Devotional love is heavy, oppressively intense, and inescapably hot; it is also gentle, quiet, subtle, and trickles into every corner of one’s life and awareness. The awareness of one’s relationship with the Powers is colored by the character of the emotions contained in that relationship – there are many kinds of love, loyalty, and affection and so these will be found in odd and surprising places as awareness of the relationship grows over time. These are truths I know, and I know also that devotional relationships also contain a spectrum of pain that is just as varied in its experience and manifestations as love – perhaps even moreso, since I sometimes (cruelly) wonder if the Powers hurt quite as much as I do.
There are things beyond love, I found, a kind of scorched emotional tenderness that grew to pervade daily awareness. I knew this pain was beyond love because even in the presence and recollection of affection was the droning ache of absence. This was something else, an experience different from periods of loneliness and spiritual isolation, different from the mournful pining that colored the long stretches when I felt my Beloved far away. I was surprised to discover a land past love and surprised to realize just how enormously vast that expanse must really be.
One of the traditions I study with emphasize that the correct devotional goal is to desire love of the divine, not possession of the divine. “I want you,” is not the correct desire, they say; “I want to love you,” is. The reasons for this important distinction are many and I’d do my teachers a disservice trying to explain them here, but I’ll do just a little bit. Even if the object of our sacred affection is regarded as infinite, we as humans must have some degree of knowledge/awareness if we are to approach relationship with Them at all. Therefore, the source of that awareness is philosophically superior even to the divine since without it, we remain entirely ignorant of all Their greatness. Emotional engagement and loving relationship *is* a form of awareness and knowledge; desiring more of this love can be regarded as more “correct” since by pursuing increased love and the deep emotional refinement required for that increase we approach some capacity for actually communing with an infinite being.
Even if we do not regard the high ones as necessarily infinite They are probably large enough that wanting Them is a desire that may not be able to lead us to actual relational refinement. That is, even though wanting Them is a perfectly understandable desire it does not naturally lead to its achievement (unless it does, according to one’s tradition). Wanting to love Them, however, seems to offer some kind of strategic territory in which to work.
I don’t know if my personal practice has led me to any philosophical revelations about the superiority of “I want Them” versus “I want to love Them.” I do know that trying to shift my thinking, if only a little bit and if only by encountering a stubborn resistance (how dare I tell me what I want!), that I’ve learned new things about what devotional life contains.
I’ve found surprising comfort in reading The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila (my edition is translated by Mirabai Starr). In it St. Teresa talks about the pervasive despair that occurs in some practitioners when they are stuck enduring spiritual loneliness; it’s so intense that they want to die and even if they aren’t necessarily depressive they are so dissatisfied with the world that even pleasure isn’t actually pleasurable. She also talks about a growing distaste for things of the world, for a preference for solitude even though the comfort found away from people is only minimal.
I started reading the book because it was recommended by some friends who I trust a great deal. Although my path is considerably different than St. Teresa’s or any of her sisters I have found a lot to relate to in these pages. (Of surprisingly modern relevance were the discussions of interpersonal conflicts arising from complex and emotionally wrought spiritual experiences and the social fall-out resulting from discussing them!) I feel comforted by her recommendation that service to others is the only way to remedy this particular kind of suffering; this is precisely the same conclusion I’ve reached over and over again as I find myself in various unpleasant emotional circumstances within my devotional life. Perhaps I’m not wrong to care about the well-being of others; perhaps I’m not wrong to wish for their uplift and success.
I’ve still got almost 100 pages to go – more of the sixth dwelling and all of the seventh. I know better than to want a glimpse at my own emotional future but considering how much of my emotional past has already been so nicely sketched in the book I think perhaps I still have much to learn from this volume.