There was a period in my marriage when I expected to feel romance and passion all the time—uninterrupted.
If ecstatic feelings were not present, I feared something was going wrong with our relationship. I should want her all the time; she should want me all the time. Or so I thought.
This need to feel our love at all times went beyond my adolescent response to the cauldron of hormones inside.
My belief was post-adolescent. It was religious. I was convinced. If love does not come from inside, it is not real, I thought. And many religious people see their relationship with God in the same way. I know I did. Until my relationship with my spouse and my relationship with God went deeper.
Religious experience is like falling in love. At first—through the sheer experience of living—God woos us, closer and closer. We sense God’s scent; we hear the music coming to us in life’s joys and sorrows; we catch a glimpse of a love that is behind our ordinary lives—and we ultimately fall in love with the Lover.
And once we taste this sweet love of God, we don’t want to ever fall out of it. Medieval poet John Donne expressed our desire to always feel ravished by God in this way: “Take me to You, imprison me. / For I, except You enthrall me, never shall be free / Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.”
For many Christians, intentions and purity of heart rather than “doing religion”
have been considered the truest expression of religious experience. Faith is the inner reality and works are the outer reality. Our outer religious behaviour is nothing but an expression of our inner devotion to God, we are told.
Inner first, outer second.
But it is interesting to hear the Bible speak of the ecstasy of religious experience, not only in terms of the passionate feelings described in the Bible’s Song of Songs but in terms of obeying God’s law. In Exodus 24:7, Moses records the devotion of God’s people expressing their path to knowing God: “We shall do, then we shall understand” (my paraphrase). While in the Western world we say, “Think before you act,” for the Hebrews’ understanding came from doing. A number of times, people came to Jesus seeking to find understanding, devotion and a relationship with God—inner aspects of faith—and Jesus would say over and over again, “Go and do . . .”
In Between God and Man: An Introduction to Judaism, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes of this Hebrew understanding of religion: “To us [Jews], the basic problem is neither what is the right action nor what is the right intention. The basic problem is: what is right living? And life is indivisible.
The inner sphere is never isolated from outward activities. Deed and thought are bound into one. All a person thinks and feels enters everything he does, and all he does is involved in everything he thinks and feels.”
Heschel goes on to say that we are like artists working with the medium of the life God has given us. Is it the artist’s inner vision that brings about a beautiful sculpture?
Or is it their wrestling with the stone that produces beauty? Living is like a work of art, the product of the vision of life and wrestling with doing life.
Religious laws have been in disrepute in recent decades and, at times, for good reason. Religious people can use rules to escape the proof of life. When we see someone sticking to instructions, single-mindedly focused on directions and practices, disregarding the context and resources around them, we say that person “follows the rules religiously.”
But what if we conceive of law as a way to make an art piece out of life? What if rules are tools to do so? Laws were given to the Hebrews on the way out of Egypt; not in order to enslave them again but as a way of liberation—to enhance and seal their freedom.
In his psalms, David calls the law of God “most precious gold” and “sweet like honey, like honey from the comb,”
comparing it to the most valuable element known to humankind and the best sweetener of life known to people of his time (see Psalm 19). David yearns for law, cherishes law, wants to fill his pockets with the gold of the law and fill his mouth with the sweetness of it.
Similarly, Job says this law is “deeper than the underworld, …broader than the earth and wider than the sea” (Job 11:8, 9, NLT). So why were Job, Moses, David and Jesus, along with the apostles Paul, John and James, so in love with doing? Because law—or right action—is the way love works.
And love is the way the universe is structured.
Doing changes us.
Through “meditating about the law of God day and night,” as David puts in Psalm 1, we are not merely rehearsing the commandments to preserve religion.
Instead, we preserve and honour life with commandments. By following our religious paths, we are in a constant process of discovering how to make a beautiful sculpture of our life; exploring how love works in the circumstance of our lives, the “piece of stone” we have been given.
Law is the way we partner with God in loving this world. Heschel writes: “There is no dichotomy between the happiness of man and designs of God.
…God shares man’s joy, if man is open to God’s concern.” Our religion is a librarian and a custodian of these ways of love. What works? What doesn’t? It is there in Scripture, recorded by our spiritual predecessors for us to consider, learn, embrace, criticise and try, with every generation charged to find ways to love better.
As time went on in my marriage, I realised it is the mundane, ordinary, repetitive tasks that can be turned into the fuel of our romance and ecstasy. It is doing laundry, cleaning the house, washing dishes, nights without sleep because of our sick child or an argument we must resolve, worry over finances, times of limited communication because of 12 or 16 hours of work per day now and then, worry about our parents, serving our neighbours, participating in the parent–teacher association at our child’s school, and serving jury duty, and by squeezing that tube of toothpaste the “right” way. Without these, candles would burn out, flowers would lose their scent and holding hands would fail to lead us to experiences of greater intimacy.
So it is with God. The furnace of ecstasy is fuelled by doing.