Abide In My Love
Some days ago, at the Eucharist, I sang these words as a refrain for the responsorial psalm: My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God. I was happy to do this, although I felt that I couldn’t express all that was in my heart. I was privileged to give voice to the longing the Church through the centuries and all its saints in particular have had for God. I could sing, say aloud, what I silently carry in the center of my being: the thirst that is the response to a love greater than myself.
Before the responsorial psalm, we had heard the words of the prophet Jeremiah: You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced; you were too strong for me, and you prevailed … I say I will not mention him, I will no longer speak in his name. But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding back, I cannot! (Jer. 20, 7 -9) Was I not also like him? Had also I not tried to smother the divine fire in my bones when I couldn’t understand it, I couldn’t control it or was not able to foresee or accept where it was leading me?
These realities: longing, thirsting, the experience of the unquenchable fire of love – sometimes quiet like an undercurrent, sometimes strong and overpowering like a waterfall – have become the golden thread that runs through my days. This covenant of love, invisible and difficult to put into words as days and activities come and go, holds together who I am and all I do.
Often, when I speak with young women who are trying to discern a possible call to religious life, I hear a question expressed more or less like this: How can Jesus be your spouse if you cannot not see him? It is not due to incredulity that they ask, but as the result of their own struggle, trying to figure out how they may deal with the capacity for love they store in their hearts. When I hear this question, the experience that underlies my whole life comes to my mind, but how to express it? The words of the 1st letter of St Peter come to me: Although you’ve never seen him, you love him. Even though you don’t see him now, you trust him and so rejoice with a glorious joy that is too much for words.
Saint Bernard, one of the main writers in our Cistercian Tradition, was the first to present mystical life in a coherent synthesis, as a life of spousal love in the heart of the Church, the great Bride and Mother1. He writes in his sermon 85 on the Song of Songs:
When you see a soul leaving everything and clinging to the Word with all her will and desire, living for the Word, ruling her life by the Word, conceiving by the Word what she will bring forth by him, so that she can say,” For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” you know that the soul is the spouse and bride of the Word.2
Bernardo Olivera, former abbot general of our Order, talks about the spousal relationship in these words: This is where the spousal relationship is found, as an attitude and mode of being for the other, as a special way of giving and receiving, of mutual belonging and complementary enrichment, as life rooted in and flowing out of the depths of one’s own being, created in the image and likeness of the triune God. 3
Saint Pope John Paul II calls this kind of love “betrothed love,” a love that is especially characterized by the total self-giving, the surrender of one´s ´I´, which goes far beyond attraction, desire or even goodwill. Love forcibly detaches the person, so to speak, from this natural inviolability and inalienability. It makes the person want just that – surrender itself to another, to the one it loves.4 In this sense, one person can give himself or herself, can surrender entirely to another, whether to a human person or to God, and such a giving of the self creates a special form of love which we define as betrothed love.5
We usually encounter spousal love for the first time under the form of conjugal love in our parents. As we grow up, the image we had is expanded and embellished; we meet other couples and begin to dream about “Mr Perfect”, after the likeness of what we saw in movies or read in novels.
God left his image in the union between a man and a woman. In their mutual self-gift they mirror the Trinitarian relationships. Human beings were created by love and in order to love, in the image of the God who is love. This is why only in the true gift of self we can discover the purpose and meaning of our lives. 6
Marriage and conjugal love remain the usual way to learn and embrace this love, but it is not the only one. To those whom Jesus calls to himself in a special way, he offers a new path to incarnate this love: the path that he himself inaugurated living in chastity, poverty and obedience. He who called himself “the Bridegroom” tells us: There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn 15:13). It is not only on the cross that Jesus loves us and the Father to the end. All his life is a pouring out of himself, just as he poured water over the feet of the apostles. Thus he opened up for us an abyss of love that surpasses our comprehension. In St Paul’s words: I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge (Eph 3, 17-19).
When you feel this mysterious fire in your bones like Jeremiah, the love and zeal of Jesus himself for his Father and for the coming of the Kingdom, you need to renounce, at least temporarily, the images of spousal love that you had created for yourself so far. Each one of us is different in this sense; it might be the picture of the perfect wedding, husband, family environment and children. Jesus may have envisaged another path for you, and you have to open your heart and mind a little wider to see his path, his dream with you and for you. Like the rich young man in the gospel, you need to let go of your plans so that Jesus can give you what you lack and truly desire, even if you cannot foresee it at this moment. Even if, like Mary, you ask yourself: How can this be? (Lk 1, 34)
If you trust him and his love for you, maybe suddenly or little by little, a new song will awake in your heart, ever more beautiful, and all your being will also sing: My soul is thirsting for you. You won’t be able to express it perfectly, but a smile in your eyes will tell it all. Then something else will happen: when others hear you, single or married, young and old, they will recognize themselves in you and join in your song, their own thirst reawakened. The Kingdom of God will be a little closer.
When you live for the one you love, when you put in his hands your joys and sorrows, challenges, desires, past, present and future, your eyes open and begin to see without seeing. He is present to you even in the apparent absence. You just have to listen, to incline the ear of your heart7, and you will hear him say: Abide in my love (Jn 15, 9).
1Bernardo Olivera, OCSO, The Sun at Midnight, Monastic Experience of the Christian Mystery, Trans. Augustine Roberts, MW 33 [Collegeville: Cistercian, 2012] 89.
2Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermo super Cantica canticorum [SC] 85.12; On the Song of Songs IV, trans. Irene Edmonds, CF 40 (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1980)
3Olivera, The Sun at Midnight, 101
4Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II), Love and Responsibility, trans. H. T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, 1981) 125
5Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 97
6“Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one . . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes 24)
7See Rule of St Benedict, Prologue