“Your children love you more than anyone has ever loved me.”
This unsettling statement was delivered to me by a member of my dissertation committee when my children were small. I confess that I had not given significant thought to my children’s love. It surrounded me like a fish in water, and I had never met children who didn’t love their parents and wish desperately to be loved by them.
But he was correct. When I began looking more deeply at our interactions, I saw how differently my children love me from how I love my parents. It made me ashamed that I had not noticed before, and reassured me that my parenting wasn’t as bad as my deepest fears.
It also taught me that it is easier to love than to be loved. Just like it is easier to be charitable than to receive charity.
I don’t think I’m unique in my self-loathing and inability to see myself as worthy of love. I grew up with the central belief that I was far too annoying to be loveable. I read Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf for the first time when I was probably 14. I remember how Martha’s speech about her relationship with her husband resonated, even then.
George who is out somewhere there in the dark. . . George who is good to me, and whom I revile; who understands me, and whom I push off; who can make me laugh, and I choke it back in my throat; who can hold me, at night, so that it’s warm, and whom I will bite so there’s blood; who keeps learning the games we play as quickly as I can change the rules; who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy, and yes I do wish to be happy. George and Martha: sad, sad, sad. . . whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: yes; this will do; who has made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me and must be punished for it. George and Martha: sad, sad, sad. . . who tolerates, which is intolerable; who is kind, which is cruel; who understands, which is beyond comprehension. . .
If there were a better description of my reaction to hearing of God’s love for me, I haven’t read it. Me? This chick? Why? The Baptists assured me that I was not and would never be worthy of His love. Oh, got it. I agree. Since God was clearly real and Christ had clearly died for me, I decided to worship without any expectation of a loving relationship.
Yet the more I read scripture, the more I saw a mind and heart that were beyond what was being thrown at me from Cotton Mather and the gang. I was baptized in the Baptist church at 13 and read through the Bible that year. My favorite in the Old Testament was Ecclesiastes. When I read Song of Songs, I felt embarrassed.
Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: for thy breasts are better than wine, Smelling sweet of the best ointments. (1:1-2)
As a gawky, immature adolescent I could not image what this had to do with the God I had met in the other chapters. The poetry was beautiful, and I longed to love and be loved like that. But I had no real hope of experiencing that kind of love. But I kept reading.
In the King James version I read: Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept. (1:6)
I carried that with me for a few weeks. In my journal, I wrote it down and went back to it several times. I could relate somewhat to the idea that I was too busy with other people’s goals than my own, a sentiment likely shared by other public-school participants. I could understand not wanting to be looked at, as nothing good could ever come from that. But at the core of it, I still could not relate to this chapter.
Over the years I have reread the New Testament regularly but did not revisit the Old Testament again until my youngest child was in home-school-high-school and I was his theology teacher. The introduction to this chapter in his Bible stated that it is a love letter from Christ to His Church. I re-read it with this perspective in mind.
Thy lips, my spouse, are as a dropping honeycomb, honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments, as the smell of frankincense. My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up. Thy plants are a paradise of pomegranates with the fruits of the orchard. Cypress with spikenard. Spikenard and saffron, sweet cane and cinnamon, with all the trees of Libanus, myrrh and aloes with all the chief perfumes. The fountain of gardens: the well of living waters, which run with a strong stream from Libanus. (4:11-15)
My youngest was regularly MC and thurifer at Mass when we were reading this chapter. Partly because of the commentary and partly because he is very insightful, we talked at length about how the Church is a closed garden where the faithful are protected. How Mass has all those beautiful smells and sounds that lead us to paradise. Many of the images came to life for me as never before, but there remained a significant portion of the writing that was loving in a way that just amazed and puzzled me.
Being part of a loving family has many revelations. I have often told people that each of my children has healed things in me that were broken. My loving Catholic family – militant, suffering, and triumphant – has healed things as well. As I have read the saints I have come to better understand the kind of radical love that transforms even the most broken sinner. While self-discipline and mortification are important, it is love that makes these meager offerings worthwhile. If I’m fasting, but being irritable with my neighbor, I am not offering something worth offering.
From these revelations came a deeper understanding of why Saint Pope John Paul II referred to the family as the “domestic church.” My husband and children truly provide for me a taste of God’s divine love. I joked recently that, “I am the most beloved person I know. It’s ridiculous.” Afterwards I felt ashamed at stating it as a joke, because it’s how I actually feel. It can still be unsettling for me, though, to be loved so thoroughly and unselfishly. I often feel like they must not know me very well to love me as much as they do. But here they are, really knowing me better than I know myself, and loving me anyway.
I have consumed podcasts and articles over the years that have discussed this idea of us loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, and that to truly love others we must first love ourselves. This always sounded odd to me. It sounded like the kind of rationalization I’ve heard from modern women a million times about not being able to truly care of anybody else until they’ve taken care of themselves. But they never complete their self-care, and their husbands and children remain in the care of others.
But maybe, just maybe, this isn’t the kind of love that God is talking about. Maybe we are to love ourselves in a way that allows us to tolerate being loved so deeply that we can’t believe it. That won’t happen at a spa day.
All of my children are adults now, and they have friends and loved ones who have become part of our family. A member of our tribe recently asked me a question about why I never seem to get annoyed with any of them. My answer was that because I love all of the people who are part of our family, “nothing any of you do annoys me. Love is a choice and so is annoyance.” The questioner seemed to like this answer. I need to work harder to apply it to people outside of my family.
The discussion reminded me of an old exercise from the self-love people in the 1980s when I was in college. One was to look in a mirror and say, “I love you unconditionally.” I couldn’t do it without making faces and didn’t try it more than once. But then several years ago, my youngest child said to me, “The Infant [of Prague] loves you so much. He just gives you whatever you ask him for.” It was true, and again, I had hardly noticed and have never been grateful enough.
I was recently listening to Pints with Aquinas wherein Matt Fradd spoke to Fr. John Burns about many topics, one of which was Song of Songs. I am very grateful for that discussion because it reminded me of my overarching discomfort with the book and my need to revisit it.
I doubt that I will fully understand God’s love this side of the mortal coil. But being mindful of it seems to be improving my understanding. It is easy to see His love in the faces of my family, in the beautiful garden in my back yard, and in music. It is becoming easier to see His love in the tiny crosses of daily life – the care-free drivers, the irritable shoppers, and the scam-likely callers. Looking at them with the lens of love beyond measure is more challenging, but worth the effort.
Rereading it to write all of this, I still wonder at it. But having lived in the bosom of this unbelievable love for 30 years now, I better understand it. Perhaps loving myself is more about discovering the parts of me that my husband and children have loved so spectacularly. Perhaps it’s letting go of my pride in my meager perfectionism and submitting to the joy I find in our family and our faith together.
At the end of the day, I want to face God’s love the way that I face my family’s.
I to my beloved, and his turning is towards me. (7:10)