January 16, 2019

Love Is the Key





To love another is something
like prayer and it can’t be planned, you just fall
into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief.



~ Anne Sexton, “Admonitions to a Special Person” (1974), from Last Poems


Not so long ago, a couple of years back on a typical gloomy Milan day, I had a pretty interesting talk with a Benedictine monk—an old friend and a very inspiring man—on the nature and practice of prayer.

A scholar of both Western and Eastern philosophies, religions and meditative practices, he explained me that prayer, in order to be genuine and of any real value, must fulfill three conditions: Beauty, Goodness, and Love. Beauty is what the apostle calls (1 Peter 3:3-4) a gentle and quiet spirit: “It is not fancy hair, gold jewelry, or fine clothes that should make you beautiful. No, your beauty should come from within you—the beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. This beauty will never disappear, and it is worth very much to God.”

Goodness is virtue and holiness in action. In Paul’s words (Galatians 5:22-23) is a “fruit of the Spirit”—“fruit,” here, means “beneficial results,” the good things that come from the Spirit’s indwelling. In other words, goodness is a moral characteristic of a Spirit-filled person.

The first in Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit is Love. “Prayer does not depend upon words,” my Benedictine friend said, “love is the foundation of all prayer because God Himself is love.”

Beauty, Goodness, and above all, LOVE—these are what prayer is all about. Selfless prayers, filled with compassion for all creation, are beautiful and enlightening. They are made out of the essence itself of Beauty. But, as we learn from Plato’s Symposium, Beauty is the object of every Love’s yearning, and a life gazing upon and pursuing this Beauty is the best life one can lead...

The memory of that conversation, or, still better, of the theology lesson I received from the monk, came back to my mind a few days ago when I stumbled across the above-quoted verses from Anne Sexton’s beautiful poem entitled “Admonitions to a Special Person.”

The poet’s comparison between love and prayer is not only evocative and even moving in an understated way, but also philosophically and theologically correct. The same, to some extent, goes for the “falling into the arms” of prayer because of the victory of belief over disbelief.

As far as I can tell, the idea of love/prayer embraced by the poet includes—or should include—love in all its declensions, from profane love to sacred, from erotic/carnal love to spiritual/esoteric love, from love for other human beings to love for things and places. Of course, there is something Dantesque about this, something reminiscent of “the love that moves the sun and the other stars,” as Dante put it to define God in the last verse of the Divine Comedy. The stars, the planets, the universe as a whole are not governed by a blind force. In all and above all there is the Spirit of God.

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