Thursday, August 31, 2006

Fits and Starts

Those who hold that the love of God is dry, without passion, are those who find contemplation of God wearisome. Those who find contemplation of God wearisome are those who do not know Him.

I am thinking today about pleasure and how limited our perception of pleasure truly is when compared to the pleasure a soul feels drawing near to God. All things on this earth reflect the divine, even in their limited forms, and because of their limited form we are not wholely satisfied by them. We enjoy sex, but are content only for a short time afterward and then desire it again. Drugs and drink provide a temporary pleasure until we find ourselves caught in the snare of addiction, and even in our closest friendships and family relations we still unavoidably find ourselves separated from the person we love, an individual, able to acknowledge one another’s heart but never actually able to know union and understanding of one another in completeness. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” goes the familiar quote from Augustine, and we have the divorce statistics to prove it.

Life can get long and tiresome. A friend of mind recently said to me, indignantly, “Do you know how hard it is to get into Heaven?” I suppose the answer depends on your definition of Heaven. The Judeo-Christian ideal states a life well-lived by adhering to the Commandments and carefully following Christ in all things leads you to eternity with Him upon death, or possibly a detour to Purgatory for a temporary “burning away” of the remnant of sin still not purged. I know a lot of people who are misled by believing that true and complete happiness is attainable in this lifetime and chase after it like dogs chasing their tails. To some Heaven would be wealth, or health, or prestige. I think the true definition of Heaven is a peace the world does not know and cannot contain, and that we as human beings turned away from the Heaven that was given us by God, in order that we might choose to turn once again to Him in this life after finding every other promise of Heaven empty and bitter and a waste of our attention. It would follow then that worldy affections would become unsatisfying and when this happens to a soul, it begins to look inward for the answer, instead of outward, to the world which thrives on false hopes and fleeting base pleasures.

In Hosea, God speaks to the prophet comparing Israel, His beloved, and compares it to an adulterous wife, who has forsaken her marriage vow and gone out searching for different lovers. In a passage that reads like the rage of a jealous man, God relates His plan to allure Israel and entice her once more to fidelity with Him in the marriage covenant:
Hosea 2 (Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition.)
1Say ye to your brethren: You are my people, and to your sister: Thou hast obtained mercy.
2Judge your mother, judge her: because she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. Let her put away her fornications from her face, and her adulteries from between her breasts.
3Lest I strip her naked, and set her as in the day that she was born: and I will make her as a wilderness, and will set her as a land that none can pass through, and will kill her with drought.
4And I will not have mercy on her children: for they are the children of fornications.
5For their mother hath committed fornication, she that conceived them is covered with shame: for she said: I will go after my lovers, that give me my bread, and my water, my wool, and my flax, my oil, and my drink.
6Wherefore behold I will hedge up thy way with thorns, and I will stop it up with a wall, and she shall not find her paths.
7And she shall follow after her lovers, and shall not overtake them: and she shall seek them, and shall not find, and she shall say: I will go, and return to my first husband, because it was better with me then, than now.
8And she did not know that I gave her corn and wine, and oil, and multiplied her silver, and gold, which they have used in the service of Baal.
9Therefore will I return, and take away my corn in its season, and my wine in its season, and I will set at liberty my wool, and my flax, which covered her disgrace.
10And now I will lay open her folly in the eyes of her lovers: and no man shall deliver her out of my hand:
11And I will cause all her mirth to cease, her solemnities, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her festival times.
12And I will destroy her vines, and her fig trees, of which she said: These are my rewards, which my lovers have given me: and I will make her as a forest, and the beasts of the field shall devour her.
13And I will visit upon her the days of Baalim, to whom she burnt incense, and decked herself out with her earrings, and with her jewels, and went after her lovers, and forgot me, saith the Lord.
14Therefore, behold I will allure her, and will lead her into the wilderness: and I will speak to her heart.
15And I will give her vinedressers out of the same place, and the valley of Achor for an opening of hope: and she shall sing there according to the days of her youth, and according to the days of her coming up out of the land of Egypt.
16And it shall be in that day, saith the Lord, That she shall call me : My husband, and she shall call me no more Baali.
17And I will take away the names of Baalim out of her mouth, and she shall no more remember their name.
18And in that day I will make a covenant with them, with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of the air, and with the creeping things of the earth: and I will destroy the bow, and the sword, and war out of the land: and I will make them sleep secure.
19And I will espouse thee to me for ever: and I will espouse thee to me in justice, and judgment, and in mercy, and in commiserations.
20And I will espouse thee to me in faith: and thou shalt know that I am the Lord.
21And it shall come to pass in that day: I will hear, saith the Lord, I will hear the heavens, and they shall hear the earth.
22And the earth shall hear the core, and the wine, and the oil, and these shall hear Jezrahel.
23And I will sow her unto me in the earth, and I will have mercy on her that was without mercy.
24And I will say to that which was not my people: Thou art my people: and they shall say: Thou art my God.

The language God uses to convey His hurt and anger at Israel’s unfaithfulness is indeed the same language of an abandoned husband, a devoted and loving husband who has his wife’s best interest at heart. God is not only speaking of Israel as His chosen nation, but also to the individual soul that is easily lured away from seeking God’s face. His love is erotic, sensual, romantic and full to the brim with desire. It reads like a soap-opera, dripping with betrayal and reconciliation. In marriage we see “through a glass, darkly” a reflection of the Divine Union, but still only a dark and blurry reflection. What God asks of us is that, when united, we together as one flesh continue to seek him, finding consolation in one another and encouragement. But earthly marriage is not a means to an end. Those who stop seeking their Beloved having found an earthly partner run the risk of putting all their faith in that partnership, only to find it dissolving in alimony payments and custody battles shortly thereafter. God IS jealous, and He tells us as much:
“24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” Deut 4:24
Furthermore, God allows us to search out other lovers precisely so that we come to the understanding, often times in the hardest and most sorrowful of losses, that a marriage, a life, not built upon a solid foundation of faith in this world will inevitably fail. It isn’t because God is hateful- quite on the contrary. He is so consumed with passion for us that the hedge He places around us gives us no choice but to question and seek and knock- so that He may open to us and lavish on us the gifts He is genuinely bursting to give us. At some point in every life, the question is asked- Is there a God? If so, what is His nature?
6Wherefore behold I will hedge up thy way with thorns, and I will stop it up with a wall, and she shall not find her paths.
We get a taste of what it is to be “at one” with our beloved in marriage. We are ‘enfleshed” together, no longer two separate individualities but a single body. It is imperfect and meant to be, as we are imperfect but still, miraculously, called to be perfect in the Light of Christ.
As I read the saints writings and forge ahead in my own conversion, I am gaining a deeper understanding of why the saints could so easily and without the slightest regret denounce the world and it’s “emptiness” and find all wordly pleasures bitter in comparison to God. I see know how celibates can make the sacrifice gladly in exchange for union with the Divine and how piteously lacking the sexual act is in comparison to that union.. That is not to debase married love or sex, for both are reflections of the love and desire God has for our souls.

St. Augustine was a great lover, or so he writes in his “Confessions”. His conversion story relates how difficult the struggle was within himself to release the greatest worldly pleasure known to him, understanding through his conversion that it displeased God. It is the same when I turn my attention inward and face the obstacles and affections I have for things I know I’m better off without. It is much easier to seek out something or someone that gives immediate gratification to our senses and temporary comfort to our hearts than to remain steadfast against the temptation to indulge and in essence abandon our resolve against such pursuits. We are always at war and we battle formidable enemies. But with each attempt, with each “try”, we also reaffirm in our consequent failure that we are made geared to seek God, and that He in His Wisdom has made us with this in mind. We did not create ourselves, nor do we govern our lives, nor can we say rightly that we fashioned this universe and keep it running smoothly, no matter how great our knowledge of God’s laws are. We play at His table, contained within Him, and he who spends his life seeking true happiness outside of God spends a life of purposeless fits and starts.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Magdalene Diaries

I love a good conversion story. Maybe it is because we are all in the process of change, and from moment to moment we become someone different. Maybe it's because that power to change inspires hope and gives us vision. Maybe its because even though the world tells us we are powerless, God gives His gift of Truth in Christ: that we are His and that turning to Him is the greatest joy a soul can aspire to.
It reminds me of a Jewish proverb I once read: Not a single blade of grass exists without a governing angel above it, whispering, tenderly "Grow...grow..."

I love Mary Magdalene. I love her because she was plagued by seven demons and was healed, that she was traditionally a prostitute before she converted. The story of her sitting at the feet of Christ, washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair and annointing them with expensive perfume is beautiful not only for such an amazing show of love and repentance but in that repentance this woman showed almost heroic strength. As a woman, and unclean, she was forbidden to touch Christ, let alone embrace His feet. I am sure the men in the room were less than kind to her as she made her way to Jesus and and sat before Him, rapt with adoration and thanksgiving and I am sure that fire in her soul made their protests and insults meaningless. She was defiant of these men and deaf to their judgements, her eyes, her heart and her soul filled with love of Christ, Who had set her free of them and healed her.