Love is the Better Option
Periodically, I have the chance to reread sections of Kathleen Norris’ book, The Cloister Walk. The book first appeared in 1996. I had read some of Norris’ work and was eager to read this book when it was published. I knew it was based on her time spent at St. John’s Benedictine Abbey in Minnesota. As one who also is a Benedictine oblate, I was excited to see what her reflected experience would be. I was not disappointed the first time I read it and I delight every time I pick the book up to read parts of it again.
Recently, I had to read a chapter she entitles, “Learning to love: Benedictine Women on Celibacy and Relationship.” I suspect many readers would never bother with this chapter because of the title. I think their mistake would be focusing on the subtitle, Benedictine women, and quickly assume there would be nothing there for them. Instead I was intrigued with the idea of “learning to love.” Maybe it is because I am a perennial student, but I am always pulled into something to learn. And to learn love seemed particularly attractive.
Part of the way into the chapter, Norris quotes the philosopher, Ernest Becker. His words were enlightening. “There are two basic ways to experience a radical change: to undergo a nervous breakdown, and to fall in love. And love is preferable. Love, if we can move beyond projecting onto another person and see them as they really are, also makes us more aware of who we are.” I fully agree. I would rather fall in love than experience a nervous breakdown!
Having thought some about Becker’s words, allow me to unpack the quotation to share my learning. The first key idea is to recognize what so many people do when they fall in love. They project things on to the person with whom they are falling in love. In a way they “create” their lover. Of course, the other person is there in an objective way, but the person we see is not the actual person. And naturally, we are not aware of this creative process.
In the early blush of love this is not a problem. Especially in romantic love, the early phase of love---often the infatuation phase---is so exciting there are basically no problems. For a little bit heaven has descended on to earth and envelopes both of us! Each person is thrilled and filled. In heaven there is not time and, so, this feels like it can last forever. But of course, it doesn’t.
The problem has been there all along; it just takes time to manifest. Ultimately, the other person will turn out to be who they really are. And I will do the same thing. I will turn out to be the real me and not be the person the one who loves me thought I was. Reality sometimes is disappointing. This would be both a little funny and unfortunate if it were only limited to romantic love.
However, I think this sometimes is what happens with people’s experience of God. Early in a spiritual relationship, we create the image of who God is. Perhaps we even fall in love with the image of who God is. This God is usually very nice---super loving, especially to me. God’s Providence has good things in store for me and every day is a bit like my birthday. Life is a gift and is full of gifts. It’s a blessing, as the saying goes.
In some ways this is true. But it is not true they way I am tempted to frame it. God is Love and life is a gift. And surely, life is full of gifts. But they might not be what I expect or wanted. God always turns out to be who God is---not the image of whom I want God to be. In fact, I wonder if most of us would not really prefer Santa Claus to God!
Becker has the right perspective. They key is to see the other person---my lover or God---as they really are. If we can do this, we are living in the land of reality and not fantasyland. And when we can do this, not only do we see the other for the person they are, but also we become aware of whom we really are. And when we are dealing with reality, spiritual growth and development become possible.
Reality is where radical change can happen. In fact, it is the only place where change can happen. And that is a nice way to understand why learning to love is a good option. It is the way to be aware of ourselves and spiritually to be aware of the God who is Love. And if we can develop a relationship with this God, we engage the process of becoming a remarkable person.
In the hands of this loving God we can realize that life is a gift. I realize my life is a gift and every day I will be called to give my gift to the world in ordinary and, perhaps, extraordinary ways. I can positively affect my little world and in my tiny way bring a bit of heaven to earth. Love is the better option.