Christian Love as Source, Way and Fulfillment

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Part of "Christian Love as Source, Way and Fulfillment of Christian Life"

(including discussion and questions of retreat participants)

Tape 1, Side A

Archival Photo





love, specifically Christian love, but not in a way that excludes other forms of love, but, as we'll be proposing, as fulfilling of them, if they're authentically human love. And it's quite a topic, it's quite overwhelming, so we'll just be offering some suggested reflections and insights that come from scripture or the mystics or the theologians or poets or something and at the end of each one of these encounters we'll be having discussion to open up to your insights and questions and completings of what is said here. But it's, I think, a topic that we explore a lifetime and it's where we begin with our parental love we receive from mom and dad and it's hopefully where we end our journey on this earth with the loved ones around us, either physically or the whole spirit of their presence.


And it purports to be the answer to our deepest questions about what it's all about. We have to have these questions because we didn't decide that we would be human beings, that we'd be born in this century, into that family, etc. We're thrown into the situation as the existentialist philosophers and theologians say. So we don't come with answers to it all, so it's a quest. What is it all about? And the answer of Christianity and others of the great religions and also poets and theologians, in some sense or other, in the deepest sense, it is about this agape love. That's where we come from, that's how we should journey, that's where we're going. So I find this extremely relieving that we can bring it all together, we can get to the heart of the matter. And then the trick is just to be there, to abide there,


as 1 John says. But to know, in some sense, what we're trying to do, what we've received and what we will receive, I think that's a great consolation. There's so many people who really don't have a clue, so many people who are convinced that it isn't all about Christian love. So I think it's a grace to have this commitment of faith and hope and love. So Jesus says, for instance, you know the famous threefold commandment, this is the fullness of the law and the prophets, that is, all of Jewish revelation, is in this love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. So we'll be exploring this more carefully. But in these three dimensions of the love commitment, that's it, says Jesus. You do that and you'll live. You do that and you'll attain the fullness of God. So that's something. And then, of course,


in Paul, the greatest of these is love. Of these being the highest Christian virtues and gifts, the greatest of them is love. If I have all the rest but don't have love, I'm nothing. But love somehow fulfills all the rest. And then you remember 1 John says simply, whoever abides in love abides in God and God in them, because God is love. So there's that amazing equation, God is love. Raymond Brown says that's probably the most famous and most popular verses in scripture. And Augustine has a lovely phrase where he says, if we lost all the rest but had only that verse of scripture, we could somehow reconstruct all the rest from just that verse. That's it. That is the heart of the matter. And not a heart of darkness, evidently, but a heart truly of light,


a life-giving heart. And so we can quote all kinds of mystics, as we will in these meetings, but also many of the poets and writers say something of the same sort. Maybe it's not precisely about the fullness of Christian agape they're talking about, but they're talking about some analogy. This is how they sum it up. So Rilke says, for one human being to love another human being, this is the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. So he's talking specifically about love among humans, but it's interesting that he should put that as what everything else is preparation for. Then there's this lovely quote of Emily Dickinson, all I know of love is that love is all there is.


And I think a serious Thomist would agree with that. In the final analysis, if God is love, everything else is preparation for love, fulfilled in love, or illusion, or non-existence finally. So either that's true or it's not. If it is true, then somehow to get our lives centered there, that's what Christian spirituality wants to be all about. That's what interpersonal relations want to be all about. That's what liturgy wants to be all about. Private prayer, my relation with myself, whatever, my relation with creation, somehow it all wants to get back to there. And so the only challenge is to walk the talk. But it's not so easy, of course. I think as we get into this theme and get into reflecting about our own experience of love, we discover that in some ways it's the hardest thing of all. It's easy to go through the motions, but to truly love the


other, to truly love ourselves, to truly love God, extremely difficult. So that's the narrow way that leads to the kingdom. That is perfection. I remember Dean Jones at Grace Cathedral, he had this workshop where he asked everyone to very much focus on that they were loved by God for just about 20 seconds, and to focus there. And he said, we probably can't keep there much longer than that. We're so convinced that we can't be loved by God, that God doesn't really love us. That to hold ourselves consciously and committedly there is a real act of faith, really. But to come back there, that's really one way we can express the gospel, the good news. God does love us. God so loved the world.


God sent us, so we become God's son, etc. But it's hard work just to love self, certainly to love the other. It's the hardest task of all, Rilke goes on to say, and certainly to love God. And then one of our special problems, I think, in our contemporary world is this term love has been kind of so overused, and for such a range of ambiguous applications, that it's almost a word we'd rather not use. It's kind of tainted. And so we could either drop it and use all kinds of synonyms, compassion, and mercy, and unconditional acceptance, etc. Or at least in our Christian assemblies, we can try to redeem the word, or we can use the exquisitely Greek form of it, agape,


or other variations like philia, friendship, love, or something. But there is that problem. It's used also in trivial ways. I just love chocolate. Now, this isn't the kind of love that is God, obviously. Here we've descended to quite a mean level. And then, obviously, you can have all kinds of tawdry, salacious applications. How's your love life, etc., etc. They didn't even know each other, but they made love. How do you make love, really? You can't make agape. You can't receive agape and then share this agape. It's this incredible primordial source of force and energy of it all. But we've got to be aware that there'll be a lot of lingo about love that will also not have much to do with Christianity at all.


So we want to try to sort all that out. Then in simply the clean, let us say, the wholesome, the fully human ways of expressing love, we have so many different dimensions, modalities, phases of love. Again, we begin as little tiny babies with this awareness of mommy's love and daddy's love. Well, daddy's love is somehow different from mommy's love. Then we get to know maybe the love of grandmother, and that's different still, and maybe a brother and sister, and that's different. Then somehow we move into a deep and authentic self-love, perhaps. We've got to explore what that means. And then love of friends, love of enemy. What is that all about? And then romantic love, authentic romantic love, spousal love. And then we, perhaps, as parents. All these are quite different. To love as a little tiny needy baby is quite different


than to love as a self-giving mother, for instance. Why do we use the same word, etc.? So all kinds of things to think about. So this could be a basic exercise of this weekend, and I think really of our lifetime, to reflect back over all these different phases and dimensions of love in our own life. When it's gone well, when it's not gone well, what can we think about that? How can we pray about that? How does all that illumine and challenge us today? So to keep churning on this. But one of the theories we'll suggest is that really human development, in its unfolding different stages and phases and passages, one of the ways, perhaps the deepest way to understand it, is in a series of human loves that become more and more illumined and fulfilled by grace and by


Christian love. But it doesn't always work. You know, sometimes we have some real setbacks, etc. Well, to acknowledge that, and to ponder what can I learn from that, and all the suffering involved in love. If we truly love another, or ourselves, or God, we're setting ourselves up for very intense suffering. It'll be a meaningful and a purifying and enhancing suffering, but it'll certainly be suffering. So to have the courage to get in touch with all that this weekend. We had a psychologist, Fein Benediktine, who teaches at the Menninger. He said, basically, each of us has a love map, and that can be understood at many levels. But one of the fuller ways to understand it is our own history, our own salvation history. Again, in terms of the experiences we've had of love, and experiences we haven't had of love, and how to keep working on


that. So I would hope that the meditations I offer are just a minimum part of this weekend, and that your own work, and reflection, and prayer will be the main part of it. And at this point now, we might go through that little exercise. It's traditional in this kind of moment, and that's for us briefly to introduce each other, one to another, so that we will be, in some sense, community and journeying with each other. So if each one of us might just introduce ourselves, maybe just a word or two about what brought us, what are our expectations, and what is our understanding of love, or whatever you want to say, obviously. Okay. So at least I've heard lots of echoes and similarities in just our


basic mysterious humanity, but also lots of differences. And for some people, the early years were wonderfully warm and formative in love. And for others, maybe there was abuse there, and even destructive forces. And one person who moves, and it's difficult, another person who moves, and it's a very rewarding experience, etc. Each one of us is so different according to our own history, and backgrounds, and people we've worked with. And so that in presenting a theme like this, one has to be very careful, I think, because we might take maternal love as the basic prototype of what life is all about, and what God is all about. But if someone has had an extremely abusive mother, that becomes problematic. I knew a man who was a candidate to be a monk here, and he didn't persevere, but he'd had the most dysfunctional, to use that


odd word, family, specifically regarding his mother, who had been into drugs, and into prostitution, and often in jail. And he was obviously such a wounded person. So when we sometimes in our California liberation would talk about the maternal, and how this illumines and fulfills the paternal, one could see the pain on his face. On the other hand, we know of obviously guys for whom the father has been extremely abusive, etc., so that that's not the way to go. A picture like this could, for some, just sum up the whole gospel, etc., the prodigal son story. But if you've had an abusive father, that won't be too helpful. And so with brothers and friends, someone in my family told me, don't ever get too involved in friendship. They'll betray you sooner or later. And this


really hurt me, because my experience of friendship had been quite different. But I thought, my God, what has been the sad suffering of this person. So we're all different in this regard. And we all have different understandings of what all these things are about, especially insofar as they're kind of models and prefigurings of the ultimate love. So what I'll try to do as a kind of a pastoral tactic here is kind of throw out all kinds of things, and maybe something will be useful for you, and maybe something quite different will be useful for you. So it won't be precisely a systematic organic thing, but like the sower that casts all kinds of seed and very widely. And I'd say, if something just doesn't work for you, just acknowledge that. You might take note of it. That could be interesting. Why doesn't it work? But if something does work, kind of go with that. We can also very much learn from what


just doesn't work for us. One of our monks whose experience with the Father has been so negative. He's been working for years on forgiving his father. Forgiveness has been mentioned here. Hard, hard task. When he succeeds at that, it's a much greater achievement than when I succeed, because my father was basically very loving and gentle in all the way, etc. So this is the approach that I'll use. And of course, in my particular talks, there'll be lots of words and concepts and theories, etc. But love is pre-rational and trans-rational. So somehow, just putting this picture here wants to try to get us beyond just thinking about love, because it's not in the thoughts. One can have wonderful thoughts about love and not being a loving person or not being able to receive love. So somehow,


as the Eastern Orthodox say, we've got to descend from the head into the heart. And on the other hand, as Chesterton says, nothing is more practical than a good theory. So love is not so fragile and kind of effervescent that if we rigorously explore it, it'll just kind of crumble like a fragile butterfly or something. But it's robust enough to sustain a rigorous exploration and pondering and discussion and debate even, and what on earth is this love? So we don't want to exclude that. We don't want to go into the irrational. But I think we want to acknowledge that when we've done all our talking and thinking, etc., we're just at the beginning of it all. So I would hope in these days that you would be open to all the kind of solicitations and invitations and revelations of love.


It might come from nature here. Theologians talk about natural revelation and that natural revelation that is the ocean and the hills and the sky. And somehow, this is the way our loving God also wants to jostle us with the immensity and the depth and incredible variety of God's love. But the mysterious aspects, why does God create mosquitoes and skunks? And we have mountain lions here. We've got bunny rabbits. There's quite a difference between a bunny rabbit and a mountain lion. What did God have in mind? How does this all come back to our theme of agape, etc., and memories and poetry and whatever helps to claim this central and first and last value and reality and being? So I thought we might just say a few words about this. It'll probably be redundant of


what those of you who have read Henri Nouwen's book have already come across. I have to say I haven't read it, so part of this is my own. Part of this is talking with our own artist, Arthur Poulin, about the painting. It's his. But it's obviously a very tender picture. Someone who'd never heard of the Christian message would see an older man and a younger man and some kind tender embrace. We would know it as Jesus's story about a father and a son. The history of it is that this is one of the last paintings of Rembrandt. He had thought his life had been a disaster because of his own lack of fidelity to his conscience, to the Christian gospel, etc. So he's very much in that picture, in the penitence of a man. So it's about him. It's about presumably each one of us somehow. So it's very much about our topic today.


So some of you might want to just spend time in front of that to get into what is this love. Sometimes profound art gets deeper into the thing than lots of words and theories, etc. The art critics know the two extraordinary hands of a loving father are so different. The more you study it, this is very robust and strong. It's hard not to think of a male hand here. And this is quite different and long fingers, more delicate. So at least some scholars see in his tenderness of hair and hair of both a paternal, after paternal. And on the back, almost a kind of a blessing, a benediction, if you've ever been to a consecration or ordination.


It's on the head, but it's this kind of laying on of hands. And on the back of this young man who's borne such a load of his own lady. And then the young man is without hair. He's bald. And as it turns out, that's apparently, Arthur says, that's what they did to convicts in Rembrandt's country at that time. They shaved them, and sometimes also still in insane assignments. It's a shame to get on the lice out, etc. Another thing is the child in the newborn babe. The prodigal son is born again in this mouth. As the father said, this our son was dead, and is alive again, was lost in his father. Then this intense red, it's the red of blood, the red of martyrdom, deep suffering that's involved, the red of the Holy Spirit.


So, it's a painting about Rembrandt. It's a painting about every one of us. It's paternal love, familial love, God's love, presumably. God is loving our love. Theologically, the ancient fathers and others saw the prodigal son Jesus. Jesus who journeyed to a far country, and there was big sin for us. And then, through suffering death and resurrection and ascension, is able to journey back to the house of the father. So, Jesus is the prodigal, and in and with Jesus, all of us. So, again, that can strike at a deep intuitive level. Sometimes we're theories, etc. I would suggest to your pondering this, and it might work particularly well for some, and again, not for others. We also, right out the door, have that huge icon of Mother and Child,


Mary and Jesus, the Vladimir, inspired by the Vladimir. This is by one of our Kamaldolese nuns, Sister Anna, who studied with the Russian master. But there's all kinds of things happening there also. Mary as church, Mary as the feminine dimension of the divine, etc. Jesus as, obviously, our savior, but also as each and every one of us. And that brings in the whole feminine. So, you might ponder that in these days, all the dynamic. And then, Mary is kind of looking out at us, inviting us to come into the painting, to receive Christ tenderly and lovingly as she does. But there's a kind of a sorrow in her face. She knows what that'll mean, that humankind will also crucify her son. So, as I say, that can also be a long meditation. And then, as you enter into the door of the church, right in front of you is another icon,


inspired by the famous Rublieff trinity. And the immediate subject is the three angels that visit Abraham and Sarah. But the fathers and mothers thought that that's a prefiguring of the holy trinity that visits us. Well, those figures are kind of androgynous. So, we do have the feminine and the masculine, and the older and the younger. And then the mysterious kind of trans male or female. In these three figures, there's a lot of dynamic. It's centered on the cup, on Eucharist. And the scholars debate who's the son and who's the father and who's the spirit in that trinity. It goes beyond those ways of articulating the persons. So, that's another resource. And as I say, anything in the area of poetry or music in these days, but in the ongoing films, there's some powerful films that explore this theme in its various dimensions.


And so, just so we can claim all of these resources. So, this is just to kind of begin our pondering meditation. Do think about your own journey in love, and where you are at this point, and where you want to go. Do think, suppose you were to have to give a retreat like this, how would you organize it? What would you focus on? And what problems? What do we mean by love? What is it that embraces all these different dimensions? And what helps us distinguish the authentic Christian and human love from the very ambiguous and dangerous counterfeits, etc. And in the meantime, let's just journey on. And we might conclude with a prayer of Saint Anselm, and then maybe just depart quietly. This is from Saint Anselm's Meditation on the Redemption.


Lord, make me taste by love what I taste by knowledge. Let me know by love what I know by understanding. Draw me to you, Lord, in the fullness of love. I am wholly yours by creation. Make me all yours, too, in love.