Exercise for the Day*

Here it is: Trust that God loves you. Are you there yet? Maybe a little more instruction will help: Trust that the Really Real is not only benign, but passionately, crazily in love with His creation, so much so that He has bound Himself in covenant to His creatures, asking only that they love Him in return.

I don't know about you, but I'm having real problems with this exercise. Not that I don't believe--intellectually, at least--that it's true; okay, maybe I don't. It's so much easier to fall back on a kind of resigned atheism, along the lines of "It would be nice if all this stuff about God were true, but I don't really see the evidence; plus, after all, there's still so much suffering and evil in the world. Either God doesn't care or it's all just random and absurd." Nor does the excellent book that I'm reading right now--Andrew Greeley's The Sinai Myth (1972)--get me out of this morass. In fact, in many ways, it has created it, at least in its present boggy form.

It was so much easier struggling along, knowing that there was nothing I could do to earn God's grace, but still hoping that maybe one day one of the spiritual exercises that I was practicing would finally work. I've read so much about how wonderful it is to experience God's love in prayer, I really want to have that experience. Sometimes I used to think that I had, but then I got worried whether the bliss I was feeling was simply an effect of the practice, not an intimation of the Really Real at all. Sure, doing proper yogic breathing can help one feel calm and loving towards all creatures in the world, but the effect only tended to last for the first hour or so after class; then I'd be back to my anxious, grasping, frightened self.

Greeley is quite particular about the fallacy, indeed, the hypocrisy in this hope. Meditations, prayers, pilgrimages, even yogic practices "may be acts of great virtue on our part. There is nothing wrong with them. On the contrary, there may well be much that is right with them. But such activities guarantee nothing. Any peace and security we obtain from them has been gained as a result of a vain and frivolous use of religion." They are, in other words, efforts at magic, taking God's name in vain, attempting to control Reality by way of calling on His power and presence, using religion as a technique "for solving problems or achieving emotional security." As such, they have nothing to do with salvation or God.

As Greeley puts it: "Yahweh promises us his love and the confidence and peace that go with possessing that love. He doesn't promise us peace of mind and soul, added sexual potency, personal security, and success in business or the elimination of worry and anxiety automatically from our everyday lives. Religion is not a way of achieving self-fulfillment, personal maturity, or satisfying human relationships.... Techniques and methods [such as psychotherapy or yoga] are useful for developing the self-discipline necessary to live lives of gracious and trusting response.... But such formulae, methods, techniques and insights are no substitute for faith and no guarantee of the peace of mind that comes with faith.... For what Yahweh wants, unaccountably enough, is not my efforts but me."

Okay, so I knew all of this, intellectually at least. I've read my Eckhart and Luther and know how important it is not to confuse works with faith. What Greeley does is make the stakes of the mistake so terrifyingly clear. Not that I'm worried, at least not as much as I should be, about being damned for not loving God as much as I should; rather, I'm sorry for myself at missing out on the joy. Greeley himself acknowledges that it is very hard to believe in the promise of the Scriptures: to wit, that God loves us; that, in Greeley's words, "the Really Real loves us with a hesed, a loving kindness," of which our language of erotic, passionate desire is only a meager analog.

Indeed, so great is God's "overflowing of kindness and love" for us that God pursues us with all the passion of the bridegroom of the Song of Songs for his bride:

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.

How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
how much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice! (4:9-10, RSV)

As Greeley comments: "Those who will be offended by the imagery will be inclined not to take the imagery seriously. There is something undignified about a God who permits himself to be described as 'lusting for his creatures'. In addition, it is also incredible that God should pursue us with a passionate tenderness the way the groom pursues the bride in the Song of Songs. We may even applaud the imagery as being beautiful, but still refuse to live lives in which we really believe that the Ground of Being, the Ultimate, the Absolute, or ipsum esse, as we used to call him familiarly in the days of scholastic philosophy, really relates to us as a passionate lover. Beautiful symbol yes, but scarcely one that can be taken literally."

I am chastened by Greeley's comment here. I have been studying the interpretation of the Song of Songs for years, particularly as a way of understanding the love that Christ had for his Mother and as a call for its readers to share in the love that she had for her Son, but at no point in my recitation of the usual interpretation--the sponsus as God or Christ and the sponsa as the Church or the soul--did it hit me that this is what the text, read as a love song of God for his people, actually means. Do I believe in a gracious, loving Reality? Do I believe that God loves me so much that He is, in the language of the Song, lusting after me to become His Bride? It seems indecent. Surely God is above such irrationality and excess. And why would He bother with me, after all?

The obstacles here are very great. Yes, abstractly, I can believe that God created the heavens and the earth and all the creatures therein (more at another time on what the metaphor "God created" means), but to believe that this same God takes an interest in me, well, I'm the ugly sister, the one left on the bench after the teams have been picked, the one who loses her temper too easily and embarrasses herself with tears. What possible interest could the One whom the sun and moon, stars, sea monsters and deeps, mountains and hills, beasts, kings and peoples of all the earth praise (Psalm 148) have in me? Nor, when I look around me at what my fellow human beings do, am I at all sure that God would necessarily be interested in most of them. It is much easier to posit a one-way relationship: we praise, God is. Enough said.

But this is not what the Scriptures say. God loves His people so much He is jealous when they refuse to return His love. Greeley again: "Yahweh is involved, passionately involved, with his people. He offers them wildly passionate love, and dismisses as perverted those who turn away in revulsion from such love." I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with this. It smacks too much of those who have loved me--or, at least, begged me to go on dates with them (ancient history, but the example still applies)--and whom I could simply see no way of loving in return. I don't even really know God, despite years of thinking about Him. I'm not sure I can trust Him; I'm not sure I want to. It would mean becoming something that I'm not, or at least, that I feel that I'm not: beloved, that is.

I refuse to believe that I am the only one who has trouble with accepting the reality of God's love, never mind the love itself. Greeley, for one, would not have felt the need to write his book if that were the case. Indeed, in his view, there are, and have been throughout history, very few capable of taking Yahweh at His word. Many of us, and not only in academia, are afflicted with "a kind of pseudo-sophisticated agnosticism that is willing to concede some sort of divine principle yet denies that that 'divine principle' could possibly be concerned with us.... The profound difficulty with a God who loves is not intellectual at all but religious. One can readily concede the plausibility of his existence and still be offended and frightened by the necessity of responding to him."

So what are we to do? There are no exercises for accepting God's love; one simply does--or does not. Imagine what it would be like to believe that God was saying this to your soul:

Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
behold, you are beautiful.

Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.

Your hair is like a flock of goats
moving down the slopes of Gilead....

Your lips are like a scarlet thread,
and your mouth is lovely....

Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle
that feed among the lilies....

You are all fair, my love;
there is no flaw in you.

Come with me from Lebanon, my bride;

--Song of Songs 4:1, 3, 5, 7-8

Kinda takes your breath away, doesn't it?


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