After his wife died, Jacques Maritain published her journals. In the preface to that book, Raissa’s Journal, he talks about her death, brought on by a stroke, and then gives this commentary:
“But there is still something else, which is not easy to express and which, nevertheless, I want very much to add. This concerns God’s mode of action. At a moment when everything collapsed for both of us, and which was followed by four agonizing months, Raissa was walled up in herself by a sudden attack of aphasia. Whatever progress she made during several weeks by sheer force of intelligence and will, all deep communication remained cut off. And subsequently, after a relapse, she could barely articulate words. In the supreme battle in which she was engaged, no one here on earth could help her, myself no more than anyone else. She preserved the peace of her soul, her full lucidity, her humor, her concern for her friends, the fear of being a trouble to others, and her marvelous smile (that unforgettable smile with which she said thank-you to Pere Riquet after Extreme Unction) and the extraordinary light of her wonderful eyes. To everyone who came near her, she invariably gave (and with what astonishing silent generosity during her last two days when she could only breathe out her love) some sort of impalpable gift which emanated from the mystery in which she was enclosed, And throughout that time she was being implacably destroyed, as if by the blows of an axe, by that God who loved her in his terrible fashion, and whose love is only ‘sweet’ in the eyes of saints, or of those who do not know what they are talking about.”
God’s love is sweet only to those who are already saints and to those who do not know what they are talking about. That is true not just of God’s love, but of all love.
Love isn’t easy, except in our daydreams. We do not even need to look at the superficiality of the cheaper romantic novels or movies to see the truth of that. It suffices to go to church regularly: I go to mass every day and I go there with good people – who are sincere, committed, honest, and full of faith. But they (along with myself) are also human and thus, as we stand together in a circle of faith, we are not always the idyllic picture of harmony and love of which our church hymns speak. We may be gathered in faith, but we are human and we cannot but feel certain things in each other’s presence: jealousy, irritation, hurt, paranoia, distrust, the sense of not being fully valued. And so beneath our rhetoric of love we also feel tension, distance, and even hostility sometimes. We sing brave songs that proclaim how open our hearts are and how we welcome everyone into this space, but invariably there are parts of us that don’t quite mean those words, at least as they apply to some people.
And this isn’t an anomaly; it’s true for all congregations, of every gathering, except those where everyone is already fully a saint. Love, this side of eternity, is not easy, at least not if we try to actually embrace everyone and not just our own kind.
The older we get, the more we sense what love actually demands. It isn’t easy to say the words “I love you” and actually back that up.
What does it mean to love someone? I’m pretty cautious now about what kind of words I put around that. Maybe I would use just two words, fidelity and respect. Love means keeping your word, staying with a relationship and not walking away. And love means fully respecting someone else, not violating anyone’s freedom, and positively blessing and helping others to grow according to their own internal dictates. What we actually feel when we do those things is sometimes less than warm, but love, as we know, is not a question of feeling but of fidelity.
And partly that is gift, something from beyond us, from a God who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, namely, remain together inside of family and community. In the end, that is what church and Eucharist are meant to do:
On the night before he died, Jesus sat down with his disciples and what he found there was what we too find whenever we go to church, a sincere bunch of people struggling to not let the jealousies, irritations, self-preoccupations, and wounds of life drive them apart. We come to church and to the Eucharist to ask God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, love each other.
Maritain is right: Love is only sweet for those who are already saints and for those who are dangerously naive. Since we are neither, it’s good to be humble, admit our struggle, and to go to those places that can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.