By Kelly Foster
The experience of being loved by a benevolent God is central to the beginning of the Exercises. The experience of being loved unconditionally relaxes a retreatant, places the person in a state of equilibrium, allows God to be God in the retreatant’s life, and inclines one toward self-acceptance. The more a retreatant welcomes God’s love into his or her life, the more that person’s life becomes centered and balanced.
—Commentary on the Spiritual Exercises, William E. Creed, SJ
Jesus did not know that he was God in the same way that one knows one is male or female, hungry or thirsty…. His knowledge was of a more risky sort: like knowing one is loved.
—N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God
I do believe in God.
I don’t believe, with any regularity, that God loves me. Or that, whether or not I believe in God, life will necessarily be anything other than the bleak, terror-blanched affair it sometimes appears at three in the morning.
By saying I don’t believe God loves me, I don’t mean that I consciously choose not to believe this—as in I don’t believe the moon landing was a hoax or I don’t believe that drunk driving is a good idea. I am also not saying that I believe that I am so terribly unlovable, that though God loves everyone else, he has somehow singled me out to be damned to a life bereft of comfort. I mean, I’m insecure enough, I’ll grant you, but I’m not that bad.
Instead, I am saying something that is harder to say—which is that if in my bones, I truly believed in a riskier way that the bedrock of my existence was unconditional love, was in fact Love Loving (a term used by David L. Fleming to describe the Divine Vision of St. Ignatius), then I would be different than I am. I would be more generous, more open, more accepting, more free, more at peace—not only with others, but with myself.
If I could comfortably point an accusing finger at any of the varied theologies I’ve embraced in my life for this lack, I would. But I can’t. Regardless of what broadly evangelical form it’s taken for me—whether at a Bible Church, a Baptist Church, a Presbyterian Church, or an Episcopal Church—I have always, in no unequivocal terms, been both told and shown that God loved me.
If I could comfortably point an accusing finger at any of the traumas, however minor or major, in my life, I would. But I can’t. I was pretty unpopular in high school, and I’m pretty sure I could go toe to toe with many people about bleak and painful adolescences, but despite that I still made dear friends, one of whom I was actually able to live with during the autumn following my divorce, almost ten years after we’d graduated. And of course, there’s the divorce and the marriage that preceded it. Both were soul-killers, but even then the years since have been the freest, happiest years of my life to date.
If knowing you were loved was purely dependent on parenting, then I’d have just about as good a chance as anyone. I’m not idealizing my parents, and there are unique ways I am misshapen that probably stem directly from them. As my mother would say, I’ve come by them honest. But I still know, even as an adult, that my parents actually delight to be around me. I’ve known that from the beginning. I have known for the entirety of my life, not just parental tolerance, but unwavering, unfaltering parental delight. And utter acceptance, no matter what ridiculous, self-defeating, wild-hearted direction I have moved in. And yet, I do not tend to live as if this was fundamentally true.
If I decided today that I needed to go just about anywhere in the country, simply to run away, I know without a doubt that there are at least thirty people all over the country who would absolutely take me in without a second thought. I’ve got friends who have flown around the globe just to see me. I’ve got friends who’ve kept prayer vigils so I would sleep soundly. I’ve got friends who’d go hungry so that I could be fed, and two fantastic brothers who would both do the same. I have been offered about as much love as a person could be offered.
So I don’t know why Love Loving is not more viscerally or regularly real to me. I don’t know why I have such trouble absorbing the abundance, receiving the grace so readily given.
All the usual suspects—lack of belief, trauma, lovelessness—seem unwilling to line up.
I could chalk it up to sin, to some essential brokenness in the fabric of the world, but neither of those feels adequate to the task.
I suppose I will chalk it up to this. There is nothing more difficult, there is nothing more risky in the whole of the world, than to believe in your bones that you are loved. To shoulder the weight of that is too much for most of us, and so we don’t. We evade. We duck and cover. We settle. We run and hide.
But I don’t want to do that anymore. And I am trying to learn how to open myself just a fraction to a kind of love—a love that transcends circumstance or condition—that I know has the power to demolish me.
There is an oft-quoted line of Blake’s that I’ve kept with me for years, “We are here to learn to endure the beams of love.”
And so enduring, the ground then shifts beneath us. For a second, the glory in those around us is revealed, the fire in our hearts becomes too much to bear, the beauty of the world is a drum that beats too loud. And staggered but humbled, we keep going. We pray to know Love Loving. And pray never to forget it again.