He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not*

Self-help book for the week: Art and Laraine Bennett's The Temperament God Gave You: The Classic Key to Knowing Yourself, Getting Along with Others, and Growing Close to the Lord (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2005).

According to the Bennetts (p. 263), I am a near textbook example of a melancholic: "Slow to react, with intense reaction growing over time and of long duration; thoughtful; spiritual; deep; poetic; introverted; overly cautious; perfectionist; thinker; critical; doesn't prioritize well; tends to discouragement and self-pity; worries over possible misfortune; can be a hypochondriac; easily hurt; slow and sometimes indecisive; pessimistic; moody; goal-oriented; detached from environment; few friends; exclusive; likes to be alone; second-guesses; introspective; holds grudges; abhors injustice; is motivated by problems; looks at the down side; idealistic; self-sacrificing; sensitive; makes decisions based on principles/ideas."

And that's not all: I am motivated by deadlines. I need things to be tidy. I let things build up inside until I succumb to the "melancholic dump." I tend to globalize problems. I get minor illnesses a lot. I'm good at organization but terrible at getting others on board a project. I sweat the small stuff but seem to do okay when bigger problems loom. I "[long] for perfection, and failing to achieve that, may begin to lack self-confidence and become despondent" (p. 34). I worry about being proud, so much so that it is hard for me to see in myself the positive qualities of most melancholics: valuing the ideal, "whether it be truth, beauty or justice"; being "thoughtful, pious, and compassionate, given to solitude and reflection"; longing for heaven so much that "everything on earth falls short" (p. 33). No, I say, that can't possibly be me; there's no way I could be anything so noble when I am forever teetering on the edge of complete disgrace. (See?)

What's vexing me most at the moment is what the Bennetts (p. 238) suggest as the way to cultivate my temperament spiritually so as to draw out my better qualities and avoid the temptation of succumbing to my weaknesses: "A melancholic needs to develop a greater acceptance and appreciation of the foibles of human nature and to learn not to sweat the small stuff.* A deep spiritual life, particularly an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, will help [her] realize that only Jesus Christ is the true and perfect friend of [her] soul. No earthly human being can ever satisfy our deepest longings for intimacy--to be perfectly understood and unconditionally loved. Only a deep, personal relationship with Christ will answer those needs, and with it, the melancholic will become less self-absorbed, less demanding and critical of others, and more gentle, forgiving, and genuinely appreciative."

Well, that would be nice, wouldn't it? Not to be so wrapped up in my (perceived) failures, not to be driving my phlegmatic husband and choleric** son crazy with my perfectionist demands, not to be holding grudges against people whom I judge to have betrayed or cheated me: how much more pleasant life would become! I'm ready, except for this one great hurdle: I can't imagine Christ--Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Mary, God-incarnate, the most perfect human being ever to have lived--wanting to have anything to do with me. No, I don't imagine that I'm the greatest sinner ever to have lived or anything like that. I'm not Mary Magdalene; that would be presumptuous. I'm just boring old me. Not particularly good-looking (although my husband has told me more times than I can count how wrong I am about this; I must not be listening; see above); not terribly talented (again, see above; awards and recognition in the past don't seem to be able to counter the fear of impending failure); not, in other words, the popular girl whom someone so amazing as Jesus would ever be interested in.

I find it curious that it is so hard for me--melancholy as I am--to shake this conviction. I have a wonderful husband, an amazing son, excellent friends, all of whom are supportive and generous and seem (wonder of wonders!) genuinely to like me. And yet, somehow this does not translate for me into believing that God might actually care about me to the extent of wanting to become my friend, never mind my lover. It seems more than just presumptuous to imagine God saying to me, "You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace" (Song of Songs 4:9). It is down-right embarrassing. Like the fat girl in Heathers (1989) imagining even for an instant that the quarterback actually wrote her a love-letter. I'm a melancholic; I know better. The other shoe is about to drop and the whole cafeteria will be laughing at me as it becomes clear that the letter was a hoax. Better to leave the room now.

I'm much more comfortable with God as an abstraction: the Good, the True, the Beautiful. Or, even better, as something beyond thought entirely. My current "to-read" list includes Denys Turner's The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), on the apophatic understanding of God as beyond knowing, not to mention beyond experience. Not that I do not see the intellectual value of meditating on Christ in his humanity; I just, well, can't seem to take it personally, or imagine God responding to me as a person. Love, okay: God is love, but God loves everybody, His whole Creation. If I am loved, it can only be as a sort of accident of belonging to the whole, not because God likes me--you know, likes me likes me. And yet, this is what the Bennetts say I, as a melancholic, most need spiritually to believe.

They're Heathers, I know it. They've written the note and dropped it onto my lunch tray, and now they're watching me walk across the cafeteria, heading for where the football players are sitting, waiting for me to humiliate myself. "Did you write this for me?," I'll ask Jesus. And He'll look at it and howl. "Me? Write to you: 'Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is comely' [Song of Songs 2:13-14]? You've got to be kidding. I wrote this for Mary Magdalene, you know, the beautiful one." And then Jesus will get up and leave the room, followed by all of His popular friends. Or worse: I'll have met Jesus at a party, say, and have spent all evening talking with Him, thinking He was really into me, enjoying what I had to say about contemplation and reason, finding me really deep, poetic and spiritual, and then the next day I'll see Him with His girlfriend and realize that it was all an illusion, not about me at all. He might like talking with me, but there is no way He could ever want me like that.

It's fairly easy to see why the Bennetts counsel that, as a melancholic, I should "focus on personal intimacy with Christ" (p. 36). The thing is, how? This seems the last thing that I would be able to do, given my lack of self-confidence and tendency to expect the worse (see above). Of course, the only real answer is grace: I can't do this on my own. But, again, Christ doesn't seem to be all that interested in me; He certainly hasn't gone out of His way to get my attention. Or has He? Could that be why I've been drawn to study the Song of Songs all these years? And I thought it was about devotion to His mother. We study the things we most need, not the things that we already have. But I still don't believe it. Jesus just can't have been sending me love-letters all these years. Not me. Not the fat girl. Wait a minute. What's this on my lunch tray?

*How I hate that phrase! I don't "sweat the small stuff"; it's all important. Typical melancholic reaction....
**If that's what he is. He's a hard one to type. My husband and I, however, are pretty clear!

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