We have said that the world has been born from love and returns to love, and that it is enveloped in the arms of love. This is particularly true for every one of us, for each unique human person created in the image and likeness of God. Despite the claims of our contemporary world, we do not enter into the world and the human community as isolated and autonomous individuals. We do not enter the world in such a way that everyone else remains “outside” of and arbitrary to us, and matters to us only insofar as we wish to let them in. Rather, we are born from the very heart of community, from within the context of the coming-together of persons in love. We owe our very being, our very life to other persons—to our parents. And not only that, but we awaken to self-consciousness, not from enclosed within ourselves, but from the love that we receive from the outside, from the look and the smile of another.
Let us look for a moment at the most basic and foundational experience that each one of us has as a little child, as an infant in the arms of our mother. A little child shortly after birth has not yet awakened to a full self-consciousness, that is, to a consciousness of her own “I” as separate from the world around her and from the “You” of other persons. Of course, she lives these relationships already—as she did even in the womb—and implicitly experiences this relationality that marks her whole existence. But there comes a point when the full light of personal awareness dawns upon her, or rather awakens within her. As we said, this comes about precisely through the presence of another, through the love that she receives from another.
The mother holds her child in her arms, close to her bosom, and smiles upon her. At some point, this child, looking into the loving eyes of her mother and receiving her smile, spontaneously smiles back. What is happening here? The little child is having a profound intuition which proves to be the foundation for all of the experiences of the rest of her life. This is her “original experience” that sets the context for everything else that follows. What is she experiencing? In this moment of encounter, she awakens to full personal awareness, and her experience is: You… Me… and the love between us.
This is what the child experiences in this moment of recognition. She awakens to the beauty and mystery of the other person, of her mother, who is for her a source of love, of security, and of peace. And precisely from her recognition of the other, she becomes fully aware of herself: of her own unique “I.” In a profound sense, her own “I” is a gift to her from another; she receives herself as a gift from the love of another person. Therefore, she belongs to herself only because she first belongs to another; she is her own only because she is a gift.
Further, this mutual relationship of “You” and “I” is entirely sealed with the joy of communion, in an intimacy that is utterly safe and secure. The child feels protected by her mother; she feels herself, indeed, to be entirely enveloped in the arms of Love, which her mother manifests and symbolizes for her. Because she experiences her own personal identity, not in isolation, but precisely in the context of loving relationship, of intimacy, she feels no need to close herself off from the other, to protect her own “individuality” from the other. Rather, she feels that she comes from communion, and wants to return to communion ever more deeply.
Her own unique and unrepeatable identity is not threatened by the identity of her mother. They are both distinct, and yet they are one; they are united. Indeed, it is precisely because they are two, two different persons, that they can be united in the deepest way, not by being absorbed into each other and losing their individuality, but by sharing themselves with one another, by belonging to one another in love and trust. This sharing exists at such an intimate level in the relationship between mother and child that the child even lives within her mother for more than nine months. Further, this living within the womb of another is not only a matter of location, for the child is dependent on her mother in every way for her own life, sustenance, and growth. The womb is the place of all-enveloping and sheltering love, the place where the vulnerable and defenseless child is protected, cared for, and allowed to grow and develop in her own unique and sacred life.
Even when the child is brought forth into the world through the labor-pains of her mother (which again is an expression of the giving and sharing of oneself), she is still dependent upon her mother. Yes, she still indeed drinks of the being and the body of her mother for a long time after birth. Here we see the beautiful interchange of persons that lies at the origin of our human experience in this world. The child receives all from her mother, from her mother’s generosity and love; and the mother in turn receives from the child. First of all, her very willingness to carry her child and to bring her into the world is an act of love and generosity. Therefore, in order to give herself to her child, she must first be willing to accept the child. And she continues to accept her, and receive from her child just as the child receives from her. Often times what she receives is “morning sickness” or aches in the lower back, but on a deeper level she receives the joy of this new, precious life growing within her. She receives the child’s first kicks, her movements in the womb. Then the mother receives the first encounter after birth, and the long days of care and nurture in which she is touched and enriched, challenged and transformed by this life, by this precious and beloved person, for whom she cares and gives herself.
In summary, we see in this most basic human relationship a glimpse of the deep meaning of Jesus’ words: “Abide in me, and I in you” (Jn 15). The mother and child live with, and in a deep way, for one another. And because of this deep sharing, they also live in one another, if not physically, then spiritually, emotionally, personally. They carry one another in the heart.
You… Me… and the love between us, the love that unites us together…
In this foundational relationship, we see a beautiful “image” of the Trinity: of the intimacy shared eternally by the Father and the Son in their one Spirit. The Father gives himself totally to the Son; he pours out his very life and being into the Son in pure and unconditional love. And this act of total self-donation is also, simultaneously, an act of perfect acceptance, in which the Father makes himself a welcoming-space and a home for his beloved Son. The Son, for his part, welcomes this gift of the Father, in which he has his own true identity as the Son, as the One who is loved by the Father and in relationship with the Father. He knows his “I” before the “You” of the Father; and in this knowledge, in this mutual beholding, he receives the gift of himself and gives himself spontaneously and freely back to the Father. Finally, the love that the Father and the Son share, the gift that passes eternally between them, is the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Spirit is the Love that binds the Father and the Son together in perfect intimacy; he is, as it were, the Kiss that they share, so intimate that their breath mingles together and becomes one.
In the relationship between mother and child—and in all human relationships, each in their own way—this mystery of the Holy Trinity is revealed and at work. We could say that the mother-child relationship is a kind of “sanctuary” that God has preserved in the midst of our fallen and broken world, so that each one of us will receive the foundational experience on which the rest of our lives can be built and from which they can blossom. This experience, as we said, is one of coming as a gift from the love of another. It is also an experience of coming from communion, being enveloped in communion, and growing into communion. One’s own individuality, one’s own personal identity, is not opposed to the other, to the community, but rather matures precisely within it—within the sharing of persons in love.
As the child grows, her self-awareness deepens. She becomes more conscious of her “I” and lives it with greater deliberateness. And this is an entirely good thing. Communion is not the loss of individuality in a mass of “togetherness,” but the fully conscious, fully free sharing of persons with one another in love. This allows them to be aware both of the “I” and the “You,” and also of the “We” that their unity makes possible. This living of the “I” and “You” together, their living in one another, and their sharing a common experience of intimacy: this is the truest and deepest joy that the human heart can experience. Indeed, it is precisely this intimacy, this communion for which we have been created.
It is also important to note that this human relationship bears in itself a mystery greater than itself. When the child awakens to the love of her mother, when she experiences her own self enfolded in the shelter of love, she has an intuition that the deepest truth of reality itself is love. She connects in her mind and her heart the reality of Love and the reality of Being. What exists is good and beautiful because it comes from Love, returns to Love, and remains enveloped in Love. Yes, it is all an expression of Love, and “outpouring” of Love’s abundant generosity. Of course, this intuition is not some kind of intellectual theory or a concept in the child’s mind. Rather, it is, as we have said, the “original experience” and the foundational awareness from which the rest of human life is meant to mature and blossom.
This also means that the child is naturally and spontaneously a believer in God. No person is naturally an atheist. Denial of God’s existence is profoundly contrary to nature and the aspirations of the human heart, and is something caused by human brokenness and sin, a rupture where there was meant to be unity, blindness where there was meant to be vision. But in the experience of love and communion, the human heart spontaneously expands to an awareness of God. It expands from an experience of love (small “l”) to a recognition of Love (capital “L”). It is only necessary for the parents of the child to foster this, to protect it, and through their words, their example, and their instruction, to help the child grow up into a conscious, mature, and free relationship with God.
However, as we know, there are many things that militate against this natural development. The world we live in is profoundly broken, and what God has joined together humanity has rent asunder. God created us out of the abundance of his pure love and generosity; he fashioned us to be as a little child in his arms, receiving and reciprocating his smile, his look, his embrace. We are born from the communion of the Trinity’s life, and invited to return at last into the fullness of the Trinity’s perfect embrace. However, from the first sin of Adam and Eve until now, the human heart has tried to tear apart the inseparable union between “You” and “I.” It has refused to be dependent on Another, to receive oneself as a gift from another, to belong to Another in vulnerability and love.
The temptation of the serpent was precisely this, wasn’t it? He tricked Adam and Eve into believing that they were not safe and sheltered in God’s love, that they were not loved and desired for their own sake. He told them that the communion that enfolded them, the all-enveloping embrace of the Father, was constricting them from being their true selves, and that in order to be free and “mature” they needed to rebel and go their own way. They were tempted to create from within themselves what could only come as a gift from the outside.
They were a gift from Another, and simply in accepting this gift they had everything. The Father’s love enfolded and protected them, and as long as they consented to remain rooted in this love, to remain always within this love, they could exist and blossom fully in their own unique personal existence. Here “You” and “I” and “We” would be profoundly united, creating together a beautiful harmony of love and relationship. Each human person would be united to God, the loving Father, as his precious child, and therefore also be able to relate to other human persons in freedom, confidence, and joy. Because all would abide in the bosom of the Father, they would be able to share themselves with one another too, being united profoundly within the intimacy that God’s cradling love makes possible.
But Adam and Eve turned away. They chose the path of isolation rather than the path of communion. They refused to belong to Another. They refused to be vulnerable before the gift of love, and to give themselves in return. Rather, they grasped the gift as their own possession and turned it away from the Giver. They wanted to master it, make it merely their own (even though it was their own, precisely as his gift!), and to bring forth from within themselves the fulfillment of their desires—desires which only unceasing acceptance of God’s free gift can satisfy. And now the whole history of our world, and every human life, is marked by the rupture that this first sin caused, and which is perpetuated in every human sin committed since. Now we see that, corresponding to the “original experience” of enveloping Love, there is an “original rupture” which seeks to cut off the human heart from Love, to close it in upon itself. Rather than expanding on the touch of Love, on being wide-open and vulnerable in trusting acceptance and reciprocal surrender, the heart collapses into narrowness in fear.
Here the ardent and life-giving desire that springs spontaneously from loving encounter—from that shared smile of recognition—is submerged under the fear of being unsafe, unsheltered, and unloved. The human person now begins to live out of fear rather than out of desire. He or she sees life, and the commands of God, no longer as a liberating gift, as a pure expression of Love’s generosity, but as an external burden, heavy to carry. One thinks that one must now “measure up” and attain through one’s own efforts to what was meant only to be a pure gift, received, interiorized, and lived in joyful freedom. Rather than living from Love, within Love, and ever deeper into Love, the person now feels that it is necessary to live toward Love, a Love that is inaccessible and absent. This, of course, is a lie. God’s Love is just as present to us as it has always been; it still envelops us entirely on all sides; it still penetrates every fiber of our being. But we have become closed to its presence, and turned in upon ourselves. The living relationship that was meant to be ours with God has been ruptured by sin, by false independence, by fear.
We see this in the life of the little child, with which we began these reflections. Upon encountering the gaze and the smile of her mother, the child spontaneously smiles back. And as she grows, this smile matures into other forms of expressing love. She begins to want to give kisses. Even later, she wants to help her mother in any way she can. And she wants to play with her mother, and in her mother’s presence. Her confidence and security within all-enveloping love allows her to be carefree, relaxed, and playful. Play, indeed, is the highest expression of human activity, the ultimate “way of being” for which we were created by God. This is because work is a means to an end, a task in service of something else, but play is its own end. It is done for its own sake. Indeed, it is simply the expression of our joyful and trusting acceptance of life, of the gift of love, and the surrender of ourselves to its mystery.
What happens, however, whenever the child experiences neglect or abuse? This is a tragedy. In the seamless fabric of her experience of love there is a tear, an ugly rip. Her original experience of love is now threatened by the original rupture of sin and evil. Even without experiences of severe neglect or abuse, in the life of every one of us this original rupture becomes present. This is not only because our world is broken, and our experience of love and shelter is always in some degree imperfect. It is also because within our own hearts, due to original sin, we bear the original rupture. This rupture is manifested in what the Church calls “concupiscence,” or the disordered desire to close in upon oneself in isolation, in false independence, and to grasp the gift rather than receiving and living it in complete openness.
The whole of our life, we can say, is a matter of healing the original rupture and returning to the original experience—and, as we will see, of surrendering to the Love that we first glimpsed in our original experience, so as to be carried into the “final” consummation of experience in the arms of Love. It is a matter of reopening the closed heart to the openness of love once again—reopening the heart to receive anew the gift of life, the gift of oneself, and the gift of love from another…and ultimately and definitively, from God. When the gift of love is received, it bears within itself the reciprocal gift. In other words, when we truly know ourselves to be loved, we yearn to love in return, to surrender ourselves totally to the one who loves us.
The original rupture has cut off this desire; it has submerged it under a swamp of fear and distrust. But this desire remains present nonetheless, buried under all of own wounds, our sins. Yes, every fear indeed conceals within itself a deeper desire. This is true not only because of our implicit “memory” of our original experience of love and communion in the arms of our mother, but even more fundamentally, because of our “memory” of being created by God out of love. This is, we could say, the “memory prior to every memory.” Each one of us has, as it were, the “fingerprint” of God impressed upon our inmost heart. This is what it means to be created in his image and likeness: that we have been created from the bosom of his own love and communion, and in order to share in this communion. Our very innermost being bears his seal, and this is something we can never erase or destroy. Therefore we long; we yearn; we thirst; we desire. We desire to return into the arms of Love, to experience the understanding, acceptance, shelter, and protection of Another. And we desire to give ourselves to the other in return, generously, totally, and wholeheartedly.
What does all of this mean for our healing, for our passage from rupture to unity, from fear to desire, from isolation to love? First of all, it means that healing cannot come merely from within ourselves, through our own effort. Rather, we must receive the gift of love from another—from other human persons and above all from God. Only in letting ourselves be loved, in welcoming the gift, can our hearts reopen and expand into the joy of love and communion again. But there is something we can do, and it takes courage. First of all, it is simply to be willing to let ourselves be loved. It is to open our hearts to vulnerability again, to heart-to-heart encounter, to sharing the things we want to hide, so that they can be touched and healed by love.
Yes, and within this context we can name our fears, acknowledge what closes our hearts in upon themselves, recognize that barriers we build to protect ourselves—and open these to God and to others who can love us in them and through them. But not only can we acknowledge our fears and interior obstacles, but we can look deeper: to the desire hidden underneath our fear. As we said, every fear conceals a deeper desire. The very fear of being unloved conceals the desire for love. The very fear of vulnerability hides the desire for vulnerability. The very fear of sharing oneself with another conceals precisely the desire to share oneself with someone who will understand, accept, and unconditionally love you in your unique mystery. And the fear of giving oneself away, of belong to another, conceals, mysteriously, the desire to truly become a gift to another, to commit oneself lovingly to another.
This last point brings us back to the dichotomy between fear and desire. We were saying earlier that fear is felt as a heavy external obligation, a burden arbitrarily placed on our shoulders. This is because the awareness of love is lost, and we no longer see our life, and the intentions of another concerning us (and especially the will of God for us), as a loving gift. We therefore spend our life either running away from obligation, or embracing it as a lifeless burden. How do we get beyond this? Part of it is to recognize that obligation is not truly proper to fear, but rather to love, that it finds its meaning and purpose not in fear but in love. In other words, obligation is not meant to be a matter of fear and external necessity, but rather something that awakens from the depths of the loving heart, as a response to the gift of the other. In short, love desires to oblige itself. This is because, in receiving love from another, the heart desires spontaneously to give itself back—totally and forever. Therefore love willingly embraces obligation—and obliges itself to the other. This is clear in the very word obligation (ob-ligo) which means “to bind” oneself. We see this, for example, in the case of love between man and woman. When their love is mature, they want to bind themselves to one another in a lifelong commitment, because they want their union, their self-giving, their intimacy to endure forever and to grow to its full flowering. Also, touched by the beauty and goodness of the other, of the one whom they love, they yearn to bring joy to the other person and to serve with all their heart the full flowering of the other person in happiness, freedom, and joy. This, too, leads to a profound movement of “binding” oneself to another—both in intimacy and in benevolence—which is really simply the handing over of oneself to another.
Do our hearts pull back in fear before such a radical surrender into the hands of another? Surely no human person is capable of receiving such a surrender? This is correct. In truth, no created being is capable of receiving such a gift in its fullness. But when we give ourselves to God in the other, and to the other in God, then our surrender can be absolute, because it rests in God and not in the other alone. Further, it springs from the wellspring of God’s own love and our reciprocal love for God, which encompasses in itself our particular relationship with another human person. But how can we begin to restore our lost confidence in love? How can we begin anew to experience the all-enveloping arms of Love—the shelter, the care, the tenderness, the protection of Love—which alone can awaken and sustain our loving response?
We said that it is necessary to receive love from the outside, to receive the gift of healing through the love of another. But ultimately no human person, however necessary and important they are in our path of healing, and however mature and constant their love is, can fully bring us the love we seek. For we thirst for a Love that is infinite and eternal; a Love that is boundless; a Love that envelops us entirely in itself and penetrates our entire being; a Love that knows everything about us and still cherishes us as sacred and beautiful, that indeed is the very source and safeguard of our beauty, our value, and our unique mystery.
This is where we can at last come full circle in our reflections. We spoke of the original experience of a child in her mother’s arms, and how this is an image of the mystery of the Trinity. It is a glimpse of our ultimate destiny, and an invitation to live from love, within love, and for love—to find ourselves and our happiness within the all-enveloping embrace of love and communion. But this primal experience of being held in the bosom of our mother, in the bosom of love, is fractured in so many ways in this world. How can it be restored, definitively and fully—not by a broken and limited human heart, but by Love himself?
“No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18). Yes, here we have the answer. This verse, after our reflections, jumps out to us with a new and profound meaning. The Son, resting and playing eternally in the bosom of his Father, in the shelter and joy of his Love, comes into our world as a man among us. He is born of a human mother; he grows in human maturity. He experiences, with us and for us, our own original experience, not only in the heart of his divine life in the Trinity, but as an infant in his mother’s arms. He has the same intuition of Love as we do, and yet this is but the transposition of his eternal experience as the beloved Son into a human mind and heart. His being cradled in the arms of his mother is but an expression of his being cradled forever in the arms of his heavenly Father.
By coming to us, Jesus not only experiences our own humanity, our own life experience, but he journeys with us in everything. Further, he loves us in the place where we find ourselves, in the midst of our brokenness, our fear, our sin. And yet he loves us as the One who knows himself to be infinitely loved, rests always in this Love, and speaks and acts only from and within this Love. He loves us as the One who is utterly secure in the love of his Father. “The Father has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him… As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” (Jn 8:29; 15:9). Yes, Jesus loves us as the beloved Son, and so reveals to us that we have been created to be beloved children of the Father, to be sheltered in the cradling arms of his Love. He takes us up, in our fear, into his own loving embrace, and holds us close to his compassionate Heart.
Yes, this movement of his love for us reaches its climax in the mystery of his Cross and Resurrection. From the depths of his own unbreakable intimacy with the Father, and his complete openness in love and trust, he pierces into the narrowness of our fear and isolation, our suffering, our loneliness, our pain—in order to break it open again from the inside. He grants us to experience anew this “original experience” that has been so threatened, so broken, by the rupture of sin and evil. And yet we experience it, this all-enveloping Love, in an infinitely deeper and stronger way than ever before. For now Love has come to us in the very depths of our brokenness, our darkness, our fear, our isolation, and has enveloped us in his embrace. In this way he reopens our heart to welcome his tender and generous gift. He enables us to recognize, by looking into his gaze upon us, the depths of his love for us, and our own unique identity in his eyes. And, touched by this Love, this breathtaking Love revealed in the Heart of Jesus Crucified, we can allow ourselves to surrender, to be taken up by the movement of Love that sweeps us up into its ardent desire.
We can be carried, beyond the barriers of fear, beyond the boundaries of sin, suffering, and death, into the everlasting and unbreakable light and joy of the Resurrection. Here there is only love, only the intimacy of hearts bound together in perfect communion through the vulnerability of their mutual acceptance and self-giving. Yes, the Risen Jesus carries us every day of our lives—if only we allow him to carry us—through the passion of this world into the endless joy of the next. Indeed, he implants the seeds of hope, joy, and freedom—of deep and abiding intimacy—into our hearts and our lives even here and now in this world. He is already close to us, already holding us. And in this closeness, he carries us unceasingly, moment by moment, toward the consummation that awaits us in the new creation. There we will be immersed, with him, in the tender bosom of the Father. We will rest and play, as beloved children within the beloved Son, within the all-enveloping embrace of perfect Love, breathing with the Father and the Son their breath, their Spirit, of endless and eternal joy.