I’ve recently been using a new book in my morning devotional time. I’ve turned to it in part because it offers a very simple formula that I hope may help with my consistency, and in part because it is based on the writings of Teresa of Avila (a contemplative, spiritual author, and Carmelite reformist), whose life and writings demonstrate a deep and transformative understanding of prayer in the Christian life. The formula that so appeals to me is as follows: 1) a morning reading, drawn from Teresa’s prolific writing, 2) a “mantra” from the day’s reading to write down and repeat to myself as a guide for meditation throughout the day, 3) an evening prayer that draws from the reading and focuses me on seeking God through whatever truth has been germinating in my daily reflection. No formula is perfect, but I have been finding Teresa’s words inspiring and the task of day-long meditation very fruitful.
I won’t reproduce the full morning reading here, but the theme it explored is the teaching that is commonly referred to as the first and second commandments. Stated most simply in the opening of the reading, “Our Lord asks but two things of us: love for God and love for our neighbors.” It is an imperative so familiar to the lifelong Christian that it is sometimes hard to take in the full import of those words. They are formulaic instructions that do not often take active root in the routines and responsibilities of daily life. This day’s reflection, however, managed to give them new life for me. Teresa makes the point that it can be hard to evaluate how genuinely we are loving God, but it is much more obvious how we are doing with our neighbor-love obligation. What is more, this neighbor love, although “second” in priority can actually be the means to factually, concretely loving God. As summarized in my mantra for the day:
If we possess a true love of neighbor
we will certainly attain union with our Lord.
I found this argument compelling, but hard to really grasp. I’ve had the experience in my Christian life of what has felt like quite the opposite — where love for people (whether they be within my own family or disadvantaged groups for whom I have advocated) has felt like it is in competition with my love for God. Not that God doesn’t approve of the love and devotion I show to these others, but it is too easy for me to misprioritize and leave my devotion to God in the shadows of my more practical, visible loves. How then can my practice of neighbor-love be actually the route through which I achieve the union with God that manifests true, committed love?
As I began my day, I was wrestling with this question, unsure what answers I would find but sort of vaguely asking God for revelation. My morning agenda offered little opportunity for really exploring the concrete practice of neighbor love. There was some casual chatting with other moms at school drop-off, and a few facebook posts to respond to, but mostly I had a solitary morning of working on my book. I glanced at my post it note a few times, trying to internalize the message, but that was about it.
Then, 1:00 hit and I went to grab my shoes. Wednesday is an optional half-day at school from Year 2 and up, and I had promised Princess Imagination that I would collect her early for a little special Mommy-Daughter time without the Gigglemonster. Perhaps it was the morning spent perched sideways on the couch typing away; perhaps it was the final devolution of that knot in my back that has been bugging me for days. All I know is that I reached down to fasten my shoe, and I suddenly saw stars. The pain was like a micro explosion in the center of my back that radiated pulsing pressure in every direction and temporarily stole my breath away. I couldn’t move. Even just inhaling hurt.
As the minutes ticked toward the 1:30 pick-up I imagined my Princess’s shining face as the gates swung open, searching the crowd of maternal faces for mine. I can’t let her down! I have to be there. On a slow, relaxing inhale I used my hands for support as I eased back against the wall. Once my back was vertical it felt a little better. The stabbing pain disappeared as long as I didn’t try to move. That left only the pressure of an elephant compressing my spine. But I could manage that. I had to! I closed my eyes and breathed a prayer for miraculous healing, but added grudgingly at the end “not my will, but yours be done.” Apparently, sudden miraculous freedom from pain was not God’s will for the moment.
So here was my first chance to practice neighbor love – to go pick up my daughter instead of calling the school to cancel and then lying on an icepack for the next two hours. When I pictured her desolation if I failed to show I didn’t feel like I really had that much of a choice, but still it was a chance to see what Teresa was talking about.
The problem is, Teresa was talking about true love and that goes beyond making the painful drive to pick up the eager 6–year old. That requires actually focusing on her needs over and above my own. I tried. I let her pick the art activity of her choice, and once I’d finished my 20 minutes of floor-bound ice packs I joined her at the table and happily made play dough spaghetti for the next hour. I know from her glowing smile and the energy exploding out of her for the rest of the day that this was a really special time for her. But…
This wasn’t really the neighbor love Teresa was talking about, the love that brings us into union with God. I knew that when each stab of pain made me wish I hadn’t promised her this afternoon together. I knew it when her enthusiastic pull on the purse slung on my shoulder ejected a verbal slap from my lips (“Don’t pull on my purse. My back is hurt!!!“). I hadn’t elected the most selfish option possible for my afternoon, but neither was I really putting her first.
As the afternoon progressed, and the ibuprofen and ice packs did their work, my pain relented to a reasonable degree and we went to pick up the Gigglemonster. After homework and a few books and cuddles the kids involved themselves in independent play, so I went scrolling on Facebook. What I found there was a Sojourners post about a Rick Warren controversy of which I hadn’t been aware. I won’t belabor the details, but apparently the well-known pastor (or his staff) had made an ill-advised post on twitter and Facebook. It was an image drawn from a propaganda poster for the Red Army and it was supposed to present a picture of the kind of motivation and commitment displayed by their church team. The blog post offered a strong (though I thought reasonable) critique, not only of the use of the image, but primarily of the justification that was posted after the image was removed. The critique argued powerfully for why the excuse of irony and joking displayed a failure to understand how hurtful and inappropriate these posts had been. (To see the blog post: http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/09/25/dear-pastor-rick-warren-i-think-you-don%E2%80%99t-get-it).
I nodded my head vigorously, though figuratively (unnecessary spinal motion is still severely curtailed). The post exposed how unloving it is to ask an oppressed group to “take a joke” and I found a connection to the mantra I had been contemplating all day. However unintentional or uninformed the original decision to post the image had been, the real damage was done by the failure to take responsibility for causing pain or to even ask forgiveness. This was a key element to this love of neighbor that Teresa was describing. Love of neighbor requires humility, the willingness to respond not just to others’ physical needs but to their emotional needs as well. And sometimes, others’ emotional needs might require us to accept that we don’t always have the right to make a joke. By being vulnerable to another’s pain, even a pain we can’t really relate to, we make ourselves more open to union with the God who took on all our pain.
Feeling pretty good about my spiritual insightfulness I scrolled through the comments following the blog. Most of them were “like-able,” applauding the author’s clarity and message. Then I came to a response that rebuked the author for not offering enough grace to Rick Warren.
Wait a minute! I wanted to scream into my tiny I-phone screen. Did you even read the article? Warren’s the privileged white guy who does something really offensive and then whines that he was just trying to be funny. He’s not the victim here! If he won’t look for the truth in the negative feedback he gets, then he needs more negative feedback, not grace!
And then my eyes fell on that little post it note. If we possess true love of neighbor we will certainly attain union with our Lord. Well, I wasn’t feeling terribly unified with my Lord at the moment. Not that God never expresses righteous anger, but the thing with God’s anger is that it really is utterly righteous. There is no shadow of pomposity or strident self-justification. If God is angry it’s because the Source of perfect goodness has been violated and that demands justice. My self-righteousness, on the other hand, has a lot of personal ego and defensiveness and other less-than-savory ingredients added to the mix. I can’t really agree with the comment that rejected a valid critique because it lacks “grace,” but I’m not loving my neighbor when I compose scathing responses to his ignorance, even if they are just in my head.
With that stinging conviction on my brain I got dinner on the table. As the kids sat down I asked the Gigglemonster to pick a prayer. (The kids have a few books of children’s prayers on the dinner table and they take turns selecting prayers at meal time). Here is the gem he picked out for tonight:
People are all different, but you love them just the same,
Please teach me how to do this, Lord — to love them in your name.
Stated here so clearly, in the language of young children, was the truth about love that I had been struggling toward all day. Loving my neighbor, and thereby drawing into union with God, is not about me! Love that builds unity is about understand God’s love for others that transcends all our differences. That kind of love doesn’t fall back on excuses for how I’m in pain and I really need to put myself first. That kind of love doesn’t ask others to understand my point of view. That kind of love doesn’t get defensive and self-righteous when faced with difference. It loves “just the same.”
I think I am starting to understand how Teresa can claim that true love of neighbor can draw us into union with God. I am very, very, far from that kind of true love, but I am starting to understand it and to at least want to be able to practice it.
Please teach me how to do this, Lord. Amen