My Body Pines For You

February 17, 2015

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I was privileged to hear a lecture recently by a priest who did his graduate work on the life and spirituality of Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Among other things, he focused on the theme of “thirst,” which, for those who know anything of Mother’s work, features prominently in her mysticism.

Thirst, for her, was a symbol of the human and divine desire to love and to be loved. For Mother, the human longing to love and to be loved was an echo of God’s infinite and eternal longing to love and be loved. There’s a mind-bending paradox in this assertion. The priest said,

God, strictly speaking, has no needs and needs nothing from his creatures. He is self-subsistent, the Unmoved Mover. But, as Pope Benedict tells us in Deus Caritas Est, he is also love. And not just “agape,” which is self-giving love; but also “eros,” that love which is a desiring, yearning, longing, pining, thirsting love that draws God out of his utter transcendence to “come out” into all things in order to enter into a union of love with his creature. Eros-love, the saints say, makes God “mad,” inasmuch as his love drives him to condescend like the Samaritan down into the ditch with fallen man, ready to suffer every darkness and pain out of his desire to achieve full union with us. Union with each of us, personally. Not generically but personally, and in exquisite detail; down to the hairs on our head. And as each soul is absolutely unique and unrepeatable, God’s manner of “coming out” of himself and yearning for this union of love with each soul is also absolutely unique. God’s love for each of us is totally particular, as if only I existed.

Even though God’s love for each of us admits of common characteristics, as he was dying on the Cross, burning with thirst for our love, Jesus the God-Man thought of each of us individually, specifically. As he hung there parched with thirst and racked in pain, he thought of me. He endured the “passion of the Passion” out of love for each one of us here in this room. This desire of God for us is no weak thing, but is a raging thirst, like the human experience of being parched, scorched, near death and in a dry desert yearning for the raining response of human love. In fact, by becoming human God has revealed his thirst for us in human flesh. His Passion enabled him to reveal infinite desire in a finite, but still extreme way; as if he were saying, “Look! I am here showing you the beauty and magnitude of my infinite love for you!”

This is what Mother’s whole spirituality was about: slaking the thirst of God for human love and the thirst of humanity for divine love. And she went, was sent, to where that love was most absent — into the loveless corners of the world where there was suffering and poverty and rejection on the margins of life; an absence of love. And she brought with her the thirst of Jesus, who is the thirst of God and man joined to become a living fountain.

I was breathless as he spoke, captivated by the beauty of this woman’s vision, and after he finished I struggled to find a way to be alone just for a brief time. I had to recover from this impact. And as I sat and reflected in my office, I recalled the words of St. Maximus the Confessor that I first read back in 1989. I will literally never forget the night I first read these words. In fact, I even remember where I was sitting, holding the Philokalia, as I audibly gasped. Here it is:

…the Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supra-essential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.

Divine poetry

What took my breath away about this quote was the fact that I had never imagined God, who is Pure Act, could be said to “long” for anything; especially for my response to his love. It revolutionized my prayer life immediately and impacted the way I thought of ingesting the Eucharist. In fact the very first theological poem I ever wrote came to me only a few weeks after I read this text of Maximus. That poem, which I’ve long since lost, was on the mystery of the (as we say in the Nicene Creed) “procession” of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son. He is the Person of “pure receptivity” within the Trinity. No other divine Person comes forth from him, which makes him, in a singular way, pure Gift. He is the “Treasury of all blessings,” as the Eastern liturgy names him, precisely because the whole of God is self-emptied into his Person. What a new meaning Pentecost had for me — after the death and exaltation of the Son, Father and Son wholly emptied themselves out in the Church by giving us the infinite Treasury. My God!

I only remember part of one line from the poem. It was part of the stanza that described the Spirit as the substantial-personal “dispossession” of the divinity of the Father and Son. The line was,

O Substance ever possessed,
ever dispossessed.

I remember when I wrote it being amazed at the thought that each Person in the Trinity, wholly identified with the divine Substance (which means whatever-it-means-to-be-God), can only be said to possess that Substance in the mode of dispossession, i.e. to be God means at once to give all away to the Other and, also at once, to receive the Other back. When I wrote the poem, inspired by Maximus’ words, I sensed for the first time that this inner-Trinitarian dynamism was what boiled beneath God’s longing to give “all the fullness of God” to humanity and receive all back from humanity under the form of faith, hope, love, trust, sacrifice. In other words, we mere mortals are, in Christ and the Spirit, drawn by grace into this immortal and infinite mystery of God’s threefold thirst for giving and receiving love.

At the end of his presentation, the priest-presenter shared a story about Jesuits in India who had established an impressive school of Christian apologetics that engaged at an academic level in a robust Hindu-Christian dialogue. The hope was that this dialogue, even as it drew out the riches of Hinduism, would reveal to non-Christian students the beauty of Christianity as the completion of what is true in Hinduism and lead them eventually to conversion. But it produced no converts. Then the Missionaries of Charity set up shop near this university and began to care for lepers. The Hindu students of this school happened on the sisters one day and, on returning to the university, tearfully requested baptism. Why? They said, “only the true God could create such beauty.”

The beauty of charity, of a thirsting love that awaits our consent to receive the self-emptying of God only to get caught up into the boiling Trinity, go out and give away the Substance that can only be possessed in dispossession.

…tell the next generation
that such is our God,
our God for ever and always.
It is he who leads us. – Psalm 48:14-15

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