Love Divine All Loves Excelling

This week we complete our Pre-Lenten examination of the three stages of holiness according to St. Gregory of Nyssa (see posts below).  Having entered the cloud of God’s presence in the Second Stage, we now join Moses in a loving union with God.  Love is the Third Stage of Holiness. Some points for meditation as we go into this week, and Ash Wednesday:

Loving union with God is only completely achieved in Heaven itself.  So, in this world we have to settle for a dynamic of: to seek him is to love him.  Recall the words of Thomas Merton, “Lord I don’t know if I please you, but I think the desire to please you pleases you.”  Any expectation of achieving heaven on earth will, ultimately disappoint us.

Mature Loving union with God begins by HIS initiative, not ours.  St. John tells us, “The Love of God consists in this, not that we have love him, but that he loved us first and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (I Jn 4:10).  Furthermore, the only Love that is really capable of pleasing God is (shall we call it?) ‘God-Love’.  Our primary task is to empty ourselves.  We need to assume a posture of humble reception.  We need to be filled with the gratuitous delight of the Father, expressed in the sending of the Son.  Only then, filled with this ‘God-love’, will we be in any position to make a return to him.

Our humility will probably hurt at first.  We began to experience this in the cloud of the Second Stage.  This is the denial of the senses, the acknowledgement of our smallness, the purging of the self.  As we let our selves fall away, God fills us.  Questions naturally arises: “Am I a slave?”  “Doesn’t my ‘self’ matter to God?”  Of course God is not enslaving us… of course, our individuality is of value to him… but we have to recognize that to attain our ultimate goal we need to do the most self-possessed thing any human being can do: we must sacrifice ourselves so that His love can carry us to heaven.

St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine of Siena

The nearest human experience to this is marriage.  In the third stage we enter a mystical marriage with God.  St. Catherine of Siena experienced this.  So did many of the early virgin martyrs.  In marriage there is a constant humbling of the self so that each spouse can help the other to true happiness and, ultimately, heaven.  No one would say that one spouse is a ‘slave’ to the other, but that each freely gives his/herself out of love.  Another human metaphor that comes to mind is hospitality.  When, in humble love of the guest, a host opens his/her home, sacrifices are made, the room is prepared, for the greater experience to come by welcoming in the guest… putting the guest (in some senses) in the driver’s seat in one’s own home.  This is not an experience of slavery or of devaluing the host.  It’s a beautiful gift, freely given.

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Bl. Teresa of Calcutta

How, concretely, do we go about this?  We pray.  We deny ourselves through fasting and almsgiving/care of the poor. We engage in the acts of mercy.  We celebrate the Eucharist well.  “Wait a minute, isn’t this the same stuff we started out with?  Isn’t this just the same old same old?”  NO.  In the Third Stage these same acts take on a whole new character because it’s no longer living but Christ living in us (cf Gal. 2:20).  I do this now regardless of material comfort or circumstance.  My consolations are no longer external, I am now sustained by my internal identity in and relationship with the Father.  I am completely liberated from this world… FREE to give myself on the Cross as Jesus does… out of Love for the Father, filled with the Love of the Father.

This is why the Eucharist is sooooo important!  Because every Sunday becomes a microcosm of the rest of the life of holiness.  We are humble ourselves before God (Kyrie – Lord have mercy).  We acknowledge his glory in a burning bush moment (Gloria – Glory to God in the highest) .  We receive knowledge of him and meditate on that (Verbum domini – This is the Word of the Lord).  Humbling ourselves (Domine non sum dingo – Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof) we receive him (Communio – Holy Communion)… and then we go forth, filled with his Love to do his work as his mystical body on earth, his bride, the Church (ite missa est – Go announce the Gospel of the Lord!).

In art we see this beautifully in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  He began walking, lost, on a wooded road.  His own self will no longer satisfied him.

“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

Having passed through hell, purgatory and heaven, he is armed anew, filled with the God-love ready to return to the same world a changed man with new gifts to give to all those he meets.

Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Gustave Dore, "The Empyrean" from Dante's Paradiso XXXIII
Gustave Dore, “The Empyrean” from Dante’s Paradiso XXXIII