While I was an atheist from ages twelve through forty-one, I was shocked from an early age at what appeared to me to be the casual and heartless misuse of the word “love.” I encountered the writings of F. Scott Peck when I was in college, and wrote a long letter to him after reading The Road Less Traveled. One of my concerns was that Peck seemed to ignore the importance and necessity of self-love. I eventually received a hand-written reply from his personal assistant, though I didn’t recognize the gravity of the personal touch.
It took me until late in my life to realize that most people didn’t share my mania for precision and integrity in their use of words. My ex-wife, an interpreter and rebel against Marxist indoctrination, explained that words were simply a semiotic system that were manipulated to produce the effects we desired. The implications of the observation were lost on me until much later.
As with many people committed to moral principle, I have found myself often feeling that the world is designed to visit cruelty upon the good. Turning the other cheek is a fool’s errand, at least from a practical perspective. But I am constitutionally unable to focus ill will. The trick for me was recognizing that I didn’t have to accept it. I’ve written about this before: heaping coals on somebodies head isn’t necessary when a refusal to accept their ill will causes it to rebound back upon them. While sometimes I give it a little push (thinking “that mind is a lot more fertile territory for you to grow in”), for the most part I try simply to let it pass through me.
The greatest struggle in that discipline occurs when there are concrete consequences to yourself and those dependent upon you. After ten years of living in that fear, I encountered the story of Jakob Boehme, the German Christian and mystic.
Boehme was compelled by mystical experience to write profusely of his experience of grace. The response of the religious authorities of the age was to forbid circulation of his works – even the hand copies produced by his friends. Eventually Boehme was forced to flee, leaving his family to the suffer alone the duress of the Thirty Years war. Boehme voiced his opinion that his faith saved him from persecution, landing on his feet again and again through the intervention of strangers.
The similarity in our stories was striking to me. Among other details, while not forbidden to write, I found myself constantly in confrontation with those that deride Christianity. This could take the form of the lawyer guiding me through my child custody dispute sitting down and joking with his peer about priestly pedophilia (“Abstinence makes the Church grow fondlers”). While on Boy Scout campouts, I would often found my meditations on the beauty around me interrupted by fathers stopping by to dismiss faith as an intellectual fraud. And at work, the owner announced at staff meeting that “you can go to church looking for forgiveness, but I get far more out of knowing the family that runs Cook County.” Finally, as a blogger, I not infrequently find myself confronted by victims of Christian theological abuse that seem to find it necessary to shift their pain.
It is this quote by Jakob Boehme that gave me the strength to grow through my bruised reaction to such events:
If you ask why the Spirit of Love cannot be displeased, cannot be disappointed, cannot complain, accuse, resent or murmur, it is because the Spirit of Love desires nothing but itself.
It is taped to the top of my monitor at work, and affirmed for me every time I see the confidence and strength in the eyes of the sons that I devoted myself to serving.
Boehme’s words have allowed me to confirm that it was the growing power of the Spirit of Love inside of me that made it so difficult for me to hurt others. It was not weakness, but a kind of being born from within. The choice, taken early in my childhood, may have been naive, but, once made, for some reason not one that I could renounce. At this time, I am glad to say, nor is it one that I can ever see regretting.