Word of warning for the spiritually squeamish, I’m about to mention God. I have no religious intentions, but I believe in a power greater than me and I call it God. My experience of love in this story, however, is universal, so please substitute any word that speaks to you.
Where’s God’s Love in the Anger?
“Where do you see God’s love in all this anger?” I had just told my spiritual director about my recent volcanic eruptions.
“Okay. But what about while you were yelling, swearing, and kicking cars?”
“God’s not there. If God loves me when I’m behaving like that, then I’ll never change.”
“Is it possible that your ability or need to change your behavior is separate from whether or not God loves you?”
We had been talking about God loving me at my worst for a couple months now. So far, I had barely been able to tap into feeling like God loved me even at my best. In theory, I believed God loved me in some capacity. I had always prayed and believed that God acted in my life. And yet, when asked to explain my image of God or how I experienced God’s love, I had a hard time pinpointing it.
Feeling God’s Presence
Moments of profound peace hit when I walked in the the woods, surrounded by trees, the breeze whispering through leaves, and the creek gurgling as it swept by and over the rocks.
And when the cool air caressed my cheek while the rays of the sun warmed my face I stood still. In those moments I felt reassured that no matter what else was happening, someone was looking out for me.
I experienced moments of feeling connected to something greater than me when I went to Christmas Mass at the majestic Basilica in Minneapolis, absorbing the resplendent singing of the choir ricocheting off the walls and ceiling, basking in the scent of frankincense, and reveling in the beauty of the stained glass windows and the altar decorated with pine trees, white poinsettias, and tall white candles.
I also had moments of joy that I associated with feeling surrounded by love playing music with friends.
In all these moments my body felt heavy and rooted to the ground, yet also light, as if I could float away. My body warmed as my thoughts turned to gratitude for the many, many blessings in my life.
But I didn’t feel loved just walking down the street, and I most certainly didn’t feel it when I was behaving badly. Funny how my inability to believe in God’s love mirrored my own inability to accept and love myself.
A Child’s Temper Tantrum
As we talked, I thought of my six-year old nephew. A week earlier I had taken away the tablet he had been watching a show on, after he refused to turn down the volume. I returned it, but in the interim the battery died and he thought I had shut it off intentionally. He screamed and cried for several minutes, “Auntie! You did that on purpose! You don’t want me to watch my show! It’s not fair!”
It would be easy to look at his behavior as a temper tantrum and want to scold him. But that wasn’t my experience. I saw his frustration and sense of injustice swirling through his body and recognized that he didn’t know what to do with those strong feelings. The love and compassion I felt for him compelled me to comfort and help him. But he was so caught up in his feelings that he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, let me.
I had to watch until his emotions wound down. Only then could we figure out what happened. It never occurred to me to be angry or remove my love from him because he wasn’t behaving the way I would have liked. Rather, I wanted to help him learn to manage those strong feelings so they didn’t keep him from achieving what he really wanted (and to get him to bed).
The deep love I felt for my nephew had no basis in his actions in that moment. I could only see him as good and I hoped he saw himself that way. My love didn’t mean that I could always fix his problems and it didn’t mean I would always like his behavior, but I couldn’t imagine ever not loving him and wanting the best for him.
Maybe I Can Love and Be Loved But Can I Receive It?
As I spoke about the incident, it struck me that perhaps God’s love is like my love for my nephew, She just loves me. That love doesn’t protect me from the consequences of my actions. But perhaps, like I experienced with my nephew, God is wanting to comfort and help me and I’m not letting her because I don’t believe it’s there. And taking it further, if God can love me that deeply, why can’t I?
Understanding the possibility of being loved, even in the midst of what I perceived as bad behavior, was revolutionary. But it didn’t answer for me what it would feel like to receive that love or help me to know what it would look like as I go about my life. I had more lessons in store, however, that I’ll talk about next week.
Originally published at nosaintjennifer.com on February 6, 2019.