Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Discovering ourselves in the love of God

"St. Bernard of Clairvaux describes as the highest degree of love the  love of ourselves for God's sake.  Thomas Merton calls this the high point of St. Bernard's humanism which shows "that the fulfillment of our destiny is not merely to be lost in God, as the traditional figures of speech would have it, like a 'drop of water in a barrel of wine or like iron in the fire', but found in God in all our individual and personal reality" [and, ultimately,] "that we see his will done in us."-The Genessee Diary, pg 85, Henri Nouwen
God's love isn't reserved for saints and mystics. It's there for the clueless disciples, the reluctant prophets, and even those of us who doubt, who struggle with the most basic of human faults in ourselves. It doesn't matter, you see. The love of God isn't reserved for a special few.

I was once on a retreat. One of the retreat-ants went to talk to a priest and spent an entire twenty minutes complaining to him about her life. Knowing that her problems were more from her perception of things than actual issues, the priest  said to her "We aren't at this retreat to talk about our problems. We're here to find spiritual solutions" and sent her to the chapel to pray, where she met me.  I was deep in prayer when she came in and began complaining to me, as she had done the entire weekend, how no one understood her.

I've been on staff at retreats for terminally ill people and found them less challenging than this woman, who had an excellent career, good childhood and lacked nothing in material wealth. Her external circumstances just were meaningless to her  however. All she could see was what she didn't have and that one thing - not being married - caused her so much emotional pain that she dieted down to a size six. When that didn't help her find the right person, she came to the retreat, full of grief. The way she showed that grief was to vent. It was very hard to be around her.

So there I sat in my wheelchair in the chapel, fresh back from a retreat with terminally ill people, praying for a dear friend who died from MS. Perhaps because of this I could see that she was grieving for the life she did not have.  Many of us run into these feelings as we get older and discover that maybe we won't get the education we need for that career we wanted or perhaps can't have children or may have things happen in our lives we just don't expect.  What can happen is that we lose gratitude for what we do have and grieve for what we don't. And we don't get sympathy from others, but turn them away if we stay stuck there.

Her first words were "How could that priest understand what I'm going through? He can't get married!"  I almost laughed, but instead turned to her and said "You're so sad that you haven't found the right person to marry", addressing her need openly. She nodded and began to cry, then leaned down and threw her arms around me, sobbing. "What's wrong with me?" she asked. "I've done everything to make myself better and no one loves me."

Gently, I told her that God loved her. She predictably scoffed at me, but I suggested that instead of feeling sad about the life she didn't have, why didn't she try to find ways to discover herself in God's love while she waited to find the right person. She rubbed her eyes and looked at me as if I had lost my mind, but then she said "I suppose I have nothing to lose."  "And everything to gain," I said. And I shared the above passage with her. 

Two months later, I received a phone call from her. She told me that the plans we drew up at the retreat, which included volunteering and reaching out to others without making the goal finding a husband, were working out.  "I like myself better," she told me "and I made some new friends. In fact, I'm happier than I can remember being. I feel -" she hesitated- "loved, which was what I really wanted in the first place."

And after spending ten minutes on the phone with her, I even liked her better! Gone was her venting and complaining, gone was her self pity. Instead she spoke about her new, exciting life and shared that she signed up for a few more trips to help people out. "I took a lot of what I have for granted," she told me. "And I couldn't see that because I couldn't get out of myself."

Someone probably could have told her that at the retreat, but that wouldn't have helped her heal. What she needed was to feel lovable - even though many of us didn't think there was much hope of that when we met her.