It has been said that in today’s world there is a great search, sometimes an anguished search, for human love and intimacy. It is a search for connection – for authentic dialogue with one another. It’s been predicted that whilst the last millennium was devoted to the theoretical exploration of cognition we could now be entering a phase which is devoted to the theoretical exploration of love.
Commenting on this William Johnston said that we will not understand human love until we probe deeply into the mystery of divine love, for the two are inextricably intertwined, and dialogue and connection lie at the heart of love.
Inevitably love and intimacy include suffering: ‘human love, divine love, any kind of love can be an open wound, albeit a joyful wound, that only the beloved it can heal.’ Johnston writes that the central theme of the Scriptures is marriage: the first is the covenant, which is the marriage between Yahweh and the people of Israel; and in the new Testament Jesus is the bridegroom while the Christian community as his bride – in the mystical tradition Jesus is the bridegroom while the individual human person, whether masculine or feminine, is his bride.
Alongside this there is human love, human marriage and human friendship no matter what sex or gender and all these relationships are symbols or signs of something divine. Johnston says that the influence of Freud is that we have tended to reverse the order of divine providence, saying that human sexual intercourse is the reality and that marriage with God is some dream.
It reminds me of a discussion many years ago at St Marylebone’s Healing and Counselling Centre (which I may have quoted before), about whether St Therese of Lisieux would have been better having some therapy, meeting someone and having children instead of hanging around the nunnery, becoming ill which eventually led to her early death. In other words that her spiritual marriage to Jesus Christ and the adoption of herself as the spiritual child of God and following the ‘little way’ were a sublimation of her frustrated sexual drives.
Many write of how intimacy with God leads to intimacy with others and authentic dialogue, because to love God is to love all reality in God. Contemplative prayer opens us to everything around us as we see how connected we all are and with all creation. As Thomas Merton thought, authentic love of others is rooted in truth and in a mutual relationship calls others to fulfil their true identities even as it loves them in their brokenness, ‘since love without truth is mere sentimentality.’
Famously in 1966 Merton fell in love with a student nurse following an operation. He wrote: ‘I have let love take hold of me in spite of all my fear and I have obeyed love … Our hearts really are in tune. Our depths really communicate. It is the real root and ground of everything and of this sexual love can only best be a sign.’ Struggling to remain faithful to his vows Merton admits that they are both terribly in love and it’s the kind of love that can tear you apart but it also exists on other levels. ‘I do so much want to love her as we began, spiritually.’