Just about two years ago, I had occasion to make a monastic retreat that included the gift and privilege of perpetual adoration. The community of Dominican nuns kept constant vigil, one-by-one with our lord, present in the Eucharist, and they invited me to do the same in their public chapel, throughout the night, if I liked.
Those hours of silent contemplation wrought a subtle but lasting change within me; at the time it did not feel subtle. It felt like dynamite applied beneath my soul: kaboom went everything I thought I knew, and I have been processing the experience, and working at restoration, ever since. And this has been difficult because, while words are my work and my play, they have utterly failed my process, and my comprehension.
Or not my comprehension, not really. I know what I comprehended, but it was something of such a different order. Imagine finding something—like a stone—covered with a strange writing that you are instantly, in a flash, able to understand. But you cannot translate it for anyone else because, although you know the message, there is no language on earth by which it may be conveyed.
You fall back on one word, “love,” but that word is wholly insufficient—using it is like trying to describe a deluge when the only word at your disposal is “damp.”
The love—it was blinding, mesmerizing, all-encompassing, warm, delightful—I still don’t have the words. One night I wrote to a friend, “I still have a long way to go before I can articulate what I learned there, in the amazing, tender presence of Him.”
Him. It was while I was on retreat, prostrate before the lord in the Blessed Sacrament, awash in that otherworldly presence, that I very naturally addressed him as “Your Majesty.”
Teresa of Avila often used the phrase and I admit to having always found it a bit excessive or prosy-pious (which is odd, because Teresa could never be called that). I had always wondered about it. Now, suddenly, I knew. I had had a glimpse of what it was to be in the presence of the eternal majesty, and it took away all of my resistance, all of my words. I surrendered, gave it all, understood the illusion that I had anything to give, and the paradox therein: that God never takes away a gift given, but accepts the surrender of everything, by gifting even more.
Teresa remarks that some—by the mercies and pleasure of the Lord alone—manage to learn in an hour what takes others a lifetime. she makes a rueful acceptance of the fact that some of those she taught and counseled understood in weeks what she did not know after 20 years of prayer, and then Teresa helplessly, adoringly, praises God for doing his own will.
I remembered Teresa’s observation when I read the story of filmwriter Joe Esterhas’ dramatic conversion experience. After treatment for throat cancer his struggles with lifelong addictions to nicotine and liquor brought him to a public collapse, “in the gutter” where he found himself begging God’s mercy. This wrecked man, who had “made fun of God and those who loved God” found himself made whole in unexpected ways; relieved of his addiction, his cancer-wracked body became healed even of the scars of its disease. He became, almost literally, a new man.
“His love is so strong” the new man said, “that it was even able to open my rusty old closed heart.”
“His love is so strong . . .”
It makes all things new. It creates and recreates, it permeates, it builds and renews.
His love is so strong that it breaks through all of our barriers—the physical ones (how many women do you know who have gotten pregnant even while using birth control?) and the cultural and religious ones, and even the intellectual ones.
Those intellectual and religious barriers may well be the most fortified and resolute because they are hoed with pride (which is evil’s handiest tool) and then fed on hurt and fear (evil’s fruitful gardens).
“His love is so strong . . . ” I read it and my eyes grow moist. Yes. I know it. His love radiated down from what my human eyes perceived to be a piece of bread, what my heart and spirit knew to be so much more, and for a brief time it bathed me in the warmest, most caressing light, and everything became different. Nothing is what it was.
In the light, the shadows and illusions fall away and you stand in the only reality, the completeness, the all-in-all. There is nothing else.
How does one assist at adoration and not feel inclined to bash all anger, all fear, all frustration, temptation, hopelessness, upon the cross of Christ—which can bear all things—and simply consent; simply allow him to recreate, revive, restore to make everything, everything, new.
His majesty will do it; He will not wait to discuss all the ways you have failed him—there is time for that, an eternity for that, later. If you allow him to, if you let him in, he will change you, and bathe you in his immense tenderness. If you are laying in a gutter, like Eszterhas, you can call on him, trusting in the words of Isaiah 38:17: “ . . . you have saved me from the pit of destruction, when you cast behind your back, all of my sins.”
It is beyond all of our knowing, which is why—no matter how tempted we are in our increasingly polarized church to stand with the Pharisees—we cannot. We must, ultimately err on the side of mercy, because mercy is what we all seek, and leave justice to the One who may be trusted to know what that is.
I hate my humanness, which keeps me so earth-bound, so hide-bound to my stubborn judgments, my weaknesses, my sins. I love my humanness, because it forces me to trust his majesty, and all of his ways, which are all-good. I will stumble. Every day I will stumble. Every day I will need forgiveness. Every day, I will understand my need to surrender because I am so helpless, so useless. Every day I will need pardon. Every day, will be the same day, as He is the same, even though everything is different. Especially because everything is different.
“His love is so strong . . .”
As evidenced by all of this blather, I have nothing to add to those five words.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
A Note from Retreat
Erring on the side of Mercy
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.