We saw in the previous reflection that Ryken hoped his followers would have the “privilege of following both the lives of Martha and Mary.” This means that they would be individuals who are prayerful and apostolic at the same time – well-integrated “common persons” who are totally present before God and the world. In so doing, they become the authentic contemplatives that Ruusbroec envisioned: “No one can be a common person unless he is a contemplative.” Only a person who is present before God in this integrated manner can truly fall in love with Him and do His bidding.
When we passionately love someone, we are completely present before the object of our affections – keen to be undistracted by any other concerns. “Falling in love” is not the way we usually describe how we are before God, perhaps because we relate to Him in other ways – as a dedicated child, a dutiful servant, a fearful subject, etc. In the Middle Dutch mysticism, however, true devotion to God is characterized by an intense desire, delight, and affection for Him: “A heart full of godly affections and goodly desire was the goal of the Devout’s way of life.”
Falling in love is an experience that involves the totality of one’s spirit, soul, and body. In a scene from Of Gods and Men, a film which recounts the lives of seven Trappist monks in Algeria who were killed by Muslim extremists in 1996, a Muslim girl asks one of the monks how she would know if she had fallen in love. Brother Luc replied: “There’s something inside you that comes alive, the presence of someone. It’s irrepressible and makes your heart beat faster. It’s an attraction, a desire.” The girl followed up by asking Brother Luc if he had ever experienced such sensations. He answered: “Yes, several times. And then I encountered another Love, even greater. And I answered that Love.”
What Brother Luc described is perhaps what Brother Ryken himself experienced when “he fell in love” after he “turned towards God.” How long did this process take for Ryken? We don’t know. But what we can safely say is that once he fell in love with God, Ryken strove hard to persevere in focusing primarily on Him. Consumed by that love, the Founder sought to realize whatever God had in store for him. In so doing, he gave birth to our religious family, despite insurmountable odds and his own human failings.
A reading from our Xaverian tradition
I led a worldly life from the age of fourteen or fifteen until the age of nineteen when, after powerfully being put in my place, I turned toward God, fell in love, and put myself in His service. I became strongly inclined to works of penance and to prayer and avoided the company of worldly companions. Thanks to the reading of good books which slowly and gradually came into my hands, I finally felt an inclination to a solitary, penitential, and contemplative life.
[From the Autobiography written by Theodore James Ryken, ca. 1871]
A reading from the Middle Dutch Mystical tradition
The wise soul, who loves in a prudent and honest manner and who wants to engage in courtship with God, even if she has no resources of her own, first practices a loving gaze between her and God. After this, like Mary Magdalene, she lovingly converses with him while kissing his two feet, which represents the grace of his mercy and the perception of truth. Hereupon a loving activity ensues, with loving deeds, when kissing both hands of the risen Jesus – this will make the soul worthy of, and in a position to request and to receive, the kiss of God’s mouth.
[From “The Kiss of the Mouth” by Willem Jordaens: introduction, no. 2]
Points of Reflection
1. Recall Brother Luc’s description of someone who has fallen in love: “There’s something inside you that comes alive, the presence of someone. It’s irrepressible and makes your heart beat faster. It’s an attraction, a desire.” Have I ever felt this way with God? Can I recall moments when I had such sensations in my own spiritual journey?
2. Only a person who is present before God in a well-integrated manner can truly fall in love with Him and do His bidding. What prevents me from being present before God as a whole person? What presently consumes so much of my attention, making it difficult for me to give to God the entirety of my spirit, soul, and body?