“What God longs for us to do is to live in the truth Jesus reveals. This means believing in God’s absolute, unconditional love, not in a notional way but one that transforms our attitudes and whole approach to life” (Essence of Prayer, p.51-52). These words of the Carmelite Ruth Burrows would delight St. Bernard whose feast we celebrate tomorrow. Bernard was the great teacher of ‘love’. Whatever book we pick up with his teaching will be laced with the reality of God’s unconditional love revealed, embodied in Jesus.
What Sr. Ruth is saying is radical in this sense: by ‘believing in’, meaning living into, God’s unconditional love, this will ‘transform our attitudes and whole approach to life’. And surely we all are in need of this attitudinal transformation! We can ask our selves what are those attitudes, which I get taken by, that need to be transformed? Just observe my attitude towards a sister I have difficulty with. Or, observe interiorly my murmuring heart, or the harsh criticisms that come up towards others…Are we not being taken by those same negative, judgmental attitudes of the Pharisees whom Jesus faced on a regular basis? Love is obscured when we are overcome by this judgmental, ‘better than thou’ attitude. In fact the larger horizon of God’s love and mercy is all reduced if not lost in the moment…our hearts shrink into an ego-serving mode of being! Let us not forget: we love with God’s love…and when we do this, our love is free of any ego claims or expectations…it is a love that freely pours itself out for the sake of God and our neighbor.
Ruth Burrows continues: “What can be more important for a disciple than constantly to reflect on the truth of God, on this unspeakable, incredible love with which we are encompassed? But how often do we do this?” (p.52). Ok: so let us honestly look at how often we reflect on God’s love for us, a love that is constant and unconditional? Why is this so important? We love with God’s love. When we get a taste of God’s love what does it do within us? Imagine our lives without a felt knowing in heart and soul of God’s love for us. Imagine a life in which we are not loving the ‘other’: God, and all those ‘others’ who we live with and who cross our path. Here are Bernard’s evocative words: “The capacity of any person’s soul is judged by the amount of love he or she possesses. Hence she who loves much is great; she who loves a little is small; she who has not love is nothing. As Paul said: ‘If I have not love, I am nothing’” (The Spiritual Teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux, p.106). The choice is ours: will our loving be ‘small’ or will it be ‘great’ in the sight of God?
I was thinking that when Jesus prayed ‘your will not mine’, that it was motivated by unconditional love. This prayer is a profound exchange of love between Father and Son. Perhaps we need to pray each day, ‘your will not mine’ for this prayer places us in the landscape of the One who loves us and as pray these words we are offering our love, ‘your will O God, not mine’. As we come to know God’s love we want to give our all in return! In his book The Spiritual Teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux, John Sommerfeldt writes: “Bernard asks the obvious question: “‘What can I give to God in return for himself? Even if I could give God myself a thousand times, what am I to God?’ Bernard’s answer is that one should love God with all one’s heart. However, inadequate a response this is, it is all that is expected” (p.113). What is being asked of each of us is possible. It is as simple as this: to know in heart, soul, mind, and body God’s constant love for us, a love that encompasses us always whether we ‘feel’ it or not. And if we are in a dry spell where we do not sense this presence of love, we still have our anchor of faith. A living faith reminds us of those moments in the past where we had a palatable sense of this love. Memory in the patristic writings brings an experience of the past into the present moment, where that experienced memory becomes fresh, new, sustaining. In the same vein, Bernard speaks of the ‘book of our experience’ (Song of Songs I, p.16)). This book of experience will not let us forget the encompassing love of God. With Jesus at the center of our lives the way into God’s immense love is opened up for us…As we listen to him, as we follow him we will be met by Love, the Love that will continue to ‘transform our attitudes and approach to life’ so that we, in turn, will be vessels of God’s healing and transforming love.
I conclude with these striking words of Jean Vanier that we heard at vigil: “Transfigured by the Word made flesh our flesh becomes a gentle instrument of the love of God to flow in others” (Jesus The Gift of Love, p.172-173).