The Perfecting of Love

I want to test the sincerity of your love.
2Cor. 8:8

In his book, Drinking From A Dry Well, Thomas Green SJ suggests that there are three stages to a growing life of prayer that can be defined according to what we most seek in our relationship with God.  These three stages can also be understood in terms of the natural evolution of love—from a desire for knowledge, to one for experience, and then to a growing acceptance of the need for transformation.

In the courtship stage we mostly seek knowledge of God.  As Green states, “We cannot love what we do not know.  Thus the first stage in any love relationship is getting to know the person we are drawn to.”  But facts about a person do not, in themselves,  constitute a relationship.  Even our feelings about God can, at this stage, be misleading.  As Green says,

There may well be infatuation at the beginning of a relationship.  But infatuation is not love, precisely because we do not really know the object of our infatuation.  We are in love with our own romantic notions of the person rather than with the reality of the person before us.

As love progresses beyond the “getting-to-know” stage, we find in ourselves a growing desire for intimacy with the object of our love.  Green calls this the “honeymoon” phase.  He writes,

The courtship eventually leads to the honeymoon.  In terms of what we now seek in our relationship with God, we note a transition from knowledge to experience.  The relationship moves from the head (knowing) to the heart (experiencing, loving).  We no longer seek insight about God as much as the joy of being with the One we love.

As our desire for intimacy with God grows we might also find that we are not as inclined to reflect or meditate on the Scriptures as we did before.  Instead, we are more drawn to the presence of God, to simply sit before Him and bask in His love.  As pleasant as this stage is though, it too must evolve to a maturity beyond itself.  As Green says,

This whole purpose of the “getting to know” stage of meditative prayer is to lay a solid foundation for love.  At the “honeymoon” stage, it will be good to remember that this too will eventually come to an end, because what looks like true love on the honeymoon still contains a great deal of self-love.  I love you, yes; but to a large extent this is because you fulfill me and all my desires.

Unfulfilled needs are, of course, a valid reason for the early stages of relationship.  As Green would say, “There is real growth in discovering that I cannot fulfill myself, that I need to go out of myself in order to find my own happiness.”  But this stage is still not true love since my “love” is focused primarily on my own needs, my own fulfillment.  A mature relationship will wean us from love that begins and ends with me, to one that has its source and goal in the other person.  And this weaning will often feel like a loss compared to the subjective delights we once knew.  Green puts it this way,

When the honeymoon ends, we have to come to terms with the ordinary days that do not always make us feel good and fulfilled.  We then begin to realize the true meaning of the “better or worse” clause of the marriage vows.  In the “better” we learn the joy of loving; in the “worse” we learn how to love unselfishly, not because I feel good about it, but because the other’s happiness and well-being are important to me.

So, if in the first stages of love we seek a growing knowledge of God’s love.  And in the second stage we long to rest in the experience of that love.   In this third stage we find ourselves joyfully submitting to the transformation that love invites us to.  No longer satisfied with only insight or experience, we now give ourselves more fully to the transforming work of Christ’s love in us.  It is a love that is now rooted in the Other.  And it is at this stage that we finally discover what love’s objective has been all along—to fashion us to Itself, in order that we might then become Its instrument in the lives of others.

The beauty of submitting to the Potter’s molding is that the transformation God works in me also benefits others.  If I allow the Lord to transform me I can be a more effective instrument of his love—what Ignatius calls “an instrument shaped to the contours of the hand of God.”

Thomas Green, Drinking from a Dry Well