The Eyes of Love


Imagine a young couple intoxicated with each other in the early stages of love. Imagine a religious neophyte in love with God, praying ecstatically. Imagine an idealistic young person working tirelessly with the poor, enflamed with a thirst for justice. Are this young couple really in love with each other? Is that religious neophyte really in love with God? Is this young social activist really in love with the poor?  Not an easy question.

Whom are we really loving when we have feelings of love? The other? Ourselves? The archetype and energy the other is carrying? Our own fantasy of that person? The feelings this experience is triggering inside us?  When we are in love, are we really in love with another person or are we mostly basking in a wonderful feeling which could be just as easily triggered by countless other persons?

There are different answers to that question. John of the Cross would say it is all of these things; we are in fact really loving that other person, loving a fantasy we have created of that person, and basking in the good feeling this has generated inside us. That is why, invariably, at a given point in a relationship the powerful feelings of being in love give way to disillusionment – disillusionment (by definition) implies the dispelling of an illusion, something was unreal. So for John of the Cross, when we are in love, partly the love is real and partly it is an illusion. Moreover, John would say the same thing about our initial feelings of fervor in prayer and in altruistic service. They are a mixture of both, authentic love and an illusion.

Some other analyses are less generous. In their view, all initial falling in love, whether it be with another person, with God in prayer, or with the poor in service, is mainly an illusion. Ultimately, you are in love with being in love, in love with what prayer is doing for you, or in love with how working for justice is making you feel. The other person, God, and the poor are secondary. That is why, so often, when first fervor dies, so too does our love for its original object. When the fantasy dies, so too does the sense of being in love. We fall in love without really knowing the other person and we fall out of love without really knowing the other person. The very phrase “falling in love” is revealing. “Falling” is not something we choose, it happens to us.  Marriage Encounter spirituality has a clever slogan around this: marriage is a decision; falling in love is not.

Who is right?  When we fall in love, how much is genuine love for another and how much is an illusion within which we are mostly loving ourselves? Steven Levine answers this from very different perspective and throws new light on the question. What is his perspective?

Love, he says, is not a “dualistic emotion”. For him, whenever we are feeling authentic love we are, at that moment, feeling our oneness with God and with all that is. He writes, “The experience of love arises when we surrender our separateness into the universal. It is a feeling of unity … It is not an emotion, it is a state of being … It is not so much that ‘two are as one’ so much as it is the ‘One manifested as two.’”  In other words, when we love someone, in that moment, we are one with him or her, not separate, so that even though our fantasies and feelings may be partially wrapped up in self-serving affectivity, something deeper and more real than our feelings and fantasies is occurring. We are one with the other in our being – and, in love, we sense it.   

In this view, authentic love is not so much something we feel; it is something we are. At its root, love is not an affective emotion or a moral virtue (though these are part of it). It is a metaphysical condition, not something that comes and goes like an emotional state, nor something that we can choose or refuse morally. A metaphysical condition is a given, something we stand within, that makes up part of what we are, constitutively, though we can be blissfully unaware. Thus, love, not least falling in love, can help make us more conscious of our non-separateness, our oneness in being with others.

When we feel love deeply or passionately, then perhaps (like Thomas Merton describing a mystical vision he had on a street corner) we can awake more from our dream of separateness and our illusion of difference and see the secret beauty and depth of other people’s hearts. Perhaps too it will enable us to see others at that place in them where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful, Merton adds … “if we could see each other that way all the time.”

Our Heart is Stronger than our Wounds


Ten years before his death in 1996, Henri Nouwen was beset by a depression that nearly broke him. While in treatment, he wrote a very powerful book, The Inner Voice of Love, in which he humbly and candidly shared his struggles and the efforts it took to overcome them. At times, he felt completely overwhelmed by his wounds and obsessions and was on the edge of drowning, of collapse, when the only thing he could do was cry. Eventually though he found again his inner strength and emerged resilient, ready to re-enter his life with renewed energy. Remarking on what he learned from this inner collapse and his eventual return to health, he writes that, in the end, our hearts are stronger than our wounds.

That’s a powerful affirmation of a hard-earned truth; but is it always true? Are our hearts always stronger than our wounds? Do we always have the resources deep down to overcome our wounds?

Sometimes yes, as in the case of Nouwen; but sometimes no, as we see in the broken lives of so many. Sometimes, it seems wounds overpower the heart. Perhaps one poignant example can serve to illustrate this. There is a sad, tragic, haunting line in the well-known song, I Dreamed a Dream, from the popular musical, Les Miserables. The story told in Les Miserables, as we know, is based on Victor Hugo’s classic book by that title which tells a series of stories about how poverty and oppression can break the hearts, backs, and lives of the poor. One of Hugo’s characters, Fantine, is a single mother, abandoned by the man she loves and nursing a broken heart. She is also struggling to provide her daughter with the basic needs of life, struggling with a job and working conditions that are ruining her health, and struggling with sexual harassment from her boss that culminates in her unfair dismissal from her job. At a certain point, it’s too much, her health breaks, she collapses, and in her dying farewell sings out a lament that suggests that our hearts aren’t always stronger than our wounds; but sometimes there are storms we cannot weather. Sometimes the heart cannot weather the storm and collapses under the weight of its wounds.

Who’s right – Nouwen or Fantine? I suspect they both are, depending on one’s circumstance, inner health, and emotional resources. An old adage says, whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger! True enough, providing it doesn’t kill you. Sadly, sometimes it does. Sometimes what weighs us down does kill us. I suspect that everyone reading this has had a first-hand experience of someone you knew and loved breaking down and dying, either by suicide or some other collapse of this sort, due to a broken life, a broken heart, a broken psyche, a wound that overpowered his or her heart. 

Thus, when we look at the truth of Nouwen’s affirmation that our hearts are stronger than our wounds and the (seeming) antithetical truth that sometimes our wounds can kill the heart, we need to add a further truth which embraces both sides of this: God’s grace, forgiveness, and love are stronger than our wounds, our collapses, our failures, and seeming despairs.

Sometimes in our struggles we can access the inner strength buried below our wounds which will enable us to rise above them and walk again in health, strength, and enthusiasm. However, sometimes our wounds so paralyze the heart that we can no longer access the strength that lies deep within us. In this life, that kind of brokenness can look and feel like a terminal collapse, a sadness for which there is no healing, a despair, a wasted life. However, whenever a collusion of bitter circumstance and mental fragility break someone, when a person’s heart is no longer stronger than his or her wounds, we can take refuge in a deeper truth and consolation, namely, the strength that lies within God’s heart: God’s grace, understanding, and love are stronger than our wounds, our collapses, our failures, and seeming despairs.

What sets Christian faith apart from most other religions (as well as from all prosperity gospels) is that Christianity is a religion of grace and not primarily of self-effort (important though that is). As Christians, we don’t have to save ourselves, don’t have to get our lives right all on our own. Indeed, nobody ever does. As St. Paul says so clearly in his farewell message in Romans 1-8, none of us ever get our lives right on the basis of our own strength. That’s also true in terms of overcoming our wounds. All of us are weak and break down sometimes. However, and this is the point, when the storms of life overpower us, when we reach down for strength to withstand the storm only to find out that the storm is stronger than we are, we need then to reach still deeper and there we will find that God’s heart is stronger than our brokenness.

The Origin of our Conflicts and Differences


Why do sincere people so often find themselves at odds with each other?  The issue here is not about when sincerity meets insincerity or plain old sin. No. The question is why sincere, God-fearing people can find themselves radically at odds with each other.

There’s an interesting passage in Nikos Kazantzakis’ autobiography that intimates far more than it reveals at first glance. Commenting on Greek mythology and the many conflicts there among the gods and goddesses, Kazantzakis writes this: “The heroes in ancient Greek tragedies were no more or less than Dionysus’s scattered limbs, clashing among themselves. They clashed because they were fragments. Each represented only one part of the deity; they were not an intact god. Dionysus, the intact god, stood invisible in the center of the tragedy and governed the story’s birth, development, and catharsis. For the initiated spectator, the god’s scattered limbs, though battling against one another, had already been secretly united and reconciled within him. They had composed the god’s intact body and formed a harmony.”

In Greek mythology, the supreme god, Dionysus, was intact, containing all the scattered pieces of divinity that took particular incarnations in various gods, goddesses, and human persons. Inside Dionysus, the intact god, there was harmony, everything fitted together, but everywhere else various pieces of divinity wrestled and sparred with each other, forever in tension and in power struggles.

That image is a fertile metaphor shedding light on many things. Among other things, it can help us understand what’s at the root of many of the conflicts between sincere people and why we have a lot of religious differences.

What is the root cause when people are at odds with each other and there is no insincerity or sin involved, when both parties are honest and God-fearing? Today we speak of ideological differences, historical differences, political differences, and personal history as to why sincere people often see the world differently and are at odds with each other. We have a language for that. However, I’m not sure our current language (for all its sophistication) captures the heart of this as clearly as does that particular metaphor inside Greek mythology. In the end, aren’t we all grabbing our own piece of god and making it the be all and end all, without accepting that those we are fighting also have a piece of god, and we have divinity fighting divinity?

Boiled down to its root, isn’t that what lies at the base of the tension between “conservative” and “liberal”, between soul and spirit, between head and heart, between young and old, between body and soul, and between the other binaries that divide us? Haven’t each of us grabbed an authentic piece of divinity and (because we don’t have a vision of the intact God) let our piece of divinity become the prism through which everything else must be seen?

We are not an “initiated spectator” who, as Kazantzakis puts it, has enough of a vision of the intact God to see how all the pieces ultimately fit in harmony. So we continue in our disharmony.

Much too can be gleaned from this image in terms of how we view other religions. Writing around the year 200 AD, one of our renowned Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria, wrote a book he entitled (in Greek), Stromata, a word which literally means “being strewn about”. His concept (carefully nuanced through his Christian lens) was that God, while revealed normatively in Jesus Christ, is also “strewn” (in pieces) in other religions and in nature itself. In essence, what he is saying is that there are pieces of God lying around everywhere, though Clement doesn’t elaborate on how these discrete pieces of divinity often fight with each other.

More recently, Raimondo Panikkar (died 2010), one of the major Christian commentators on world religions, again picked up this concept of God as “strewn” and applied it to world religions. For him, what Christianity sees as contained in the Trinity is experienced in pieces in by people in other faiths. For example, certain faiths, like Buddhism, make central the experience of contingency, awe, dependence, and self-effacement in the face of what they believe to be “God”. For Panikkar, these are religions of “God the Father”. Some other faiths, particularly Christianity but also Judaism and Islam, strongly emphasize “God, the Father”, but their scriptures and other beliefs have an incarnational principle, a “Christ”. Certain other religions such as Taoism and Hinduism focus much more on the experience of spirit, the “Holy Spirit”. Since we each emphasize one particular aspect of God, it is no surprise that, despite sincerity on all sides, we often don’t get along.

And so we, sincere, God-fearing people, are often at odds with each other; but it’s helpful to know (and acknowledge) that an “intact” God stands invisible in the center of our conflicts and watches us fight with “his scattered limbs”, knowing that in the end all these strewn pieces will be united again in harmony.