People tend to see Carmelites, and especially St. John of the Cross, as bastions of austerity. And it is true, right, fitting, and proper to associate austerity with this spirituality. But austerity is easily misunderstood and made horrific without a correspondingly deep grasp of the intensity of love that is the ground from which this austerity springs.
I decided there's a word I like for love's characteristic: ferocious. God's love is ferocious. And yes, I realize the definition of ferocious is basically violent. But there is also a connotation of strength, intensity, fierceness, a raging love that stops at nothing. It is complete, all-consuming, driving, penetrating, wanting everything. There is energy. And yet, it is love, so it does not violate or destroy, nor is there any lack of order or spinning out of control, like some kind of a rampaging mob. This word gives me a handle on all that.
Twenty years ago, if you had asked me about the intensity of God's love for me and how this relates to His call to leave everything and take up my cross, to lose my life for His sake, I would have told you in some formulaic way how God's intense love calls me to self-denial. I believed the theory that God was worthy and that I had to pray for the grace to be willing to leave aside what was dear to me and put God first. And my words and my demeanor in that conversation would have betrayed my anxiety about it.
Like many of my generation (and doesn't every generation have something like this?), I have struggled with disrupted attachments. As a child of divorce, a child of an alcoholic, and a child in a family with mental illness, comfortable, reliable, and trustworthy relationships were simply not part of my life's foundation. As a result, I have come towards healthy attachments by way of some fairly intense interior problems of over-attachment. And I have come towards holy detachment by way of experiences that have felt like death, and have put me face to face with the terrors I had tried to avoid through over-attachments in the first place. I was not free to give up everything because I hadn't strongly experienced receiving. I was locked into a fearful survival mode.
But along the way of the three ring circus of my interior life, I have tried to figure out what a holy normal really is. When I was in my early 20s and under the influence of a certain teacher, I decided that the music I loved was worldly and I had to abandon it. I took a record collection that held powerfully positive emotional associations for me, put it in a dumpster, and walked away. I did it solely because I felt I had to take a violent stand against myself. It hurt, and I thought hurting myself this way would please God.
Close relationships for me have often been fraught with issues of control, feelings of desperation, and all sorts of powerful yuck. It has been very hard for me to discern the difference between healthy closeness and a closeness for which I was paying with my dignity. It wasn't until I started having experiences of people showing they could get upset on my behalf (not at me, but for me, because they wanted to protect what they valued in me) that I began to realize there actually was a value in me worth protecting. It often made me laugh with a spontaneous and surprising joy, which struck me as strange because generally the other person was being dead serious and stern. (Come to think of it, sometimes it irked the other person, too.)
Sin violates personal dignity. We are made for holy union with God, but every time we sin, we turn away from love. When we are sinned against, we are hurt and we run the risk of enshrining that hurt in bitterness. God longs for us to repent, to live with Him and to be pure not because He's obsessed with behavioral standards but because He is ferocious love. It is amazing to think of a God with desire for a creature. Why? How? How can it be?
God sees us as we are and knows that because we are fallen we need ever deepening grace and we cannot bear the full brunt of His intense love straight on, without dying. So gently, and according to our nature, He patiently heals us, walks with us, forms us. He frees us to open ourselves, and to choose Him. He frees us to love Him in return. We cannot give Him anything that He does not give us first, and that is true of love more than anything. We love because He first loved us.
And according to our capacity and our desire, God knows how and when to touch us with more love than we can hold, the love that brings us to our knees, to fall on our faces, to cry out, our supposed breaking point far behind. Those moments reveal God to our souls. They reveal our sin to our souls. They reveal truth. Reality is clear and everything pales in comparison to this Love. Nothing temporal is worth clinging to in light of eternal, ferocious love.
And in that moment, those austere calls (taking up one's cross, denying oneself, and renouncing things) show their true characteristic: they are the invitation of Love. Love draws out love in return. And only love can generate and sustain a life of this kind of response.
God does not respond to my offerings; I respond to His invitation. My efforts -- to sufficiently injure myself, to work for His approval, to try hard enough, to be good enough, or to do anything -- do not draw down His invitation or His initiative toward me.
God calls. He is calling. With ferocious heart and gentle, intimate whisper, God calls. He invites. I love you. Come to Me.
Our response? Yes, Lord. I am here. Love me.