St. Isaac of Stella wrote:
Love incited by something external
Is like a small lamp
Whose flame is fed with oil,
Or like a stream fed by rains,
Where flows stop when the rains cease.
But love whose object is God is like
A fountain gushing forth
From the earth.
Its flow never ceases,
For He Himself is the source of this love
And also its food,
Which never grows scarce.
It’s been several years ago now, but after meditation on those words, and a moment of contemplative stillness, I wrote the following poem:
Deep within the well of this heart,
sliding down in the silent darkness,
sinking into the caverns of spirit,
I found You, Beloved One,
the hidden waters,
a mighty rushing in the stillness.
There at Your edge,
where I might have plunged
and fulfilled the fantasy
of a supreme union,
I found instead
the fear of oblivion in You,
and upon this halting
I piled remorse and shame
for my self-judged unworthiness.
Still I dipped a begging hand
into Your ceaseless current,
washed the tear-stained dust
from this mask of sadness
and sipped a drop of Your cool purity.
Such sweet wine You are,
for this single taste
bestowed an unimagined sobriety,
a joyous awakening to the memory
that this resistance to Your fullness
is among the greatest gifts from You.
In these depths,
all things left within me
that had seemed to interfere
with my dream of perfection
were revealed as channels
for a unique upwelling
of Your goodness.
You created me to be Your lover,
By Your will we are two
who are nonetheless one.
Never let this be undone
so long as there are others in this world
who thirst for You.
There are many things we could draw out of these two poems, but today my focus is drawn from the very first line of St. Isaac’s work. So long as we think of God as something or someone entirely separate from and outside of ourselves, external, I believe we are missing a vital point of St. Isaac’s mystical statement. For those of us who have been in traditional religious institutions, a great deal of our spiritual thoughts, sentiments, and practices have indeed been incited by something external. Our attempts to love the Great Mystery we call God can often be almost entirely directed by doctrines and authorities urging us to relate to God as anything but present within our own souls and those of others. So it is that many of us are led into the recurring misery of feeling that God is separate and distant from us, unresponsive to our prayers and devotions, and that we must therefore be far too corrupt to merit God’s thirst-quenching love. Yet, it is possible to break free of this psychospiritual tyranny and rediscover the presence of God as Love within us. But it would be an incomplete understanding of St. Isaac to think this means we should turn all of our attention within, giving our time and energy only to that inward experience. To accept that the Kingdom of God is already within us begs the further realization that it is within everyone else and all of creation, just as Jesus taught. In that realization, our love for things external to us, certainly including other people, is directly connected with cherishing and serving God, or Love itself. Finally, my poem ends with a kind of Christian Bodhisattva vow, a commitment to not make the spiritual life about trying to escape from the world’s suffering, but rather to accept the fact of our presence in this world, and to answer the call to transform that presence for the good of all.