Sunday, April 8, 2007

Stunned by God’s fierce, passionate love

Philippine Daily Inquirer/FEATURE/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
MANILA, Philippines -- “GOD IS A FIERCE LOVER who will never let go,” says popular Catholic lay preacher Bo Sanchez of his experience.

“Being in love with God is capturing and being seized by God’s eros—God is in love with us,” says Fr. Percy Bacani of the Missionaries of Jesus.

During the seasons of Lent and Easter “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son…” will be an oft-quoted line from the Bible. If the Holy Book has not driven this home strongly enough for today’s distracted, multi-tasking faithful, Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” at least tried to do the job.
But faith and intimacy with God are not nurtured in the movies. God offers His love to individual persons in a more real way. Real not reel. Stronger than the human heart could feel or the mind could intuit. For, as the Bible reminds, God loved us first. And continues to do so in season and out of season.
This holy season, a special few, the called and the chosen, spoke to the Inquirer about God’s eros at work, “God loving with eros” or with a passion that consumes and makes the beloved “like the deer that panteth for flowing streams.”

Carmelite contemplative nun Sr. Teresa Joseph Patrick of Jesus and Mary (aka Josefina Constantino, writer and former professor) describes it thus: “It is an unquenchable thirst. Yet too, in the stillness, in the repose of the abyss where He dwells, finding rest in His embrace…” Sister Teresa, 87, has been a nun for 33 years. She joined Carmel in Gilmore, Quezon City, in 1974 when she was 54.

It is real, it is personal; it is felt in the body, in the soul. The touched, the called, the chosen—many are able to articulate the real-ness of God’s love and presence and, as in all relationships, even God’s sometimes seeming absence in the divine romance.

A love affair with God, falling in love with God and staying in love, seeking out the divine and being consumed by the longing is a love plot that has played itself out in the lives of special individuals in different contexts throughout history and in this present time.

Words fail in describing this divine love play and often gets stuck in human comparisons. A 10th-century Hindu mystic pleads to her Lord, “Make of my body the beam of a lute … Clutch me close and play your thirty-two songs, O lord of the meeting rivers.” The psalmist waxes, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your torrents.”

For some, it was a slow but steady wooing, for others, it was a swift and sudden leap to God’s overpowering call and pull and then responding with a love so human, so clumsy. The experience could be initially draining as the uninitiated soul gets inexorably drawn toward an incomprehensible force.

Eros and agapé

Sister Marie (who wishes to remain anonymous) of Carmel in Lipa City gives a glimpse of her love affair with God: “Many a time, God made me experience His love in a very human way since I am a creature of flesh and blood. As Richard Hardy, a doctor of theology, said in a conference on St. John of the Cross, God loves us with an erotic love, with passion. In God, eros and agapé become one. How true! So I experience God’s love not only in the mind, not only in the spirit, but as passion.”

Sister Mary has had her “dark nights” when God seemed to be lost. “God hiding so that I might search for Him with greater longing, then God manifesting Himself as pure delight. No wonder the saints speak of marriage in the mystical life.”

As an Indian mystic had written, “You hide, lest I seek and find. Give me a clue, O lord, white as jasmine, to your hiding places.”

Grace upon grace
Sr. Victricia Pascasio, a Holy Spirit sister felt God’s generous love and faithfulness when she was in college. She was a student leader at that time. “That day was crystal clear to me. God had been so faithful, so generous. The whole of me for a lifetime was the only fitting gift I could offer.” Looking back Sister Victricia says that was God’s way and “initiative” to draw her to Himself. “Many years later,” she reflects, “I could only say, how foolish of me to feel so generous toward God when it had been God who was most generous and faithful. Since then, it has been grace upon grace upon grace.”

A religious missionary for 47 years now, Sister Victricia, is involved in her congregation’s socio-pastoral apostolates in the Philippines and is immersed in the issues affecting indigenous communities. She sees her work “as Christ’s, not mine.”

Into an inner clearing
“How can I really thank you?” Sr. Edith Olaguer, a Good Shepherd contemplative sister, recalls asking God in prayer. She was in college then. “Hundreds of images flit through my mind. They left in their wake a clearing so empty, so still, I was jerked clean of all thoughts. Then I do not know how to explain it because I heard no voice, saw nothing, was not thinking but I simply understood.” God was drawing, wooing her. She would be brought to that “inner clearing” again and again and there would say her “Yes.”

The 2004 Ramon Magsaysay awardee for emergent leadership, Ben Abadiano, was about to get married when the religious call made itself heard. He had reached a crossroad.

“How could I offer my life,” Ben asked God. He had, at that time, already worked among indigenous peoples (IP) for almost a decade. He wanted to give more. “While thinking of that I was shedding tears of joy. I felt as if grace was raining down on me.” It was a watershed moment.

He joined the Jesuit novitiate and stayed on for four years, did studies in philosophy at the Ateneo, even pronounced his vows as a Jesuit. Ordination to the priesthood was still far down the road.

But God beckoned yet again and lured him back to his first love—the IP. Ben left the Jesuits in 1997 for a new path. He had nothing with him except dreams and a song in his heart. And the memory of that watershed God experience long ago.

As a wise French nun once told an enamored young seeker: “You must hold on to the memory of that moment. Many, many years from now, no matter where you will be, you will need that to give you strength to go on, to convince yourself that God’s love call was real.”

Stunned, embraced, gripped
Bo Sanchez says: “I believe that the first step of the Christian life is not to work, to do, to strive or even to love—but to first be loved. I have to first be stunned, moved, embraced, gripped by God’s passionate love. And when my soul is overwhelmed, yes, overpowered by God’s generosity, I cannot help but love the Lover with my all. Many times I left God, but God kept waiting for my return. God is a fierce lover that will never let go.”

God chases, like Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” and the object of this fierce love flees. “I fled him, down the nights and down the days, I fled him … Down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind…”

Sister Marie remembers how she fled. “I just plugged my ears, hoping that God would call someone else. At about that time, I fell in love with a man of great simplicity and integrity, and I thought then that I was destined for married life. At a certain point though, I realized the immensity of God’s love for me, and it was so overwhelming that I felt that love could only be repaid by love. Only a total surrender of myself could match the greatness of that love. I heard a clear voice within me, a voice so clear there was no use denying it.” To Carmel she went.

There are peaks and valleys, moments of consolation as well as desolation, bright mornings and dark nights of the soul. Great saints had their share of triumphs and turbulence, agonies and ecstasies.

Their written works about their love affair with God leave ordinary mortals in awe. It could be so saccharine like Therese of Lisieux’s, or earthy and forest-green like Francis of Assisi’s. Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain” is a classic. Rabindranath Tagore’s “Gitanjali” (song offerings to God) endures, rivaling in passion and depth the Bible’s “Song of Songs” that drips divine eros.

“Passion for God is not fear-based and is not sacrifice-driven,” Father Percy speaks from experience. “It is being filled with the superabundance of God’s love and the only response is gratitude. I become mindful of the ordinariness and the giftedness of everything. This is my mid-life discovery in my God-quest. Being in love with God is capturing and being seized by God’s eros-God is in love with us. St. Augustine says it better: God is closer to our hearts than we to our own.”

God’s face in every star
Sr. Mary Edith has glimpsed that too. “I had been given a glimpse of how good God is. This hollowed in me a cavernous thirst that has never been quenched. And so I hold fast to the dream that one day, I will be allowed, even while on this earth, to see God’s face in every star, in every human face and in every quivering tear. I want to know in my heart that I belong to everyone and everything, and that everything and everyone is part of me. When others suffer, when one is disgraced, it is to my shame. I want to live out in everyday life the fact that all I want to be, I already am.”

The search, chase
The search, the chase, continues. There could be bewilderment. A modern-day seeker asks: “Are you the symphony, are you the silent river that runs through my thoughts, that floods the cave of my heart, that breaks open the soul to an unknown wilderness?”

Most likely, the answer is “Yes.”

The late Sr. Christine Tan, RGS, told the Inquirer seven years ago, “Encountering God is a passionate experience. Violent but also tender. In prayer, when you go deep into the silence, you could actually feel God. You and God are merged as one. In that utter stillness you could feel the light, and the fire and the tight embrace, and the tenderness enfolding you. Then you become strong like a bull. You go straight like an arrow.”