All that lives is sustained in circulations and exchanges of energy. The trees feed on light and carbon dioxide, the sap levels rise and fall according to the season, they produce and filter the oxygen that we breath. We breathe in and the oxygen circulates within our blood, feeding the brain that controls the integrated systems of our physiologies. We breathe out and the trees ingest our offering. Unless, we are practicing some form of control and meditation, no two breathes are the same, no circulation of oxygen within us is the same. Even the planets are caught up in the pull and draw of solar energy and gravitational fields. If our sun was to die, the planets would slowly be dragged centre-wards and their rotations slow down.
Love too sustains life through its circulations. The love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is a continuous outpouring from one to the other, ever self-giving and gratuitous; ever returning, replenishing and refreshing its creative spring deep within the Father’s hiddenness. And all creation is an external expression of that love. It wasn’t demanded to that there be a creation, but Trinitarian love, out of its sheer access and inner delight, pours its creativity into everything we see around us, including ourselves. So when we hear Jesus the Jewish scriptures in our Gospel reading from Matthew - “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with the all strength - that is not a demand made upon us. Although often referred to as a ‘command’, even by Jesus, it is in fact a testimony to what is the case and our future: we shall all love the Lord our God in this way. We will all do so because it is in the circulation of that divine love that creation is sustained, suspended in grace. In the seventeenth century, when Milton came to describe creation’s relation to God, in Paradise Lost, he pictures it as “This pendent world”, held “fast by hanging in a golden chain”. It is ‘in’ the golden chain, yet ‘pendent’ and ‘hanging’ in “the empyreal heaven, extended wide / In circuit.” Creation is both suspended and wrapped in that golden chain, in that circuit. The image is close to a maternal image of a foetus, suspended in and yet enveloped by the womb, nurtured, nourished, fed by the utter gratuitousness of divine love.
The words Jesus recites to the lawyer from among the Pharisees constitute the great Shema prayer of the Jewish liturgy. Said both in the morning and the evening, it is often seen as the very centre of Judaism. The word ‘shema’ comes from the Hebrew verb to listen, to heed, to hear, to obey, to accept. The words of the prayer are to resonate within the one who is praying. Jesus and his disciples would have said this prayer twice a day and every day. If Jesus adds “love your neighbour as yourself”, that is not really in addition to the Shema, it is what is means to abide in the circulations of divine love and to allow that resonance of that demand and future promise to permeate the whole of one’s being and the being of the community. You cannot abide in the circulations of divine love without loving one’s neighbour as oneself. For, as I said, the excessiveness and generativity of this love spills over into every creative gesture we make towards each other and towards ourselves.
Of course, here is where the circulations get blocked. We are human, finite creatures, riddled with fears about our security and well-being. Fears that sometimes turn us predatory. Human pathogens get into the divine blood stream of that love. Threatened, we hit out, we resent, we become embittered and these dispositions get passed on in our behaviours towards the neighbour and towards ourselves. These pathogens can take many forms: in a desire to be in control we wish to dominate and or take advantage of our neighbour; in the turn towards being defensive and fearful, we fail to love who we are, properly and in a balanced way. These are extremes, many other forms of distorted desires lie in between. Spiritual formation in Christ, salvation if you like, lies in allowing the love of God to change our lives. Brought back into the circulations of that love, we begin a lifelong transformation in which those blockages, and all their roots in pasts we might barely remember, are dissolved. The pathogens are broken down and we receive, in the words of Scripture, hearts of flesh. Nothing can counter that love even the death, absence or loss of a loved one.
In my experience, there is one obstacle that is both key and yet persistently blocks participation in the circulations of God’s love: our inability to truly believe that God loves us. Loving our neighbour, like loving ourselves, can come and go, find focus or lose it. Our love of God may often seem similar. Even a saint like Augustine could ask himself “What is it I love when I love my God?” Because, for all its intimacy, our loving of God transcends any erotic emotions or romantic filigree. It’s hard to pin down. But holding on to God’s love for us is sometimes exceptionally difficult: to accept and receive all things as the expression of that endless overflowing and creative love is a hard ask. We are confronted by violences and circumstances that are difficult to comprehend in terms of God loving us. But it is exactly here that the Shema bears strong witness: we shall love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our mind and with all our strength. The circulations of God’s love are eternal. They do not depend upon my ability to respond. They do not depend on how cold or lukewarm I feel towards God. With respect to God, we don’t always grasp what it is we are feeling anyway. Much goes on at levels beneath the bright lights of consciousness. Nothing depends on me beyond my openness to receiving; and in that openness lies all the wisdom and mystery of what human freedom is about.
Having travelled through the domains of the inferno and purgatorio, first following his love of poetry (symbolised in Virgil leading the way), Dante arrives in paradise. He is met by his great earthly love, the now deceased Beatrice. But as he moves through the delights of paradise, with her now leading, she too withdraws, and as Dante advances, invoking the Virgin Mary to be his guide, he comes to the summit of all human illumination, a great “light”, the source of all things, in which:
one circle seemed reflected by the second,
as rainbow is by rainbow, and the third
seemed fire breathed equally by those two circles.
He is defeated in trying to grasp or describe this light and yet discovers, as all of us will discover when we come to live the circulations of God’s love,
my desire and will were moved already —
like a wheel revolving uniformly — by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.