Stone, Confucian Temple, Shanghai
Photo by the author
Shanghai, Oct. 28
I've often said that love and sorrow are the same thing. We are confused by ecstasy; people think that ecstasy and positive feeling constitute some kind of freedom, and everyone seems to believe, in my experience, that transcending our bodies into a realm of rapture must have something to do with spiritual fulfillment.
I have had the transcendent experiences, and I have had the ecstasies. Medieval ecstasies. Yet none of them make any sense unless one incorporates sorrow and anguish; and this is why it is only the passion of Christ that fully makes sense to me in the context of religious effort. We don't know what real love is until we love enough begin to see we, too, would be willing to let God nail us to a cross to relieve the suffering of our fellow human beings. This is an attitude that cannot be bridged with intellectual analysis; one has to feel the sorrow in the very marrow of one’s bones, and to begin to feel it on behalf of everything and everyone, in order to understand how appropriate Christ's crucifixion is to the context of our own religious effort.
Love is a material substance that penetrates all matter; of course, in fact, it creates matter as well as penetrating it. But it is both synchronous and synonymous with sorrow, because there is no actual difference between love and sorrow at the higher levels of experience. The words become indistinguishable from one another and end up being, relatively speaking, meaningless.
It's possible to develop a very highly refined intellectual experience of spiritual nature; and it's also possible to develop a highly refined physical experience of spiritual nature; but these two aspects of spiritual nature remain incomplete without the feeling, or emotional, experience of spiritual nature, as expressed in love and sorrow. This expands beyond personal love and personal sorrow, while remaining directly in contact with that same intimacy — and it expands beyond brotherly love and sorrow, which are shared experiences evoked by a higher level of love within relationship. It expands into territory where love and sorrow are understood as the direct influence of the divine, the reality — the Perfection, as I call it. Only an opening to perfect love and perfect sorrow, which are what we most need in order to grow, puts all of the other loves and sorrows into a context whereby we can measure our deficiency.
Until we encounter perfect love and perfect sorrow, and are directly and remorselessly willing to take them into ourselves as a perfect gift of God’s love and sorrow, the measurements we might take of life are always inaccurate. Taking measurement on behalf of the Perfection is in the order of intentional suffering: and although we conventionally see this action as taking place in closer proximity to us, due to its incorrect location on the enneagram, it actually takes place on a very high level indeed, between the notes si and do. It is, in other words, the very last step — the location, so to speak, of the Holy Planet Purgatory.
I become increasingly and absolutely convinced that all of the other actions of spiritual development are ultimately meant to bring us to this work of intentional suffering, whereby we have the capacity to receive and accept the love and sorrow of God, which measures us so well that we discard our own measurements in favor of it.
This is, I believe, worth thinking on.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.