To honor the memory of my mother, Helen Joan Rizzo, this Mother’s Day, I am posting one of the many essays she wrote…this one was printed in the Catholic Review.
THE MYSTERY OF LOVE
All through our lives, our greatest need – our greatest hunger – our greatest pain – is our desire for love. Not the natural, definable emotion we are most familiar with – like that of children for parents, married people for spouses, lovers for beloveds or devoted fans for their heroes, but the soul’s mute ache for, recognition of, communication with, and response from someone who speaks our soul-language.
The human spirit wanders through life for the most part lost and alone. We are essentially aliens in an alien world. Our routine relationships with others provide little more than superficial contact on a material plane. Even our most intimate alliances with relatives and friends fail most often to meet the depth of sharing we yearn for.
A great hunger for a deeper love haunts us all our lives. On rare occasions, a kindred soul or a sublime intellectual or cultural experience or a deep spiritual insight (and, oddly, even sometimes the acceptance of unavoidable suffering) may sound a chord within us which we somehow sense as familiar in a transcendental way. While it may bring brief enrichment, we soon realize that the feeling is gone and we are lost and alone and hungry again.
The ability of families and friendships and marriages to endure is not because perfect love is discovered, but rather because the imperfection of human love is instinctively recognized, accepted and accommodated.
Our human vulnerability is often exposed by the strength of even imperfect love. This can be illustrated by our stoical ability to maintain composure under truly heroic circumstances as long as we are not undone by love. During periods of mourning, for instance, we can bear grim, unrelenting grief for long stretches, but only let a compassionate loved one appear newly on the scene and our stoicism dissolves in a poignant outburst of tears and love for the deceased. During illnesses, we can present an enviable bravado even while enduring severe pain. But in the open-armed presence of one who knows and loves us in spite of our weaknesses, our bravado diminishes and we become childlike again in our need to be held and comforted. However, we sense somehow that we cannot long expect this sort of comfort – that sooner or later we must face our pain or sorrow alone.
The striving for but always failing to achieve the strange, inexpressible yearning within us has long saddened humanity and particularly intrigued philosophers and poets. Keats, in his “Ode to a Nightingale,” described the agony of the world’s inadequacy: “Here where men sit and hear each other groan;…Where but to think is to be full of sorrow and leaden-eyed despairs.” Francis Thompson, in his “Hound of Heaven,” said “And now my heart is as a broken fount…Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever…From the dank thoughts that shiver…Upon the sighful branches of my mind.”
Still there seems to be embedded in the human spirit a strange magnetic phenomenon so profound that when or if something stirs the elusive memory, it hits us with such a shattering force that we can never forget the experience but we cannot reproduce it at will.
C.S. Lewis, in his book “Surprised by Joy,” described his first such experience by noting that for him “the memory…suddenly arose as if from a depth not of years but of centuries.” It was, he said, “a sensation of desire, but desire for what?” Before he could know that he desired, it was gone. “It had taken,” he wrote, “only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant by comparison.”
Perhaps it is that when we are born, we come trailing a dim recollection of God’s eternal love, and He lets it remain deep within us. Then, suddenly, when we are searching silently for we know not what, it stirs again as a reminder that He, who knit us together, is the source of all love and truth and beauty. Further, while our desire for perfect love is never satisfied in this life, He does give us the wondrously comforting recognition that those dearest to us are actually individual facets of His own immense love, just as we all are.
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen once said, “Love is a messenger from God saying that every human affection and every ecstasy of love is a spark from the great flame of love which is God.”
And from this, we can slowly come to perceive that what we are really enamored of is God Himself! We realize that He is the architect of the greatest geniuses of all time, and of the humblest saints – all that we find so appealing in our most cherished beloveds and most admired heroes is but a tiny glimmer of the supreme appeal of their Maker – and that He is the embodiment of all the loveable things we love in others.
The happiest ending to any love story, then, is the deepening mutual closeness of two people to the Source of all love – a closeness the world cannot match. The profoundest, truest fulfillment of all our human attachments can only be found in God, the hub of the wheel of eternal love.