In explaining the dangers of spiritual agency to young children, I used the example of an electrical bus bar. The power of love flows through us, and if we resist it, we can get hurt. But if we let it flow through us to those that need it most, the limit to what we can transmit is the capacity of others to receive from us.
Here’s a picture of somebody struggling with that problem:
The yearning to love is not commonly understood as the desire to be filled with God. The emptiness itself is recognized by Chris Rice in “Big Enough”:
When I imagine the size of the universe
And I wonder what’s out past the edges
Then I discover inside me a space as big
And believe that I’m meant to be
Filled up with more than just questions
But he believes the answer is in direct awareness of God’s presence in our lives, rather than in surrender of ourselves as a tool through which God enters the lives of others.
Mother Theresa, the great servant of the poor, struggled with this paradox in middle age. She felt God’s presence within her for many years, but entered into spiritual aridity at the end of her life.
Why is that? It’s because as that “space as big” is filled with love, we stretch. We feel a glowing inside of us, and a tingling as that love attaches to the people that we serve. Through that connection, we are aware of the beautiful healing that divine love brings to them. There’s an incredible rightness to it.
But when that love is firmly established in us, and flowing through us at the limit of our capacity, we become habituated to its presence. We become a fount from which others drink, and are filled again so rapidly that we may not even be aware that our pool was disturbed.
A Catholic priest shared with me that he decided to take orders after a visit with a nun. When he returned years later to tell her that he had found peace in her presence, she said that she was not even aware of the interaction. Similarly, though perhaps scandalously, a young donor to Mother Theresa’s work came away from a meeting to say that she “was the sexiest woman alive.” I am certain that she had no such intention in interacting with him: he was just overwhelmed by her energy, and channeled it into the most familiar form of self-love that he knew.
I have described the progression of the traditions of Abraham as the development of discipline through the practice of law, which flowers into spiritual intermediation between God and our community. In Jesus’s time, the pool of candidates for that graduation were limited. But in the intervening centuries, a large number of people were allowed the opportunity to devote their lives to religious orders, and the contemplation of the mysteries and magic of living a life in Christ. Two of the most beautiful lives so recorded are Mother Theresa’s predecessors: St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Terese of Lisieux.
The Apostle John was an earlier exemplar of this way of living. In the Book of Revelation, he describes the progression from the other side of the process: the change in the relationship between God and the angels that Jesus claimed to be working to transform. It begins in a throne room, with God in the central seat surrounded by angels [Rev. 4:2-4]:
[T]here before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders.
As I describe in The Soul Comes First, twelve of the elders are the masculine angels that guide the tribes of Israel, and the other twelve are feminine personalities that accompany the Holy Mother when she descends to earth. When the work of Christ is done, John describes the “New Jerusalem”, with angels at twelve gates, and a tree of life bearing twelve crops of fruit. He then explains [Rev. 21:22-23]:
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.
And [Rev. 22:1] the tree is fed by
[T]he river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…
Where once the presence of Unconditional Love is separated from the angels as a king on a throne, in the end it is woven into every aspect of our shared existence.
So what does the experience of the saints foretell about our experience when we surrender ourselves fully to love? Well, at some point we no longer know where we end and love starts. The reincarnated nun might say “I feel guided by compassion from within, that has no source that I can discern.” Or the reincarnated monk might react to fear and hatred in those that profess faith by saying “Yours is not a god that I would choose.”
The best thing that a person of faith can do to bring such a person to awareness of the ultimate source of love is not to upbraid them for reflecting the standards of Christ back upon us. Rather, it would be to engage them in solving the biggest problems that humanity has to solve, and then to let them rediscover (in this life) the magic of Christ’s presence when those problems begin to overwhelm them.
You see, a profession of faith is only to say “I have God within me.” What Christ wants, however, is for us to seed the entire world with him.
Is this a model for all atheists? No, there are those atheists that seek only to destroy Christ and his works. But there are a good number of them – in my experience a majority – that seem honestly to feel that Christians aren’t upholding the ideals expounded by Jesus of Nazareth. We should not take their witness as an attack, but as an exhortation to do better.