How We Love Our God
David Brooks has a lovely meditation about the experience of God, highlighting the example of Audrey Assad (in the above video), a singer/songwriter who converted to Catholicism after having been raised in an unidentified Protestant sect that had a strongly legalistic approach to the divine. When the rigid piety of her childhood faith could not contain the suffering and questioning through which she was living, she turned to books, and eventually to theology. She was drawn to the Church Fathers, especially to Augustine, and found her way into Catholicism. Brooks writes about how Assad’s pilgrimage into mystery and the love of God offers a very different view of how some believers experience the divine than many secularists think:
If you are a secular person curious about how believers experience their faith, you might start with Augustine’s famous passage “What do I love when I love my God,” and especially the way his experience is in the world but then mysteriously surpasses the world:
“It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”
I had never seen that passage of Augustine, but it is beautiful and true, and I recognize it. Since my own recent healing from chronic mononucleosis, which occurred because I was released from the deep internal anxieties that had compromised my autoimmune system, I find that I’m in a somewhat unusual spiritual place. As many readers will remember, it was a combination of intense prayer, therapy, and, above all, reading The Divine Comedy, that opened the door for healing grace. Dante’s epic poem is about Love. This might sound strange given that the only part most people have ever thought of is the Inferno, where the damned suffer grotesque eternal punishments. But you can’t understand Inferno without Purgatorio and Paradiso; the Inferno reveals what happens to people who love themselves and their passions more than they love God and other people. And at the summit of the Paradiso, it is revealed to the reader that pure blessedness is to be united with all other living things in and through love of the Creator.
Me, I knew these things were true as a matter of theological conviction, but they had not taken sufficient root in my heart and imagination until I read the Commedia, and gone on pilgrimage with Dante. My life will never be the same.
So, here’s the strange spiritual place part. This month, I’ve given two Little Way talks — one to a religious retreat, and one to a book club — and I’ve startled myself by the language I’ve used toward the end, when talking about how my own pilgrimage back home came to a surprising and grace-filled end, largely through this Dante experience (or, to be precise, through God speaking to me and revealing Himself through the art of Dante Alighieri). I don’t know that I’ve ever spoken about anything before with such confidence and lightness of spirit. As much as I write about religious subjects on this blog, I don’t often talk about them; there’s something about the nature of religion that makes me reticent to speak about it. This, however, is something different, and I’m not sure why, but whatever it is, David Brooks wrote about it this morning.
The wonder of it all.