‘Oh,’ the priest said, ‘that’s another thing altogether – God is love. I don’t say the heart doesn’t feel a taste of it, but what a taste. The smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditch-water. We wouldn’t recognize that love. It might even look like hate. It would be enough to scare us – God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.’
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
A few weeks ago I had an extraordinary conversation over lunch. Someone I’m working with, who takes his spiritual life seriously, had a question: if I keep up my practice of meditation, will the dark night of the soul happen to me? He was aware of the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and of Mother Theresa’s remarkable collection of letters, Come Be My Light, which gives a very real picture of the spiritual darkness –at times anguish– of her later life. The question was: is this going to happen to me?
At the time I said something about the journey into deepening prayer as the mystics describe it, which does go through periods of dryness, purification, joy and darkness. I said, too, that for John of the Cross, the dark night came through objectively bad experiences – being imprisoned by his Carmelite brethren and beaten on a daily basis. Dark night experiences can happen to us without us going looking for them.
As the weeks have gone by, I’ve found myself thinking about a different answer, and about the whisky priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Finally captured by the Communists after months on the run, the priest and his pursuer, a lieutenant, spend a wet night in a hut in the mountains. It’s there that this wonderful spiritual anti-hero makes his confession of faith. “‘Oh,’ said the priest, ‘that’s another thing altogether. God is love… Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.’”
That is exactly it, at least in my experience.
Most of us want, perhaps more than anything else in the world, to be known and loved. The ‘and’ here is crucial. There are times when knowing and loving go hand in hand: the first few dates when you’re finding out more and more about each other, and each new discovery confirms your first intuition that this person is something special. In those situations, revealing something of yourself can be liberating and exciting, if also a little nerve-wracking. (Will he like me if I admit that I like prog metal? birdwatching? taxidermy?) As the relationship deepens, there are also times when knowing and loving are in painful tension with one another. Because I want the other person to love me as I really am, I may feel compelled to tell them something difficult about myself – perhaps something painful from my past. Then, being known is very difficult, vulnerable and raw: my heart may be in my mouth as I wait for their reaction. Even being loved can be difficult. If, deep down, I do not believe that I am loveable, then I may find the other person’s acceptance of me even harder to bear than I would find their rejection. Every relationship is like this: as it deepens, it goes through phases of closeness and distance, growing together and pulling apart, disclosure and silence. We may go through these phases repeatedly, but if the relationship is healthy, the pattern is not just cyclical, going through the same motions of allowing someone close and pushing them away again; rather, it is a deepening spiral, in which we are increasingly both better known and better loved.
All this is true of a deepening relationship with God. There are times when being known and loved –feeling known and loved by God– is light and easy. There are also times when it is challenging and frightening. We mention easily how God loves us even though we are sinners, but often this kind of talk is a good example of what the late Sebastian Moore OSB called, ‘making Christ the answer without doing the homework’. It is true that we are completely known and completely loved by God, but our journey into really discovering that is long, and –because we are human– every bit as challenging as an ordinary human relationship. Whatever our Sunday best beliefs, we may fear, deep down, that God will reject us because we are not good enough. We may struggle with discovering that God accepts us as we are, because it will mean having to accept ourselves as we are. In letting go our fantasy of what God wants us to be like, we have to let go our own fantasy of what we should be like. All that is difficult and unworthy in us may seem to rise to the surface, like the whisky priest who is so shamefully aware of his cowardice, his alcoholism, his worldliness. Like any lover whose deepest faults are exposed to the gaze of their beloved, we may want to get our rejection in first, and pull the plug on our relationship with God; or, like the whisky priest, we may just stumble on, bewildered by God’s mercy. All these fears, darknesses and struggles are the dark night. It’s not like a disease, something that you might catch or might not if you hang around the spiritual life long enough. The spiritual life is basically a love life, and it has all the same joy, terror, risk and promise. There are times when, like the lover in the Song of Songs, my prayer is ‘Draw me after you, let us run.’ And there are times when, like the whisky priest, I run a mile.