20 December 2007

No Man Is An Island

Thanks to a thoughtful gift from my friend Kadie, I've been slowly chewing on the first chapter of Thomas Merton's No Man Is An Island. The beginning of the chapter has been especially poignant for me this week:
A happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found: for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy.

There is a false and momentary happiness in self-satisfaction, but it always leads to sorrow because it narrows and deadens our spirit. True happiness is found in unselfish love, a love which increases in proportion as it is shared. There is no end to the sharing of love, and, therefore, the potential happiness of such love is without limit. Infinite sharing is the law of God's inner life. He has made the sharing of ourselves the law of our own being, so that it is in loving others that we best love ourselves. In disinterested activity we best fulfill our own capacities to act and to be.

Yet there can never be happiness in compulsion. It is not enough for love to be shared: it must be shared freely. That is to say it must be given, not merely taken. Unselfish love that is poured out upon a selfish object does not bring perfect happiness: not because love requires a return or a reward for loving, but because it rests in the happiness of the beloved. And if the one loved receives love selfishly, the lover is not satisfied. He sees that his love has failed to make the beloved happy. It has not awakened his capacity for unselfish love.

Hence the paradox that unselfish love cannot rest perfectly except in a love that is perfectly reciprocated: because it knows that the only true peace is found in selfless love. Selfless love consents to be loved selflessly for the sake of the beloved. In doing so, it perfects itself.

The gift of love is the gift of the power and capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.
I love this passage of the book, but there's this little skeptical voice that wants me to buck Merton's assertions. Specifically, that voice asks me, "Is such selfless love humanly possible?" Merton is, no doubt, presenting an ideal, but he's presenting it as if it is within reach. Is it? Or, perhaps some of us learn to love in a completely selfless manner - how likely is it for those two persons to meet and love one another so that their love "perfects itself"?* This is an ideal to be lived into, but maybe it is not perfectly achieved until God completes his good work in us (Phil. 1:6).

Merton goes on to nuance his discussion of selfless love: it doesn't just consent to everything the beloved wants. Merton explains that we sometimes fool ourselves into believing that we are selfless when we give in to everything the beloved wants. In truth, we can be enslaving the beloved to ourselves. Also, selfless love desires what is good for the beloved, and that is not always the thing that the beloved wants.

* Note: Merton and I are both referring to all kinds of love, not merely romantic love.

1 comment:

Michael Krahn said...

Keep reading No Man - it is one of his best.

I recently put up a series of posts about Thomas Merton that I think you’d enjoy at: