Sunday, August 7, 2011
God's passionate embrace
Once I had a very vivid dream that has remained with me for some time. It involved a girl that I had a big crush on as a youth, although in the dream we were both adults. I have not seen this woman in probably more than 20 years, and we never dated, so I have no idea why she suddenly would have appeared in my subconscious.
It was not a sexual dream, although it was certainly sensual. As I have reflected on it, however, its meaning seems to go far beyond mere physicality. In it, I have come to recognize our long loneliness as human beings on one hand, and on the other, God’s intense longing to bridge the chasm of fear between us, drawing us into his loving presence.
In the dream, I was sitting in a chair when this woman entered the room near me. Our eyes met. Though I had an intense desire to get up, go over, and embrace her (and could tell from her gaze that she was inviting me to do so), I simply could not work up the courage.
So I just sat there. And I was miserable as we just looked at one another for some time. With her eyes, she questioned whether she should, instead, come over to me. While I did not turn away from her gaze, for whatever reason I was still too fearful to answer with my own eyes and say, “Yes, please do.”
Why, I thought, would she want to come over to me? To me?
Miraculously, though, she did. Smiling, she came over, and without a word, leaned over, embraced me, and held me tightly. We remained locked together like that for what seemed like eternity, as supreme happiness and joy flowed between us.
Although I was incredibly attracted to this woman, (and she, beyond my comprehension, was incredibly attracted to me), there was absolutely nothing lustful about the encounter. We were lovers immersed in a passionate embrace, but not in the lascivious sense we so often consciously imagine or fall prey to in today’s sex-obsessed culture. We were infinitely satisfied simply holding one another like that, and I was overwhelmed that her love for me would be so great that she would come to me, bend over, and take me to herself despite all my trepidation.
All my anxiety melted away in her arms. I was at peace—full of joy, comfort, love, and trust in a love greater than my own, which I was eager to reciprocate beyond measure.
OK, I hear you – TOO MUCH INFORMATION! As I said, it was a very powerful and vivid dream.
But I will dare to shock further by suggesting that this dream presents an image of God we all too often ignore or dismiss—God as a passionate lover!
God loves us immensely, as the woman in the dream loved me beyond my wildest dreams. Like her, God invites us to embrace him. And when we won’t—or can’t—God comes to us. Smiling, and without so much as a word, God leans over to our level, embraces us, and holds us tightly, inviting us to remained locked together like that for eternity as supreme happiness and joy flow between us.
Sound erotic? It is! It is Holy Eros! As I have reflected on this dream, I have realized that it was not this woman (whom I barely know and haven’t seen for years) that I was embracing. Rather, I was embracing the self-sacrificing, holy, and pure love being offered to me by God, the lover of souls (Wisdom 11:26). Yes, that is a very powerful and provocative idea, but it is not a new one, and it is one we need to be reminded of.
Scripture and our Christian tradition present us with many images of God’s everlasting love for us. They are too numerous to cite here, but following are a just a few, along with one citation from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament for each. So, in the light of Scripture, God is a:
-- Parent: (Isaiah 66:10-13; Luke 15:11-32)
-- Disciplinarian: (Deuteronomy 8:5; Hebrews 12:9-11)
-- Sibling: (Genesis 45:4-5, 14-15; Mark 3:34-35)
-- Teacher: (Psalm 119:33-40; Mark 6:34)
-- Shepherd: (Ezekiel 34:11-16; John 10:11-16)
-- Healer: (Jeremiah 33:6-9; Mark 6:56)
-- Friend: (Exodus 33:11; John 15:12-16)
In addition, it seems that we typically have no trouble focusing on the image of God as the Supreme Being who judges and punishes.
None of these images, presented by God through his Word, are wrong in and of themselves. However, there is another that encompasses all of these but which we typically fail to recognize or respond to. And I would suggest that it is the primary way in which God wishes to relate to each and every one of us.
This is the image of God as a passionate lover, a God who really digs you, and a God who wants absolutely nothing but to have that passionate love reciprocated. Just as two spouses unite in the total gift of self, God wishes to embrace each one of us, and remain locked together like that for eternity as supreme happiness and joy flow between us.
Like marriage, it is a covenant relationship. It is an erotic love (energized with individual desire, but disciplined and purified) that leads us to agape (self-giving love directed outward to encompass and generate life among all). Agape is totally selfless, only seeking the good of the beloved, and is most fully expressed in the love shared among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, of which Christians are invited to share (John 13:34-35).
As the Cathechism of the Catholic Church states, “God who created man out of love also calls him to love—the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God, who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes” (No. 1604, emphasis added).
And as anyone who has had an honest, committed, chaste relationship knows, the most passionate lover sharing him or herself in this way also displays many of the other qualities above that are associated with God. The truth is that God is beyond our imagining. No image suffices. God is all of these and much, much more.
However, if one takes a step back from Scripture and tradition with an honest view toward the whole, this is what emerges: GOD IS LOVE (1John 4:8,16). Those three words express it all—creation, redemption, resurrection, and everlasting life. Scripture, tradition, and all of salvation history up to this very moment are chapters in an epic love story of a God who pursues us with almost insane jealousy in order to draw us into a love beyond imagination.
This nuptial relationship we are called to share with God, and through God with one another, is expressed both implicitly and explicitly throughout Scripture. In that regard, the following passages are just a few of the many worth meditating on: Exodus 6:7; The Book of Ruth; Psalm 45; Isaiah 62:5; Hosea 2:19-20; John 17:26; Revelation 19:1-9.
But the most prominent illustration of this within the canon is the Song of Songs, which is in everybody’s Bible but (I’m willing to bet) rarely read. It is a beautiful love poem with a strikingly erotic tone. God is the Lover, and God’s people are the beloved. Here are a few lines:
How beautiful you are, how pleasing,
my love, my delight!
Your very figure is like a palm tree,
your breasts are like clusters.
I said: I will climb the palm tree,
I will take hold of its branches.
I belong to my lover
and for me he yearns.
Come, my lover, let us go forth to the fields
and spend the night among the villages.
Let us go early to the vineyards, and see
if the vines are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.
Both fresh and mellowed fruits, my lover,
I have kept in store for you.
-- Song of Songs 7:7-9, 11-13, 14
Whew. Once I was in a class on Human Sexuality and Christian Maturity, and one of the seminarians, after hearing a passage like that read aloud exclaimed, “THAT’S in the Bible?!”
Yes, that’s in the Bible, and for good reason. In poetic fashion, it describes God’s relationship with his beloved people, who are increasingly drawn into spiritual union with the Lord through the bond of perfect love. Saints—doctors of the Church—have written beautiful commentaries on the Song of Songs. St. Bernard and St. Francis de Sales come immediately to mind. Others have contributed poetic meditations in the same vein, such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Theirs was a passionate love for God, who loved them passionately, and sometimes these saints expressed this is erotic terms. As the introduction to the Song of Songs in the New American Bible states, “In Christian tradition, the Song has been interpreted in terms of the union between Christ and the Church and particularly by St. Bernard, of the union between Christ and the individual soul.”
In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), Pope Benedict XVI boldly declares that God’s love is personal: “God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape. The prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images” (No. 9).
In their book Holy Eros: Pathways to a Passionate God, James D. and Evelyn Whitehead write that “Christian thinkers today, Pope Benedict XVI and Charles Taylor among them, are returning to the ancient image of eros as an apt symbol of God’s radical love. This is an eros known through and beyond sexual arousal; its vital energy courses through the world, enlivening and healing human hearts. Experienced as affection and also as compassion, in desire and also in hope, eros becomes ever more generous as it folds into that most capacious love described in the Bible as agape” (p.5).
I wonder why it surprises us, makes us so uncomfortable, to be told so explicitly of God’s intensely passionate love for us? And yet it does—despite its solid roots in Scripture and tradition. For thousands of years, God’s people, generally speaking, have been fearful of intimacy with God. Giving in to such fear has resulted in increasingly horrifying manifestations of human sin and pain. Yet, God still pursues us with steadfast love, hoping we will all one day realize that a person will only love truly when he or she is truly loved.
As Philosopher Charles Taylor states in Holy Eros: “We have to recover a sense of the link between erotic desire and the love of God, which lies deep in the Biblical traditions, whether Jewish or Christian, and find new ways of giving expression to this. … This terribly fraught area in Western Christendom, where the sexual meets the spiritual, urgently awaits discovery of new paths to God” (p.16).
In the Gospel at today’s Mass (Matthew 14:22-33), Jesus is walking on the stormy Sea of Galilee when his disciples, being tossed about by the waves, spot him from their boat. They are terrified. And he says to them: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Longing to be with Jesus on the water, Peter calls out to him. “Come,” Jesus responds. So Peter gets out of the boat and miraculously begins walking on the water toward Jesus—until his fear returns and gets the best of him. He begins sinking, but Jesus catches him, draws him up safely out of the water, and returns with him to the boat.
The stormy seas of life frighten us as well, and despite our long loneliness we are afraid to bridge the chasm of fear between us and God. Yet Jesus beckons from the water, “Do not be afraid. Come.” God longs to draw us into his presence with the passion of a lover, but will not force us to do anything against our will. We are invited to step out of the boat, but if we begin to sink, God’s arms will catch us. And if we won’t—or can’t—“step out of the boat” as the other disciples could not and I could not in my dream, God comes to us, as the woman in my dream did.
At some point, of course—whether we are single, married, or in religious life—we must not only chastely reciprocate God’s passionate love for us in the manner suitable for our state in life, but also get out of the boat (out of the chair, in my dream). Then, we must help others bridge that chasm of fear separating them from the love of God. We must become the woman in the dream, as it were. Like God, we must be willing to approach the fearful soul with a smile, bend over, embrace, and share the supreme happiness and joy flowing from God’s passionate love.
But it cannot be done until we first accept God's embrace. As Passionate Lover.