The problem with falling in love with the idea of love (or God)

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

A Reflection for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Exodus 22:20-26 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10 Matthew 22:34-40

A young man, corresponding with a monk because he was interested in a monastic vocation, received this cold-water response. Even without context, the letter explains itself.

My dear Son,
I think you would indeed be wise to clarify your ideas, and put your more ambitious plans, if I may put it so, on ice. You ask if “the mystical Christ” is “enough.” The mystical vision is the reward of a long ascetic pilgrimage and not to be compared with the emotional experiences to which you refer. The full reality of the acceptance of Christ is hard and plain, it is bread and water, the way is a way of brokenness. Your “yearning for holiness” and “giving up the world” are still, I fear, mere expressions of feeling, fancies which give you a “thrill.” You think of the dedicated life as a form of death, but you will be alive and crying. The false god punishes, the true God slays. Sins must not be kept as stimulants, one must attempt to kill the evil in oneself, not simply punish and torment it. (I indicate a form of masochism to which many well-intentioned people are addicted!) You do not tell me whether you are attending Mass and availing yourself of the sacrament of confession. Your letters to me are not a substitute. It is not clear to me how you are spending your time. You should certainly find some regular work in the service of others, keeping in mind the possibility that this may, in the end, prove to be your whole way of serving Christ. Do not sit all day reading Eckhart! Later you may meditate upon what he means when he says seek God only in your own soul. Please perceive the love which prompts all these, as they may seem discouraging, words! Sorry this in haste, yours in Christo. Fr. Damien

The letter is addressed to a young man named Bellamy. Like many other infatuated youths, he is more in love with the idea of love than with God. Bellamy is the creation of the brilliant Iris Murdoch; he is a character in her novel The Green Knight (1993). Literary geniuses like Murdoch have a way of showing ourselves to us by telling us a good story.

We all yearn for love, so it is a small wonder that sometimes we fall in love with the notion of love before we meet someone whom we can love genuinely. The same can happen in our relationship with God. We were created to love God, to respond to the very source of beauty, truth and goodness that we find in the world. But how do we who dwell in the world come to love the creator of the world? How do we show our love to someone who stands beyond this world?

Do not be disdainful of those like Bellamy, who perhaps love the idea of God more than the reality. Most everyone succumbs to some infatuation. It often precedes real love. Why should it be any different in our relationship with God?

In directing Bellamy to “the service of others,” Father Damien does no more than the Lord Jesus himself, who stands in a long line of Hebrew prophets, insisting that there can be no love of God apart from love of neighbor.

You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (Mt 22:37-40).

We can put icons and holy images throughout our home, just as an adolescent might post the image of someone fancied on the inside door of a locker. We can do religious things, like the lovelorn read romances. Nothing wrong with any of this—unless it is all we do.

Infatuations come and go, but even real love begins with romance. There is no reason for regret here. The remorse arrives if the romance fails to grow out of one’s self and into loving service of another. If the poor, the lonely and the afflicted do not have a friend in you, are you God’s friend? Are you really in love? Just asking, as they say.

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