The Demands of Love Himself

In spite of all my talk recently about following God’s will because I want to be a good daughter of His, like any child I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in the last couple of weeks being sulky, angry, and fighting rebelliousness towards Him. We’re almost done with Lent – in just two weekends, the Christian world will be celebrating Easter – and yet for these past two weeks I have felt no further out of the desert than where I was when Lent began.

I’ve only just written about how the road to Heaven is hard, and that God makes no attempt to hide this from us. I know this and I try to understand it more each day. I try to keep in mind that I’m not going through all of these life events for nothing: that He has a purpose for me, and such a purpose must be something huge if He needs me to go through so many trials and challenges to get there. It must be something wonderful if He asked me to sacrifice my last relationship – my best relationship – in order to follow His plan for me.

Yet despite knowing this, here I am: at some times furiously angry with God, and at others, sobbing in His presence – but all the time demanding to know why He would ask me to give up the person with whom I was planning on spending the rest of my life…why His divine love would demand that I set aside my own human love…why the path He has laid before my feet to happiness had to start with one of the unhappiest events of my life since laying my father to rest.

The sorrow and pain of having to end my last relationship still twists, visceral and acute, inside me. I haven’t really worn makeup in the last two weeks because the tears well up at the most unusual times outside of when I’m alone in my room: they come when I am walking along a windy boulevard; when I am praying; when I am alone in the washroom at work…even when I am in the middle of the church taking part in Mass or going to Confession.

Yesterday afternoon when I was talking with one of my parish priests about being angry and upset at God, he told me to reflect on one of the Lenten season’s earlier weekday readings about Naaman.  (As a side note, this was one of those instances wherein God’s sense of humour was made evident to me, because this was the reading on the day I ended my last relationship.  Nice one, Father.)

The leprous warrior and champion of Aram, Naaman was told to simply wash in the River Jordan to cleanse his body of the disease. Thus his call to obedience and to prove his faith in the Lord was a far easier demand than the ones made on others, such as Abraham (who was asked to sacrifice his only son as a burnt offering) or Moses (who led the Israelites through the desert and all of its trials for forty years only to die without ever entering the Promised Land).  Though at first he was indignant, thinking that surely the True God would have cured him in a grander way than that, Naaman eventually did as commanded…simply because his servant pointed out to him that by that logic, if Naaman had been asked to perform a more demanding task, he would have done it without question.

And yet the task before him was a simple, ordinary one that he did every day without second thought.

God could have called me to sacrifice myself and follow Him in the way He asked my father, or any other disabled, invalid, or dying person, to do so. He could have called me to leave behind all my worldly goods and possessions to serve under Holy Orders, or to serve him in a lay vocation. He could have asked of me a great many things that are undeniably much harder and much more demanding, and yet all He did was ask me to give up the guy I really thought was going to be The Guy.

And for what, exactly, did I sacrifice my last relationship? Not for any new vocation, but for the same vocation to which I already knew I was being called. Not for any other human relationship to take precedence, but for my relationship with God to truly and immovably become my first priority. Not to fall in love all over again with anyone else, but to fall more in love immediately with God…the same God, as C.S. Lewis says,

“…who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing…the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up.. … Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.”

 

The Lifelong Labor of Love

I’m lucky enough to be allowed to plug in to my music at my desk job, which helps immensely when I’m trying to keep my mind off of my personal life while I’m on the clock.  Lately, though, I’ve been listening to C. S. Lewis audiobooks instead of music.

Depending on current circumstances, Lewis speaks to me in different ways.  Certain quotes or passages will jump out at me to touch my life as it is at the exact moment I read or hear them, and sometimes what he writes does move me to tears.  So it was when I was listening to The Four Loves the other day.  Luckily I was already home by then, having been too caught up in that venerable Belfastian baritone to have silenced it on my walk home from work, so nobody had to witness the rather unattractive display of crying.

Discussing St Augustine’s observations that,

All creatures are temporary. It’s the very nature of the universe that all individuals should pass away and make room for others. … To give one’s heart to a created being is therefore to court disaster. If love is to mean in the long run happiness, not misery, it must mean love for the only Beloved that does not pass away;

Lewis went on his discourse of agape, or the love of God for man and man for God, to say, “A broken and contrite heart awaits, most surely, those who follow that road most faithfully.”  This frank statement about the difficulty of loving God above all else made me reflect on another passage he had written in The Screwtape Letters:  “Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

There are many lines of Scripture wherein God tells us that the road to Heaven is not, by any means, easy.  Who hasn’t been made aware of going through narrow gates, chaff being separated from wheat, persecution by armed enemies, testing gold in fiery furnaces, and wandering in the desert?  And who hasn’t been confused by the Word of the Lord in these instances?  Yet God speaks plainly if you listen to Him intently.  Each example illustrates the intense amount of effort it will take for us to overcome the crippling elements of the human condition before we can cross the holy threshold of His door.

But listening intently to God means listening to everything He has to say.  And for every line of Scripture telling us of the hardships of our faith, there’s something to be said about what good will come from enduring each one.  On the other side of the narrow gates lies a city of paradise.  Freed from chaff, wheat may become flour to make nourishing bread.  Those who suffer for God will have their wounds tended by His mercy. Gold becomes pure and dazzlingly beautiful, and shows its true measure of worth and value.  The desert eventually gives way to an oasis, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Plainly put, God gives us fair warning about the difficulties that lie ahead should we choose to follow Him, and lets us decide in the end if we will or if we will not…but He doesn’t just leave it at that even when we cast the dice.

He gives us the milestones and signposts to guide us along that high road home.   They can be found and identified in every level of our existence.  In the mundane tasks of ordinary days, in the ways we pass our spare time, in our friends and families and acquaintances, in the experiences from which we grow and learn, and in the ways we choose to revere and love God through worship and participation in the Sacraments, we are never left entirely to our own devices.  Not even those who neither believe in any higher power nor practise any religion are abandoned:  we all are given some kind of compass to help us on our way.

Of the Four Loves, Lewis states that all wish to call the objects of their affection, “Mine” —  yet is only agape as it comes from God towards His creation that can truly say this.  God is love, and it is out of His perfect love for all creation that He warns us of the difficulties in following Him.   It is out of that same love that He gives all the tools and resources and graces we might need to keep moving forward.  One’s heart may be broken in pursuit of His will, but when that will is fulfilled by a heart purely joyful and joyfully pure that chooses to endure and persevere for the sake of that perfect love…oh, what healing and wholeness surely awaits that broken and contrite heart!

To see the world in a grain of sand

I always enjoyed watching documentaries, even those really cheaply made ones for science or social studies that my teachers subjected us to in school.  I remember bonding with my father on weekend nights over documentaries borrowed from the library, especially ones about the World Wars and Winston Churchill.  From ancient mummies to recent scientific discoveries; from the bottom of Challenger Deep to the edges of the universe; from one edge of Earth to the other; from the monsters of prehistoric life to the world’s current circle of life…the documentaries I devoured, supplemented by side dishes sampled from reading material found in both our home library and the public one, opened my mind and my imagination under my father’s careful tutelage.

Perhaps the fact that the bond I made with my father over documentaries is why they were the only thing that kept me sane in the weeks and months following his death three years ago.  There was something inherently comforting about curling up with my laptop and Walking with Dinosaurs or another David Attenborough wildlife special, or watching all matter of man-made probes explore the depths of the oceans and the farthest reaches of space and everything in between.  I might have been lying in emotional wreckage, but somehow I was still learning. I might have been feeling very small and alone, but somehow that didn’t stop me from exploring as much as I could from where I was stuck at home.

You’re probably thinking that the last thing anyone would want to do when feeling this way would be watching documentaries that highlight man’s seemingly inconsequential place in the grander scheme of terrestrial nature, let alone in the entire universe.  But somehow, being pulled back into the world of documentaries during my grieving period gave me a sense of belonging, a sense of place during a phase of my life that felt like it had neither time or space.  Catching so many glimpses of the universe — a montage of all of creation passing before my tired eyes each night — reminded me that there is so much to live for, if only to discover for myself one small part of what appeared on the screen.  It reminded me there was so much to move on for, even when it felt like I couldn’t leave the warm cocoon of a past life that included my father’s living presence.

I’m in another phase of documentary-watching now, because I’m in emotional recovery mode again.  This time around, I’ve come to the conclusion that whale documentaries are always sad somehow; that cloning a woolly mammoth and giving it a surrogate elephant mother might end up being a fuzzier but equally terrifying version of Jurassic Park; and that I will never be able to decide between which I’d rather do: explore the fathoms below or the cosmos above.

Maybe that last bit is what’s important.  I can’t decide, because deep down I know right where I am is where I am meant to be:  both feet firmly on the ground, in the middle of the ordinary world where I can grow and learn and come to a better understanding of myself in this infinite tapestry of creation.

Now, bring me that horizon.

Last week, God asked me to put my money where my mouth is.

I’ve expended many a keystroke on this blog writing about wanting to follow Him and becoming a better Catholic, a better daughter of God, in the middle of the ordinary world. Being somebody with a record of talking big but hardly ever acting on what I say, I’m not really surprised that I was finally challenged to prove it in a pretty big way.

I won’t get into details about what went down. Not every story has to be told in a visceral fashion in order for its lessons to be made clear. What I can say is that of all the hard choices I’ve had to make, this was the hardest…and of all those, this was the only one that wasn’t made for only my own good.

God challenged me not only to fly out of a nest, but also to let another person do the same thing – both with no strings attached to the ground of human wants and desires, because that’s how we end up flying in circles instead of into the horizon.

If we’re flying in circles, we’re not following God…and for somebody with faith, that’s a big deal.  As CS Lewis once wrote, “To walk out of His will is to walk into nowhere.”  Being a woman of faith, I am confident in God and I trust in His wisdom when it comes to the unknown.  As long as I walk in His wake, even into the unknown my path is certain.

But of course I am only human, and of course that means I have questions about this, even though it was a decision I executed in certainty after much consideration and long deliberation.

Was the choice I made the right one?

Buried somewhere in this hurt, is there hope?

Upon what branch will I alight when this next leg of migration is over?

Being a woman of faith, I know I can question God and somewhere, somehow, He will give me the answers I seek.  I feel a quiet peace now in my heart; small though it may be where it lies in the very centre of myself, it is there and it will grow. My heart might be wrapped up in sadness for now, but one day it will be wrapped up in joy again. And no matter where my next nest will be, as long as I follow God’s call on the wind I will be one step closer to Home.