you. Also, I'm interested in these women you fell in love with. What attracted you to them? Did it give you any special insight into how much God must love you? Thanks for sharing.
15 years 6 months ago
I think you are on to something. Usually the theme in religious education classes is ''God Loves You.'' I remember teaching a sixth grade class on ''love God with all your heart and all your mind,'' but it was more about teaching them the rule, and not teaching them how to actively love God. How do you teach someone to love? Your article reminded me of an epiphany moment I had last year when I was watching my younger brother with his toddler son. I always knew that Hank would be a good father, but he has turned into a really good father. We were in his cramped NYC apartment, and he was in absolute rapture tossing his boy into the air. Father and son were laughing and giggling and enjoying each other. At the time, I thought that was the luckiest baby, and that every problem in the world could be solved if every baby were loved that much. After reading your article, I changed my focus from the baby receiving love, to my brother's act of giving love. He is transformed. So, you have my attention. I don't always feel that I love God. For a faith relationship, that might be more important than ''God loves me.'' How do you teach someone to love God?
15 years 3 months ago
In Love all that was, is , and will be remains tangiable. And when the ones that loved us well die the love felt survives til the end of time. Love is the only thing that surpasses death in the soul that rises.

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