“In solitude I have at last discovered that You desire the love of my heart, O my God, the love of my heart as it is—the love of my human heart. I have found and have known by Your great mercy that the love of a heart that is abandoned and broken and poor is most pleasing to You and attracts the gaze of Your pity. It is Your desire and Your consolation, O my Lord, to be very close to those who love You and call upon You as their Father. You have perhaps no greater consolation—if I may so speak—than to console Your afflicted children and those who come to You poor and empty-handed, with nothing but their humanness, their limitations and their great trust in Your mercy.”I was particularly struck by this passage as I read Dialogues with Silence, a collection of poems, prayers and sketches by Thomas Merton. As a Trappist monk, Merton spent much of his life praying and working in the deep silence of the cloister. The above passage, taken from his book Thoughts In Solitude, expresses beautifully one of the most poignant revelations Merton encountered in that silence. As Christians, we must come to terms with the truth that we love a God Who desires us as we are. God desires our love, though we love Him in the midst of our sinfulness, our broken-heartedness, our imperfections. He desires our love, though before Him we are all, as Merton puts it, “poor and empty-handed.”
I’m reminded of the first few lines of Francis Thompson’s famous poem about God’s pursuit of the human soul, “The Hound of Heaven.” God pursues us because He desires us, but we often flee from His love, as the speaker of Thompson’s poem recalls:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter...
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
It’s often tempting to flee in shame at the sound of those “strong Feet,” but God expects us to love Him out of our sinfulness. God shows us His love for us, St. Paul says, in the fact that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We must have a contrite heart, a profound awareness of our own sinfulness, in order to accept God’s forgiveness. We must love God in humility, without pretense, in order to accept the mercy He offers us from the cross. In another passage taken from Thoughts In Solitude, Merton points out that we can, in fact, only experience the “full sweetness” of God’s mercy if we love Him with an imperfect, “human” love:
“You desire the love of my heart because Your Divine Son also loves You with a human heart. He became a human being in order that my heart and His heart should love You in one love… If I therefore do not love You with a human love and with a human simplicity, and with the humility to be myself, I will never taste the full sweetness of Your Fatherly mercy, and Your Son, as far as my life goes, will have died in vain.”
Likewise, at the end of Thompson’s poem, God reminds the soul He has pursued relentlessly that His desire stems not from the soul’s own merits, but from His longing to offer Himself:
"Rise, clasp My hand, and come!
… Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!"
God desires us, and hopes that we will love Him humanly so that He can shower His mercy on us; but because His love for us is limitless, it doesn’t stop there. God desires our human love, yes, but He also desires its perfection. This distinction is the great truth we see shine forth in the lives of the saints.
In His great mercy, God calls us to press forward in our brokenness, to take up our own cross and to learn to love more perfectly (Luke 14:27). He calls us to strive for the perfect holiness of sainthood, to be perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). We read in Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love.” On our journey toward this perfection, God’s mercy is indispensable, and so we must learn to go before Him, as Merton says, “with a human love and with a human simplicity” and the humility to be ourselves – and yet we must not forget where we are headed, which is towards perfection in love.
More to come next week, and perhaps the week after…