“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in my dreams.” (Fyodor Doestoevsky)
It seems that many people in our culture have difficulties with love, particularly in close relationships. People increasingly seem to seek and expect an almost fairytale kind of love with a focus on pleasurable experience. However, as Doestoevsky reminds us, real love often can be “harsh and dreadful.”
This is the focus of a chapter in Frederick Bauerschmidst’s book, “Why the Mystics Matter Now.” I summarize some of the major ideas in this chapter below.
Much of Bauerschmidt’s analysis can be summarized in the following reflection:
“. . . anyone who has tried to love their neighbor will recognize that this is a daunting task. . . I find that many of my neighbors are either not interested in my love, or they are interested in it only for what they can get out of it, or they are interested in a sort of love that I am not interested in giving. In other words, my attempts at love of neighbor are met with either indifference or ingratitude. It is tempting to think that the harshness and dreadfulness of love in action is a result of some sort of moral flaw in those we are trying to love. . . But the real source of the difficulty we have in loving our neighbors in a concrete, active way is found not in them but in ourselves. Quite simply, we desire response and recognition; we yearn for our love to be reciprocated, appreciated, or at least acknowledged. . . [This] is. . . an aspect of the fundamentally receptive nature of our existence that Eckhart’s analysis of detachment revealed. . . I am not my own source; I am by nature finite, limited, and dependent. In light of this, my neighbor’s indifference or need becomes a threat to my limited self, the threat that I will be drained by my neighbor and receive nothing with which to replenish my self.”
In my first years of marriage, I really struggled with this. I very much expected my wife to address my deepest insecurities, recognize my every kind act, and offer to me constant love and support. I expected my marriage to provide a connection that would address any emotional need I might have. Basically, I expected my wife and my marriage to fill my soul. It puts a tremendous burden on a close relationship to expect so much. In particular, my desires were entirely one way; although I tried to act with kindness, the ultimate goal of most of my actions in my marriage was to receive. People and relationships don’t seem to do a good job of fulfilling one’s deepest needs in these ways, however. They don’t seem to do well when they are, in essence, one way. In a sense, I was expecting my wife to do what only God can do. As Eckhart noted, I would have done much better to realize my fundamentally receptive nature and to direct that to a Source that could adequately meet these needs. Then, and only then, could I focus on giving for its own sake, without the extraordinary thirst for something in return.
A key aspect of this for myself was to daily pray and reflect on how to live 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (the Bible verses often read at marriage cermonies) in my marriage:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
My discipline during these times was to take one phrase at a time and to pray about how I could live out that phrase that day in my marriage. Notice that all of these phrases are about giving, not receiving. Once I started to shift my attention from getting to giving, my marriage changed considerably for the better. My wife and I now enjoy a wonderful marriage and family life, for which I thank God everyday.
Bauerschmidt writes in his chapter about Catherine of Siena’s ideas about connecting love of God with love of neighbor. In a vision that she once received, Catherine reported hearing God say to her the following words, as recorded in her book “The Dialogue.” They provide a fitting conclusion to this entry:
“I ask you to love me with the same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I loved you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you. This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me – that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.”