Monthly Archives: April 2017

‘Do you know what I have done to you?’ Question for the third step

The question asked by Jesus Christ that resonates with this third step of love is found in John 13: 12 when Jesus washes the feet of the disciples urging them to do the same.
In this simple action and service, Jesus tells the disciples that he has shown his love for them and also, the only time it is said in the Gospels, given them an example of how they are to serve others and return the love.
The question is also an all-pervasive one, and beyond its immediate context the question is asked about the influence of Jesus in our lives. The phrase ‘done to you’ stands out – this is something that has begun to happen to our very being. The question asked includes our recognition of the unique way that God operates in each of our lives.

There are real shifts in St Bernard’s steps and also with each of the questions asked of us. There are real shifts between searching for what we want for ourselves, ‘What are you looking for?’; to the acknowledgement that we are in relationship with Jesus Christ, ‘Who do you say that I am’; and then that in the relationship with God something has happened to us – almost outside our conscious awareness – ‘Do you know what I have done to you?’

However, perhaps it will only be much later that we can see that we have been changed, and that what was dimly guessed at, and then glimpsed, has become increasingly important in our lives. So what happens when we put ourselves to one side and allow God to become increasingly central? Many have written about this as a process of stripping – a honing down of our self in the light of Christ. Raissa Maritain, the wife of Jacques Maritain, describes a separation within her: events and associated emotions and experiences in the foreground, with the background fixed in faith and love of God. But over time, one might say as she moves towards the third step of love Raissa Maritain sees ‘what has been done to her’ – that what was previously to the fore retreats to the background, whilst the background becomes the centre of her life. The sacrifice of self will and the stripping process involve what she describes as partial deaths. She feels her soul freer, like a ‘kernel which has been turned round and round inside the pulp of the fruit… so as to make it lose its adhesions’.

St Bernard’s third step: we love God for himself

According to St Bernard the third step is about loving God for himself. He writes that as we approach God more often, so our intimacy with God grows. As we ‘come and see’ and remain with the experience that we are having in the relationship with God, so we begin to appreciate his presence. In other words, we start to love the experience of closeness with God in all of our ordinary everyday life, and this time with him becomes more important than what he has given us.

St Bernard continues that this state of mind leaves us free to follow the commandment to love our neighbour – for if we love God then we will love everything that belongs to God. Perhaps this means that what we are given generously we can begin to give to others.
The third step seems to be characterised by alternating between a love for God and a pull back towards self-interest. Etienne Gilsen writes that it, ‘is in this state that the soul remains for the longest time, nor indeed can she [our soul] ever wholly emerge from it in this life’. As St Bernard puts it, this intimacy with God becomes more attractive to us than the earlier phase and the dead end cul-de-sac of self-preoccupation.

Gerard Hughes writing after a particularly anxious time on his walk to Jerusalem puts it like this,
‘I looked at the candle in the darkness and recognised the darkness in all the bewilderment, numbness, frustration, helplessness and anxiety I had experienced…
The light came into the darkness and I felt the joy of it, an inner certainty in all my uncertainty, a hope when everything seemed hopeless, an assurance that all manner of things will be well and that Christ is greater than all my stupidity and sinfulness. I knew then that I was caught up in something far greater than my mind can ever grasp.’

Perhaps this letting it just happen can take us by surprise. I like Evelyn Underhill’s description, she writes,

‘The light comes, when it does come, rather suddenly and strangely I think. It is just like falling in love; a thing that never happens to those who are always trying to do it.
You may also take it for granted, of course, that so long as you want peace and illumination for your own sake you will not get them. Self-surrender an entire willingness to live in the dark, in pain, anything – this is the real secret. I think no one really finds the Great Companion till their love is of that kind that they long only to give and not to get.’

Part of being open and vulnerable is letting go of the illusory idea that we are in control. We are frightened of so many things and mostly to do with losing control. It may be connected to what other people are or do to us; what happens to us or to those we are close to; a fear of sickness, and for all of us inevitably a fear of pain and of death. If we can acknowledge our terror and reveal it to Jesus, this is the beginning of surrendering control to God, whom we can freely love for who he is and what he does for us and to us.

Easter 2017

The special sacred days over Easter remind us how each person is part of torn and broken humanity. We might be dismayed and upset – indeed horrified by events in the world – those that lead to hideous cruelty against all creatures, including humans, and the cruel destruction of the living planet. We might also recognise all the good things within each person and in the world.

There is the space to offer up all of this to God and for it to be transformed. So in silent prayer there is the offering of not only our private personal life but also ourselves as part of the life of the world.

Alexander Ryrie says that sadly none of us can hope to achieve very much by our practical efforts to make the world a better place. But that perseverance in the practice of silent prayer, if we can do it honestly and faithfully, involves a self-offering. He sees this as taking responsibility for our own small share in the troubled state of the world. He believes that when we do this one little bit of torn and broken humanity is laid before God, for God to take and transform. He writes that there is nothing more important than we can do for the life of the world, and no more effective form of intercession, than this. He sees it as absorbing evil and a significant purpose in anyone’s life.

Here there are echoes of Carl Jung’s famous statement that if we only learn to deal with our own shadow we have done something real for the world … We have ‘succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, and unsolved social problems of our day.’
The integration of our shadow is a form of resurrection. As Thomas Merton wrote, ‘the resurrection is the only light, with that light there is no error.’
So … and to quote Merton again: ‘life is on our side… The silence and the Cross of which we know are forces that cannot be defeated.’

‘But who do you say that I am?’

Certainly strange things happen when we put ourselves in the hands of God. One of the strangest things is that in this second step of love, as we realise the extent to which God is with us so we begin to turn our attention towards him, and therefore away from ourselves. This then leads us to the inevitable question. Who or what is it that I am turning to? Jesus Christ asks each of us, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ He doesn’t ask us this in terms of doctrine – it’s not an abstract intellectual answer that’s needed; he doesn’t ask us this in terms of morality and behaviour – the ‘shoulds and the oughts’ of our conduct; but he does ask this of us personally – it seems an emotional question that seeks a subjective answer.

Lawrence Freeman sees this question as key, as to ask who Jesus is implies ‘who he is for me, to me, and in relation to me’ and then ‘who we are as well’. Thinking about the question that Jesus asks us, leads to thinking about who we really are especially in relation to him. The question, ‘How are you?’, that we ask so casually of each other is the question that then needs to be turned back on our self – ‘How am I: really and honestly ‘How am I?’ Part of not knowing the answer to Jesus’ question to us, or finding partial answers that then change as we evolve, means that we also change our perception of who we are. In other words, as we explore our inscape, the inner geography that is partly long established and partly recently constructed – we start to let go of the self that we have constructed and our manufactured answer to the questions, ‘How am I?’ and ‘Who am I?’ If we can let go or ‘unknow’ our false self, we open up more space around us and, this can be space for God’s transformational action. As Jeremy Taylor wrote, ‘There should be in the soul halls of space, avenues of leisure, and high porticos of silence, where God walks’.

As we recognise the expansion of the horizontal and vertical dimension in our selves so we realise that any answer to this question asked of us by Jesus cannot be final. If we can manage not to stop the space opened by this question with an instant answer then we are making ourselves available to the transformational action of God which will lead us to the truthful answer.
To live loving God for what he gives us seems to mean the possibility of beginning to live with stillness and a spaciousness that allows us to be present, and aware, without being dominated by what happens in our illusory self, with our all too human fears, and our transient needs. So now we have some more time alone with the Alone (as Bede Griffiths put it). This is time to wonder about our answer to this question, time to be with God time to just be.