Spirituality of Love #1 – ‘Flame of Love’ by St John of the Cross

Last night was the final of six sessions teaching a ‘spirituality of love’ at lovely Solace church in Melbourne.  Each evening began with a short presentation then followed with a longer period for participants to respond with either their head, heart or hands.  The hands option was a meditation with clay or hebel stone.  The small room at Solace set aside as a womb-like heart space and a variety of meditative practices were explored.  The head response was a discussion group, led by me, following up on people’s thoughts and questions.  I hope that this material will continue to develop and be a blessing to many others as opportunities come up.  It is an absolutely joy and privilege to teach people how to love!

So here is a tantalising glimpse into the series: 6 posts with a picture from the space we set up, a one line summary of the thought for the day, and the love poem used to close the evening.  Enjoy!

Spirituality of Love #1:

dwell fully in your body because your body is made of love

Flame of Love by St John of the Cross

1. O living flame of love
That tenderly wounds my soul
In its deepest center! Since
Now you are not oppressive,
Now consummate! if it be your will:
Tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

2. O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
That tastes of eternal life
And pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life.

3. O lamps of fire!
in whose splendors
The deep caverns of feeling,
Once obscure and blind,
Now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
Both warmth and light to their Beloved.

4. How gently and lovingly
You wake in my heart,
Where in secret you dwell alone;
And in your sweet breathing,
Filled with good and glory,
How tenderly You swell my heart with love.

Why not Love? by Alison Sampson

Alison Sampson is a talented Melbourne writer who articulates so beautifully the call to be a Christian (or even just a human being) in the daily grind of life.  The rss feeds from her blog, the idea of home, are always a breath of fresh air in my inbox!  I particularly appreciated this recent piece on Love which was published in The Sunday Age Faith column on 26.2.12.

Why not love?

Some people are naturally loving. I’m not one of them. For as long as I can remember, my first impulse has been to dislike, to feel angry, and to judge. I have fought and hurt many people unnecessarily; and I have often needed to apologise, even go through mediation, to restore a relationship damaged by my anger.

It’s not something I’m proud of.

But one day five or six years ago, as I felt myself growing furious over nothing in particular, three words dropped into mind: ‘Why not love?’

Three simple words, one little invitation. Why not love?

If it had been an order, ‘Thou shalt love’, I would have rejected it out of hand. A reactive soul who has always deeply resented being told what to do, I would have pointed out the ways I had been offended. I would have explained exactly why it was reasonable for me to be angry; with arrogance and disdain, I would have wielded my brutal honesty like a weapon; and with sickening self-righteousness, I would have justified the ensuing destruction.

But I wasn’t given a command. I was asked a question; and because of this, I felt surprisingly free. I didn’t have to react. Instead, I could engage with the question, holding it gently and turning it to and fro as I looked at it from different angles. As I did so, I realised I had an option. I could choose to go with my usual motivators, anger and fear, and lash out yet again; or I could take a deep breath, count to ten, and find a way to love.

Which option I took depended on who I wanted to be. Did I pride myself on being an angry little girl, flailing about and striking at will; or did I want to try a new path, which might just lead to kindness?

The choice was obvious. I knew what sort of adult I wanted to become.

Why not love? I unclenched my hands, and slowly breathed out. I don’t remember exactly how that day ended so many years ago; but I can say that there were no fireworks or angry tears. Instead, I recall a sense of lush green growth, a sign of renewal and hope.

I have carried the question with me ever since. Of course, there still have been many times when I have chosen not to love – always a mistake, and always more harmful to me than to anyone else. But thanks to the question, there have been many more times when I have opted to try; and in so doing, I am awkwardly stumbling my way into the wide open spaces of freedom.

We, She and He – 3 books by Robert A. Johnson

We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York; Harper One, 1983)

She: Understanding Feminine Psychology, Revised Edition (New York; Harper, 1989)

He: Understanding Masculine Psychology, Revised Edition (New York; Harper, 1989)

Sometimes I wonder why I read Jungian psychology books – they always send me into such a spin! But then, that is exactly why I read them – the desire for transformation. Wrestling with God like Jacob so that by cerebral understanding I might at least have the illusion that I can contain the pains and joys of life.

I read He and She a while ago in order to work on questions of gender. RJ takes the Fisher King/Parsifal/Holy Grail myth in He, and the Psyche-Eros myth in She, and uses them allegorically to draw insights about the essence of male and female psychology. It’s refreshing to read theory done through story telling: it relates to a different part of our brain and so draws out different insights. Personally, I relate to Psyche’s quest quite strongly and I do find it helpful as a tool for self-reflection. I think that this would be true regardless of one’s conclusion about gender as ‘essence’ – am I ‘essentially’ female and can be no other by virtue of my biology, or is gender more determined socially and therefore has only culturally specific articulations.

Here’s a link to an english translation of the original Psyche myth by Apuleius.

And the original Fisher King myth in its English incarnation by Thomas Malory.

The present reason why I’ve just read We is because I am working with the analogy of falling-in-love as a description of ‘conversion.’ That’s been really fun and I has gone into a couple of different projects about love and spirituality: an essay for general readership; a sermon series; and a prelude to my ongoing academic study. In We RJ reflects on the myth of Tristan and Iseult (also known as Iselda) from the middle ages. Tristan is a fine upstanding Knight, loyal to his King, until he accidentally drinks a love potion with the King’s intended bride, Iseult. They fall madly in love and defy all sense of right and common sense in order to be together.

If you want to read the Tristan-Iseult myth go here.

RJ discusses the psychology of love as a cultural phenomena in the West. He describes it as our obsession; our pathology; our replacement for religion in a secular age. As our culture moved away from seeking meaning in religious notions of transcendence, we projected those spiritual needs onto our human relationships. Romance has become our religion. Indeed! A case in point: a saw the new Working Dog movie last week, called Any Questions for Ben? (For overseas readers: these Working Dog are Australian legends!) Poor Ben is going through a quarter life crisis: he feels cut adrift, lost, yearning for something more and for his life to ‘mean something.’ So does he turn to religion, spirituality or even psychotherapy? No, he turns to love! He finds it within himself to commit to one woman and trusts in that relationship to satisfy these inadequacies he feels.

There is a pressing need to address the unrealistic expectations on intimate human relationships of all kinds – parental, romantic, platonic, etc. If we seek ‘god’ in a human person we will always be disappointed. But more subtlety, if we seek the source for our own personal transformation in another person, we too easily fail to integrate any fleeting transcendence within ourselves. It is not that God is absent from human relationships, indeed, frequently we experience the wonderful grace of God in our intimate relationships, but the source of God is not located solely within them as the object of our affection. It is a glimpse of heaven, but we live here and now on earth.

Here’s a little passage:

“In the symbolism of the love potion we are face to face suddenly with the greatest paradox and the deepest mystery in our modern Western lives: What we seek constantly in romantic love is not human love or human relationship alone; we also seek a religious experience, a vision of wholeness. Here is the meaning of the magic, the sorcery, the supernatural in the love potion. There is another world that is outside the vision of our ego-minds: It is the realm of psyche, the realm of unconscious. It is there that our souls and our spirits live, for unknown to our conscious Western minds, our souls and spirits are psychological realities, and they live on in our psyches without our knowledge. And it is there, in the unconscious, that God lives, whoever God may be for us as individuals.” (p. 53)

I still have a barrage of questions (which is probably quite obvious in the obscurity of some of this post) but the fact that archetypal theory has the capacity to articulate the quest for Life in God, is to me, invaluable.

love is life itself

the sinful woman anointing jesus' feet with her tears

“I know who you are”

declared his gaze

and I fell over once again

stumbling like a cripple

paralysed by longing




If only love were rational

and could be brought into line by cognitive will.


love rises up from the depths

and until it is free

it is the leviathan of dark waters.


Love is but a made up word

and should not be expected to carry the weight

of the experience it is striving to name.

And yet I find I need to say those words ‘I love you’

and I need to hear those words ‘I love you’

and I need to know those words ‘I love you’

in power and in truth.


It is simple.

I am summed up by these four bless-ed letters

containing all life and meaning

and all I ever want ever again

is to love and be loved.



is life itself.

Love’s Work by Gillian Rose

(Vintage: London, 1997)

In the midst of an emotionally difficult period over Christmas, I read Gillian Rose’s astounding book, Love’s Work. Written in the final years of her life whilst she battled Ovarian Cancer, Rose seeks to describe what love is, and the meaningful place it has in any life worth living. Rose died aged 48 years.

There was a particular passage which startled me into cessation. I’d been ploughing towards Christmas, as most of us in the West do if we have friends and family and a pretence of importance, and I could do nothing from that moment but pause and feel all the feelings of life. Love catapults us into full engagement with life.

“However satisfying writing is – that mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control – it is a very poor substitute indeed for the joy and the agony of loving. Of there being someone who loves and desires you, and he glories in his love and desire, and you glory in his every-strange being, which comes up against you, and disappears, again and again, surprising you with difficulties and with bounty. To those this is the greatest loss, a loss for which there is no consolation. There can only be that twin passion – the passion of faith.”

Gillian Rose was God’s grace to me this Christmas. Sublime. Effusive. Wrapping me up in the safety of womanly love and care. All my questions about intimacy, betrayal and redemption were cradled in her exquisite writing about love of various kinds. But most movingly for me, is her chapter on ‘unhappy love.’

“In personal life, people have absolute power over each other, whereas in professional life, beyond the terms of the contract, people have authority, the power to make one another comply in ways which may be perceived as legitimate or illegitimate. In personal life, regardless of any covenant, one party may initiate a unilateral and fundamental change in terms of relating without renegotiating them, and further, refusing even to acknowledge the change. Imagine how a beloved child or dog would respond, if the Lover turned away. There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. To be at someone’s mercy is dialectical damage: they may be merciful and they may be merciless. Yet each party, woman, man, the child in each, and their child, is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability. You may be less powerful than the whole world, but you are always more powerful than yourself… Love is the submission of power.” (pp. 54-55)

For Rose, unhappy love is the passion of loss. Each of us tends toward those relationships which repeat our experience of loss, pummelling into us the lessons of our earliest love formations. However, love is always birthed from Beloved-ness. Sebastian Moore describes this as the Love of God woven beautifully into all God’s creatures, a memory of knowing oneself divinely loved by our Creator, triggered by some look or word from whatever archetypal man, woman or child is required to grab our psychic attention. The archetypal Lover need not even be aware of bestowing such a gift upon us! But if the Lover withdraws the gift, knowingly or otherwise, the Beloved is bereft, she must generate that love within herself without the mediation of her muse. Hence ensues “the initiate of an investigation into lovelessness. A challenge to that deprecating self-assumption.” We come face to face with the epic journey to recover our sense of Beloved-ness.

To deny the inevitable messiness, to numb the unavoidable pain, is to turn away from love’s work. Rose observes this as an incessant protestantism. Love’s work is to stay in the harsh reality of living, the glacially slow movements towards maturity, the discovery and love of our selves. “To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.”

“If the Lover retires too far, the light of love is extinguished and the Beloved dies; if the Lover approachers too near the Beloved, she is effaced by the love and ceases to have an independent existence. The Lovers must leave a distance, a boundary, for love: then they approach and retire so that love may suspire. This may be heard as the economics of Eros; but it may also be taken as the infinite passion of faith.”

It requires faith to stay in the game. Faith to believe that we are truly Beloved. Faith to sufficiently stand our ground as a Lover approaches. And faith to see the Face of God in it all.

Committed: A Love Story by Elizabeth Gilbert

(London: Bloomsbury, 2010) Different editions seem to have different subtitles! Weird!  I read the kindle edition.

A friend of mine had read this book and wanted to know what I thought of it.  Elizabeth Gilbert is famous for writing Eat, Pray, Love and this is kind of (in the broadest sense of the word) a sequel and has itself become a New York Times best seller.  In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert describes her quest for self-discovery post-divorce.  She recaptures life through Eating in Italy, Praying in India and Loving in Bali.  In Committed, Gilbert describes what happens to her Love Relationship when forced with the realities of life over the long haul.

Gilbert and her soulmate are confronted with the social necessity of marriage when Felipe is refused entry into the United States, where they had taken up residency as a couple.  Another year of soul-searching travel ensues as they submit to the bureaucratic requirements of visa by marriage.  Neither Elizabeth nor Felipe had any desire for (re)marriage and the book records Gilbert’s sometimes tortured attempts to find a cultural interpretation that works for them.  It’s mostly entertaining story telling, and I know enough of the original scholarship to see she’s done her research properly, so it’s actually a pretty good, accessible exploration into the social construction of marriage.  Best of all it has a happy ending!

The one thing I hadn’t come across before was the work of Ferdinand Mount, that Gilbert herself was surprised to unearth. ‘Sir William Robert Ferdinand Mount, 3rd Baronet,’ a proper English conservative by any stretch of the imagination, wrote a book called The Subversive Marriage (1992).  He points out that no totalitarian regime in history has ever fully conquered the privacy of the marriage bed.  Heres a quote:

“The family is a subversive organization.  In fact, it is the ultimate and only consistently subversive organization.  Only the family has continued throughout history, and still continues, to undermine the State.  The family is the enduring permanent enemy of all hierarchies churches and ideologies.  Not only dictators, bishops and commissars but also humble parish priests and cafe intellectuals find themselves repeatedly coming against the stony hostility of the family and its determination to resist interference to the last.”

So if you’re after a popular version of some of the reddress themes on sex, love and marriage, I’m happy to recommend Committed.

I really enjoyed some of the ‘famous quotes’ she uses to start her chapters, here’s some of my favourites:

“Marriage is a friendship recognized by the police.”  – Robert Louis Stevenson

“be of love (a little)/ more careful/ than of everything” – e.e. cummings

“Today the problem that has no name is how to juggle work, love, home and children.” – Betty Friedan, The Second Stage

“Of all the actions of a man’s life, his marriage does least concern other people; yet of all the actions of our life, ’tis the most meddled with by other people.” – John Selden, 1689

Prodigal Kiwi on ‘2 conceptions of love’ and Harville Hendrix

Paul, over at Prodigal Kiwi, recently linked to my post on 2 conceptions of love then followed it up with a couple of posts on Harville Hendrix.  Hendrix is great, and Paul’s comments are always thoughtful, so I thought them worth sharing.

Ten Characteristics of a Conscious Relationship


All Marriages Can be Saved!  Really?

On a similar theme, I loved Paul’s post on the economics of marriage:

Why Love and Marriage will always be a bad investment

Thanks Paul!

Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History by Kim M. Phillips & Barry Reay

(Cambridge; Polity Press, 2011)

Yeah, I should be reading Orthodox Theological Method for my current research project – but this IS relevant I swear!  (And beside, I confined myself to the Introduction and the first chapter on Sin.)  Remember Sarah Coakley’s paper about Sexuality and Spirituality (click here for the reddress post), she introduces some arguments that are ‘new’ to Western ears by referencing the Greek Fathers.  Researching the history of sex is actually a great way to map the history of theological hermeneutics!

Essentially, this book is looking at material from medieval and early modern times in order to offer a comparison.   The author’s thesis is that “premodern sexual cultures were significantly different from modern or indeed postmodern ones and we misrepresent them if we emphasize historical continuities and enduring patterns of sexual identity” (p.10).  To do that it looks at:

ch 1 – the processes by which erotic desire and arousal became labelled as ‘sin’;

ch 2 – an argument that romantic love was celebrated, but thought only possible within a social elite;

ch 3 – sex between men;

ch 4 – sex between women;

ch 5 – sexually explicit art and literature.

I think this is a really important thesis, but one which really needs an historian’s expertise to  review the extensive evidence from primary sources, which I just don’t have.  Two things stand out for me.

Phillips and Reay push back on Foucault’s dominating assessment that the medieval Christian connection of sex and sin was “a crucial stage in the formation of modern subjectivities” (p.17).  But he assumes too much: Phillips and Reay argue that the evidence is far to multi-form to justify Foucault’s blaming of the Church for the repression of all sex and sexuality in the modern era.  “The relationship between sin and desire continued to be quarrelled over, flouted and even ignored down through the centuries of the premodern era” (p.25).

Secondly, a multiformity of Christian theology and practice should indicate to contemporary sexual ethicists that a singular, simplistic and materialistic morality of sex, love and marriage cannot be supported by historical theology.  Both the theology and the ‘experience’ of sex has always been contextual to some extent, and like God, is a great mystery – one that human constructs will necessarily fail to completely contain.   There is a lot of cultural movement happening around Christendom during these years and the Greko-Roman philosophical idealism is contrasted with the more pragmatic approach of the Germanic societies.

On the other hand, lest you here me protest too much about multiformity, Phillips & Reay do state that there was a lot that is consistent in the literature of the pre-modern period, and that is interesting in and of itself:

“For all that did change between the high medieval period and end of the early modern era, much remained constant. On relations between men and women, we find continuities in, for instance, the centrality of marriage and the ‘reproductive matrix’ to sexual presumptions and practice; view of premarital erotic activity as tolerable when constituting a part of courtship leading to marriage; and conceptions of the body which frequently elided anatomical differences of male and female yet which reiterated the belief in women’s stronger desire. In respect to relations between men, ‘sodomy’ retained a flexibility of definition from early Christian times to the eighteenth century, potentially referring to a wide range of acts which could make one ‘an enemy of God’, even while gradually becoming more associated with acts between men; erotic encounters between men were often a product of opportunity as much as preference, not always an alternative to the sexual pursuit of women so much as continuous with it; and age-structured relationships and affective or passionate friendships were recurring forms of male homoaffectivity across our period. At times the main difference between medieval and early modern contexts seems to be the abundance of sources for the latter relative to the former” (p.19).

‘Two Conceptions of Love in Philosophical Thought’ by Christopher Cordner

(In Sophia: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics (University of Melbourne) Vol 50, No 3, Sept 2011, pp.315-329)

Wandering through the library lobby this morning, I got distracted by this piffy little article from the new Journals shelf.  Cordner points out that there are 2 very different ways of thinking about love in the Western ways, of which Platonic and Christian thought have given us the richest formulations. (He also argues that those who have conflated the two misrepresented both!)

Firstly, he argues Plato sees love as needy. “Love is always the Love of something, and…that something is what he lacks.” (p. 316, Corner quoting from Plato’s Symposium.) In this sense it more like the idea of Falling In Love which I have been reading and writing about this year – a projected desire for some aspect of ourselves which we see in another. Can’t quite make out then, why we use the term ‘Platonic Love’ to describe relationships where there is no such projection, or is it just no projection that expresses itself sexually? (Obviously there is etymological history here which I’ll readily admit I’m not abreast of!) For Plato the goal is self-sufficiency but that leads the human person into a state where they have no need of love! Have to admit I’m not at all attracted to that idea.

Second, what Max Scheler calls ‘an act of the spirit,’ and Cordner designates fairly nominally as ‘Christian,’ is a conception of love as expansive. God loves out of the overflowing fullness of God’s being, and so too do/can/should human beings, created in God’s likeness. “This love is experienced by its beneficiary, then, as not alienable by contingencies of what she does, or of the specific qualities she has or lacks, or what she might become.” It is unconditional (p.321).

Cordner points out that in Plato’s conception of love, it is assumed that the person in love is sick, whereas, in the Christian conception, the human person is healthy. On the whole, Western ethical and anthropological discourses flow from the former – human beings are deprived of absolute goodness (i.e. the Platonic category of The Good) but loving actions may offer the prospect of redemption as we find that which we lack in ourselves from others. I desperately want to shout out ‘Love does not have to function that way!’ – though surely sometimes it does.

How is it possible not to prefer this ‘Christian’ Love as Cordner describes it:

“If such love is a spontaneous ‘going out’ towards the other, it is also a very important fact that we can find ourselves affirmed in our deepest being by others’ love… That response to love is a realising, in the one loved, of her own value or worth. But this loving of her is then not an arbitrary creation of anything; it is a creative realising of a value in the one loved that she herself can find affirmed in the way she experiences that love. Putting this slightly differently: if there is reason for calling this deepest kind of love ‘gratuitous’, it is both a marvellous and an important fact that people can find their own deepest being affirmed by it” (p.329).

Sex Life: How Our Sexual Experiences Define Who We Are by Pamela Stephenson-Connolly

(Vermilion; London, 2011)

Sex Life by Pamela Stephenson-Connolly was my ‘light reading’ of choice after the last liturgy essay!  The reason I was drawn to it is because it is an attempt to ‘map’ human sexuality from birth till death, hence covering the controversial areas of sexuality in childhood and old age.  As Pamela points out, it’s pretty difficult to gather empirical date on sexual experience and she has opted for a mass of testimonials from clients and research interviews.  So it’s fun to read – though the book desperately needs a good editor!

I have two reflections to share in a public forum.  (Poor me a glass of red wine and I’d be happy to talk into the night!)

The first is that I agree 100% with Pamela that we must think about human sexuality as a whole of life phenomena.  Her book helps us to do that and is useful therefore for both academic and personal study.  (If you need to do some ‘repair work’ on your own formation as sexual beings this is not a bad place to start – it’ll help identify the messages you’ve picked up in younger years which are influencing your adult sexuality.)  Sexuality ebbs and flows with growth and regression, maturity and immaturity as do ALL aspects of the human person.  If we cease to acknowledge and affirm appropriate childhood and adolescent sexuality we fail to equip our children with the foundation for healthy adult sexuality.  If we fail to acknowledge sexuality in ageing adults, we add to the devaluing of the elderly which our society already engages in too readily.

The second reflection I would offer is the absolute impossibility of writing and talking about sex without moral judgements.  Pamela writes ‘for sexologists and campaigners who fight for sexual rights.’  Well, there are diverse opinions of what ‘sexual rights’ might mean!  There are times in the book where she sounds more accepting of those who engage in ‘unusual’ forms of sexual expression than she is of those who choose a healthy abstinence.  I find this very frustrating as a theologian interested in sexuality and spirituality – not from a moral point of view, but because she fails to acknowledge anything much of the spiritual experience of human beings.  Her understanding of sex reads to be very materialist – of physical matter – which I found very limiting and would argue is a moral judgement in and of itself.  Subjectivity is inevitable in all subjects, but with one in which we as subjects are so inherently vulnerable, we have to be absolutely up front that an a-moral sexual ethic is impossible.  Our current Australian debates on same-sex marriage and Anglican debates on human sexuality would do well to use that as a starting point!

How do our sexual experiences define who we are?  Our sexual experiences define our sexuality and our sexuality is just one element in the complex web of relations that makes up a human being.