|Rose-window of Notre Dame in Paris|
This is an ambitious post in that I want to lay the groundwork for some very theoretical and abstract ideas of mine on the meaning of love, the role of despair, and how this reflects the mystery of God. I aim to investigate the image of God from how I have come to understand human love, and hopefully reach upwards to reflect on God’s love for mankind. You must forgive me first for the shallowness of my own soul and the inability with which I am able to comprehend these topics. This post is not so much a form of philosophical proof as an exposition and exploration of opinion, and perhaps in a certain sense persuasion.
God grant me faith. God grant me grace. God grant me hope. God, lay the foundation of my heart in love.
Love is a form of Self-Effacement
Paradox of self-effacement
It is not difficult to imagine that love is a form of losing one’s self from one’s self. Paradoxically, the self is itself a form of relation between its own being and its own continuous propulsion in time, and we might wonder under what form of illusion is it possible to cease to be one’s self. An embodied self, clearly cannot cease to be itself, and we understand in the Christian self that God’s greatest endowment to mankind was the creation of self. This endowment itself is at once great gift, but as with all great gifts it is just as well of tremendous worth and bears a great responsibility.
Nonetheless, the paradox by which we speak of a lover losing himself in his beloved is the form by which that lover gives over himself to his beloved in total gift. This is what we speak of by unconditional love, the gift of all of one’s faculties, talents, desires, and self to the whim of the beloved, for their pleasure and enjoyment. Let us accept, under the premise that this is a Christian audience, that the gift is concerned with the utmost good of the beloved, for nobody gives a great gift without the hope for a great and positive effect on the receiver of the gift, and so that this gift is to give in accordance with the Good. This gift is not merely the bodily pleasures, but the transcendental things in life, or perhaps more aptly, that which makes the beloved most fully alive (physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, etc.).
The self-effacement of one’s self is only possible with the possibility of the return of the Other
If love is a form of self-gift and the greatest form of love is to give one’s entire life and energy to the benefit of the one he loves, then how is it that this person can continue to give and give and give when he has sold himself over to his beloved? Human beings are not infinite and cannot give without end; they require a return on what they give. Namely then, a perfected love is that which has its return in a reciprocal manner. The beloved who returns the gift of self from the lover must return her entirety to the lover as a form of self-gift. In terms of quantity it does not seem that the lover and beloved must be of the same capacity to give, ontologically speaking. Note, here I conflate the act of giving of one’s self as an ontological act. I say ontologically because love is a form of the communication of one’s being, ideally in its entirety. If the ontological capacity for love is greater in the lover than the beloved then we might question what happens if the lover gives more than the beloved, but both give their all?
Simply stated, we spoke of love as giving in the fullest sense and to which benefits the beloved in the utmost. It would be then too much for the lover to ask more of the beloved than the beloved can give and so a responsible love understands the capacity for love of each of the partners, respects it, and nurtures that capacity in harmony so that each can grow and flourish from each other’s love. Is it then possible, in a twisted sense, for a lover to give too much love so as to, as we say colloquially, suffocate the beloved with love? This too is possible, but in a true and responsible love, each gives according to his means, and according to the right measure to allow, shall we say, an organic growth in love and joy between the two lovers.
The reciprocal gift and return of love is the completion of man’s nature, bliss
In this reciprocal gift and return each lover loses himself in the other. The self has become effaced in gift, but has been returned as a form of synthesis. Each self remains to be themselves, but in another sense, augmented, they have each grown in love, and so the capacity to give of each other increases. How can the ontological capacity to give one’s self increase when the self always remains itself? We can speak of a growth of faculties in the self, a new facet of the self which has grown out from the gift of the other. It has grown out of the entire donation of the self to another, and the acquired return of another self from another. This donation of the other has created a new quality in the soul (in the being) of each who have loved each other. If done according to the highest principles of virtue, and friendship each one grows into a being more capable of gift, more capable of love. In the action of love, the self has found a way to see itself in another and propagate a mode of communication and ethics which builds itself up through thr mediation of another.
The destruction of love shows its self-effacing and dependent nature
So far we have spoken more of love as a form of self-donation rather than self-effacement, but in the act of love, we might take by analogy the words of Christ to His Father as the utmost model for what dimension love in man’s nature takes on. “Not my will, but Yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42). It is in this sense that the ego, the self, steps itself aside to do that which pleases its beloved. If it is not clear that self-effacement and self-donation is the principle mode by which the act of love is carried out, then we can consider the mode by which when a love is disrupted or destroyed there is a sensation of void and great loss present in the lover or the beloved at this disruption.
When the recurring echo of love and love’s return is interrupted, the one who remains in love is left at a feeling of loss. Where did it all go wrong? Where has my love gone, and where will it go? The lover sends out his love to his beloved and his gift of everything is now received as a gift of nothing, and so the lover self-effaces himself destructively, he receives nothing in return for his self-donation but the terror of an emptiness, and this emptiness is the fact that there is no return to his self-effacement by which he can re-energize himself. He cannot form himself up from his act of love any longer; there is no return to his act of love. To continue on in this manner is to continually find one’s self in the predicament of an impotency. The immediacy and the compulsion by which the lover desires to share and give himself, with the entire phenomenon of gaining nothing in his act of love, but only losing himself. How then can he lose himself if he is himself? In the desire to lose himself in another he is in an essence desperately trying to regain himself through the gift of his beloved, but in essence he is consciously striving to throw himself away. It would seem he lives in a form of paradox, maybe a man trapped between living and dying, or a man trapped between the past and the future, but never in the present. This form of love is self-destructive, and any love without the beloved who donates self in return for the lover’s donation of self will always be short-sighted and self-destructive.
The Self-Destruction of Loving things below Human nature
It is for this reason that all serious love of things that are not persons is self-destructive. To love a cup, for example, with the ferocity and passion of loving a friend or a spouse is a form of lunacy. The cup cannot return itself to me as a self-donation. Neither can a dog. A dog does not have a consciousness or sense of self from which it could understand how to tune into all of the needs of my person. By virtue of their natures, they simply are not capable of serious love and love’s return. It is for this reason that mortal sin is self-destructive and misplaced love. We shall speak more on this in a later section.
Impotent and Displaced Love is Despair
I shall here, as before strive to speak from experience, as well as from what I have reading The Sickness Unto Death of Søren Kierkegaard. Søren Kierkegaard’s entire exposition comes from a reflection on the meaning of the passage in the Gospel of John concerning the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. Christ speaks to the disciples of his friend Lazarus by which it is revealed that Lazarus is suffering a sickness that will eventually kill him, but Christ who proclaims Himself the Resurrection and the Life tells the disciples that this sickness is not unto death. Søren Kierkegaard continues in his exposition to discuss what sort of sickness might be unto death. If Christ is the Resurrection and the Life then to be deprived of Christ is a form of negation to life, and though one might be alive, he suffers a sort of terminal illness. Ultimately, this form of sickness, lacking of Christ who is Life, can lead into a spiritual death which is the truer death of a man.
This form of sickness is called despair.
What is despair?
In Søren’s thought despair is the ultimate form of self-displacement wherein an individual loses himself to himself in the ultimate misunderstanding of his place in Creation. Man is not fundamentally a being intended to be closed in on itself, as St. Augustine says of the sinful man (homo curvatus in se), but a being whose entirety is only found in its right relation with God Himself. For Søren man’s soul is the dialectic between the finite and the infinite, similar to how Meister Eckhart writes of the human soul somewhere between finitude and eternity, and how it is only through faith in God that he can find the foundation of his being. In Søren’s thought, right relation with God through right faith is the only means by which man can he find the balance between partaking in the necessary aspects of life (i.e duty, responsibility), and the hopeful longing aspects of human life (i.e. the imagination, fantasy). Insofar as every man is imperfect in relation to God, Søren argues, every man suffers from despair (which is manifest in a variety of manners). The Christian is fully aware of his failings in hope, faith, and love, but others are sometimes unaware of the psychical trauma that comes from a disconnection with God.
Despair in Catholic theology is traditionally seen as the inverse of hope, by which we mean despair is that state of the soul by which a person stops hoping in God’s mercy to save his soul. These can come about through an intense and irrational fear, or a sort of growing complacency and indifference through the hardening of the heart by mortal sin (called sloth in the Catholic ascetic tradition).
However, I believe that Søren is correct in many ways that despair is a form of displacement of the true self, the self as seen and to be hoped for before God. Thus, those who in this life and the next suffer from despair have chosen in some part to displace themselves from their hearts’ truer destination, ultimately a sharing in the inner life of God. It is from this approach that they have become too heavily attached to a sinful object such that their heart says, “My sin, or nothing.” When they cannot achieve their sin (as in this life) they sense this frustration and live in the torment of being without the object of their desire. To some this love is so great that they disillusion themselves with valuing it even above their own entire being and existence. However, this is the delusion that the human psyche undergoes, by which the self begins to deride itself for not having achieved or acquired its object. Had it achieved its object it would not want annihilation. He who is in despair over his failure to acquire some object is then not one who truly desires annihilation (an act which is impossible to contemplate) but simply desires something very greatly which he cannot attain. The resolution then is to realize the disproportionate and infantile desire which places itself over and against the desired goal or object.
He who is in despair then seeks a form of self-effacement when he cannot pour himself over his original intended goal. He values his object in a form of self-effacement, for he esteems that without his desired object he is already nothing. Despair is a misplaced self-effacement, a misplaced throwing of one’s self at another (or object) without the expected return of satisfaction and love. When man becomes curved in on himself through grave sin he begins to desire to, in a way, consume himself, often times entirely in his perverse self-indulgence, but he is impotent in doing so. He lives in a sort of temporal Hell where his soul burns and yearns for something but cannot attain it (or enjoy its attainment). It is similar to a yearning for a transcendence that is frustrated and twisted towards vice, instead of virtue and peace.
To actively love without the return of love needed for the human soul to grow is in a sense what despair is. The despair of the inability to arrive at a pleasurable object (e.g. despair of not getting a brand new Ferrari) is ultimately then a simple despair, but even had one come to attain his object (e.g. a new promotion at one’s job to acquire the Ferrari) his love for the object is poured out in a disproportionate end to his own capacities as a human being. An object or title can never love us back and make us grow as human beings, and especially not as Christians. Another form of despair then is more worthy than this one by which a person’s inability to be loved by another causes him to cling, sinfully, and obsessively to their memory or wishfully trying to force the beloved’s love as a return for his own love. Ultimately though it is known in Christian revelation that though human beings are social creatures and their co-dependence is valuable to their survival there is something more divine to man, exalted as mankind might be as the imago Dei (image of God). Man is not complete in himself, and of himself, the imago Dei is only completed in so far as it returns back to the prototype. This imago Dei is all-consuming; man must truly become one with his source. He must become like God to truly find himself. Anything short of this terminus in his destiny ultimately betrays the fundamental essence of what it means to be human. Deep in the human condition man desires to transcend himself and transcend all which is about him. This is the entire drive behind science, technology, societal pressures for achievement and status, hedonism, and any other form of human life.
Eternal Beatitude and Eternal Despair
Man is not enough for himself, that is why he seeks Other, but among mankind he cannot find his terminus, he needs God
This transcendence that man wants is impossible for him. Any form of elevation that man can achieve of his own still leaves him to being himself. He requires a union to an Other which while unilaterally apart from him seeks to unite itself completely with him. This is the paradox of man’s journey into eternity, impossible for man, but not for God. The Incarnation is the true solution to the imago Dei. Some argue that the Incarnation would have occurred even if man had not sinned. This is the Franciscan thesis, which I hold to be a probable thesis, on account of the existential line of thought by which man in the fabric of his being requires the entrance of the Absolute into his very heart and soul. If the Incarnation is the abstract instance by which one man can be saved from existential displacement in the universe, then the Resurrection is the particular instance by which each and every single man, woman, and child can be saved from existential despair and the smallest separation from God.
The Misplaced act of Love in Mortal sin produces Eternal Despair
One might ask if every soul desires transcendence through union with God why do we sin against God in such a way that we rebel against the very notion of His redemption? Every soul desires the Good abstractly, and at its core that Good is God Himself, but in this abstraction people come to love the Good through different particular means. They begin to love some created thing more than the Creator who is at the foundation of the entire ground of being. We share the image of God in that we are called to recognize the good in all of Creation as God does, but oftentimes we misjudge how much we ought to love a particular good.
What effect does mortal sin have in the soul with respect to love, despair, and God?
Mortal sin and enslavement to sin entails the continuous powerlessness and despair to which one falls into a vicious cycle of sin which confounds him. This it strikes me is the symptom of mortal sin and final impenitence. The soul entrapped to mortal sin comes before God with the same wistful despair, “My sin or nothing.” God in His wisdom recognizes that man is incapable of truly willing oblivion, but in His justice He does not leave a man to continue in sin nor to continue in that true interior deterioration that the human soul undergoes in every act of sin. And so that man is left in despair. He has said no to the face of God Himself and so he finds himself in the despair of wanting his sin above anything else but unable to truly have it. However, there is a deeper existential despair in the damned which in traditional Catholic piety they become most aware of through their damnation. This is the despair that arises from needing God, but being cut off from Him. No soul in Hell truly wants oblivion, they all want to continue in sin, by which we understand that they would consider themselves happy if they had their sinful desires fulfilled, but God’s love cannot allow this. The damage done to the soul through a continual vicious cycle of indulgence in sin is the continual detriment of what a human being truly is meant to be, an image of God in virtue and justice. God’s love is what gives man Hell. While at the forefront what might appear to be a cruelty is rather the solution of Love.
The damned are shown the impotency of their love, the desire for themselves to pour themselves out on their objects of desire was shown to be a defect in their understanding of their true destiny as self-actualization before God, i.e. theosis. They (impotently) efface themselves through despair, an impotent form of love. Because man was made for love itself they strive to love but cannot love because they have desired to cut themselves off completely from Love. This is the fundamental torment of Hell, despair, by which all other torments pale in comparison. In traditional Catholic literature this is described by the combined terms of poena damni and poena sensus, the punishment of the damned and the punishment of sense. The first describes the greatest pain in proportion to the greatest existential need, the exclusion of the damned from God and the beatific vision. The second describes the pain of the senses by which the despair over each damned soul’s particular sinful desire is felt.
Mystical Union with God, the self-effacement of the ego in the total donation of self: The example of Christ’s kenosis and humility
The entire destiny of man is then to be seen through the example of Christ and not the example of Judas Iscariot. It was by God’s Love that the Word was made flesh so that He who is life came to bring light to men; a Light which could never know darkness. As St. Paul says we see in this life through a glass dimly, our vision of what we are is incomplete, but in Christ we have the Way, in Him we have the light to see, to realize, and to become whole. It is curious indeed that God desired to show us the way to become whole by first emptying Himself, taking the form of a servant, not desiring to take advantage of His divinity. For our sake He desired to show us the way of humility and love. Jesus Christ is the face of God, and God Himself who is Love emptied Himself out, poured Himself forth onto His image to come to make them whole. He has come to mankind who was made in His image to share His own being. The Son is the perfect image of God the Father who is invisible, and yet the image of an imageless being is an effacement. God sends His Son as perfect image as self-effacement to show us how to return to Him; through the self-effacement of love.
“Jesus repeats to us unceasingly: the Father loves the Son and gives Him both everything He has and, above all, everything He is. The Father keeps nothing for Himself. He makes no reservation, and holds nothing back. The Son is His perfect image because the Father has withheld nothing and given everything to the Son. In the Father we find the infinite poverty of giving. This poverty is shown above all by the fact that the Father imposes absolutely nothing on His Son: The Father has effaced Himself to follow His Child to be Himself. The Father begets the Son in complete respect and freedom.” (Towards a Divine Poverty by a Carthusian, pg 175, The Wound of Love)
So then the Son saw it fit to be sent in like manner to mankind humble, and pouring Himself out to His people, even to the last drop of His blood. He was sent to withstand every evil that has ever occurred and to weigh it upon His Sacred Heart. For the sake of mankind He made Himself lowly so as to show us, this is how I AM. This is how God is. This is also what you are. You are love, the image of God. The only means by which you can truly and finally become what you have always meant to become is to be one with Me. If you love Me, keep my commandments, and seek Me with all your heart. Christ is practically saying to us in this, “I have not only come to give Myself to you, but for you to do as I do to the Father, return yourselves to Me.”
“The Son, for His part, possesses nothing, which comes from Himself. All that He has is completely received; everything comes from the Father’s hands. In the Son we find the infinite poverty of receiving. His joy is in knowing that He cannot rely on Himself, but He receives everything from the limitless generosity of His Father. The Son is such a perfect image of the Father that He is likewise incapable of keeping anything for Himself. It is impossible for Him to turn in on Himself or to enjoy possessing anything whatsoever: as the image of an infinite gift He is Himself infinite gift, and in order to give the Father complete joy, He makes a total return to Him of all that He is. To this limitless poverty of giving on the part of the Father, and to the limitless poverty of the Son’s receiving this gift, corresponds the boundless poverty of transparency on the part of the Spirit. He is able neither to give nor to receive. He is simple communication, receiving everything from the Father and the Son simultaneously, without holding on to anything. He is neither source nor receptivity. He is simple transparency and the possibility for the other two Persons to encounter each other fully. What the Father and the Son have in common is nothing of themselves, but a third Person whose being is perfect and complete in Himself just as theirs is.” (Ibid, pg 175-176)
That mystical union with which mankind is destined to have with God mirrors the Trinitarian bond of love that God shares within Himself. Naturally, as the image of God we ought to expect that we are designed in this way to love God and return to Him, giving love for love, and growing in love each and every day, until finally we are with Him in eternity. The entire human self is no longer strung out selfishly or curved in itself, it bears the image of Love Himself, he becomes the image of gift, and the fulfillment of his being is to love and give. Only the Christian can give himself completely for another, for it is only the Christian who truly has a fully formed self. And this self is that being that is in communion with God.
May God bring us close to Him and make us Christians worthy of the promises of Christ. Let us catch hold of the lowliness of God.