The eyes of love

When we feel love deeply or passionately, then perhaps (like Thomas Merton describing a mystical vision he had on a street corner) we can awake more from our dream of separateness and our illusion of difference and see the secret beauty and depth of other people’s hearts.

May 08, 2021

By Fr Ron Rolheiser
I magine a young couple intoxicated with each other  in the early stages of love.  Imagine a religious neophyte  in love with God, praying ecstatically.

Imagine an idealistic  young person working tirelessly  with the poor, enflamed with a  thirst for justice. Are this young  couple really in love with each  other? Is that religious neophyte  really in love with God? Is this  young social activist really in  love with the poor? Not an easy  question.

Whom are we really loving  when we have feelings of love?  The other? Ourselves? The archetype and energy the other is  carrying? Our own fantasy of  that person? The feelings this  experience is triggering inside  us? When we are in love, are we  really in love with another person or are we mostly basking in  a wonderful feeling which could  be just as easily triggered by  countless other persons?

There are different answers  to that question. John of the  Cross would say it is all of these  things; we are in fact really loving that other person, loving a  fantasy we have created of that  person, and basking in the good  feeling this has generated inside  us. That is why, invariably, at a  given point in a relationship, the  powerful feelings of being in  love give way to disillusionment  – disillusionment (by definition)  implies the dispelling of an illusion, something was unreal. So,  for John of the Cross, when we  are in love, partly the love is real  and partly it is an illusion. Moreover, John would say the same  thing about our initial feelings  of fervour in prayer and in altruistic service. They are a mixture  of both, authentic love and an illusion.

Some other analyses are less  generous. In their view, all initial falling in love, whether it  be with another person, with  God in prayer, or with the poor  in service, is mainly an illusion. Ultimately, you are in love  with being in love, in love with  what prayer is doing for you, or  in love with how working for  justice is making you feel. The  other person, God, and the poor  are secondary. That is why, so  often, when first fervour dies, so  too does our love for its original  object. When the fantasy dies,  so too does the sense of being  in love. We fall in love without  really knowing the other person  and we fall out of love without  really knowing the other person.  The very phrase “falling in love”  is revealing. “Falling” is not  something we choose, it happens to us. Marriage Encounter  spirituality has a clever slogan  around this: marriage is a decision; falling in love is not.

Who is right? When we fall in  love, how much is genuine love  for another and how much is  an illusion within which we are  mostly loving ourselves? Steven  Levine answers this from a very  different perspective and throws  new light on the question. What  is his perspective?

Love, he says, is not a “dualistic emotion”. For him, whenever  we are feeling authentic love,  we are, at that moment, feeling  our oneness with God and with  all that is. He writes, “The experience of love arises when we  surrender our separateness into  the universal. It is a feeling of  unity … It is not an emotion, it  is a state of being … It is not  so much that ‘two are as one’  so much as it is the ‘One manifested as two.’” In other words,  when we love someone, in that  moment, we are one with him  or her, not separate, so that even  though our fantasies and feelings may be partially wrapped  up in self-serving affectivity,  something deeper and more real  than our feelings and fantasies is  occurring. We are one with the  other in our being – and, in love,  we sense it. 

In this view, authentic love  is not so much something we  feel; it is something we are. At  its root, love is not an affective emotion or a moral virtue  (though these are part of it).  It is a metaphysical condition,  not something that comes and  goes like an emotional state, nor  something that we can choose or  refuse morally. A metaphysical  condition is a given, something  we stand within, that makes up  part of what we are, constitutively, though we can be blissfully unaware. Thus, love, not  least falling in love, can help  make us more conscious of our  non-separateness, our oneness in  being with others.

When we feel love deeply or  passionately, then perhaps (like  Thomas Merton describing a  mystical vision he had on a street  corner) we can awake more from  our dream of separateness and  our illusion of difference and  see the secret beauty and depth  of other people’s hearts. Perhaps  too it will enable us to see others at that place in them where  neither sin nor desire nor selfknowledge can reach, the core of  their reality, the person that each  one is in God’s eyes. And wouldn’t it be wonderful, Merton adds … “if we could  see each other that way all the  time.”

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