Listen with Your Heart : Seeking the Sacred in Romantic Love
By Eileen Flanagan
When Sarah met Ned thirty-two years ago, she felt he was an answer to her prayers. Thirty-seven-year-old Sarah had spent the summer praying for direction in her life, since she was between jobs and needed to make some important decisions. She wanted to marry and have a child, but she felt open to whatever God had in store for her. When Sarah met Ned near the end of the summer, they quickly agreed to marry. Sarah, who was Canadian, easily found a teaching job in the American city where Ned lived despite her lack of U.S. teaching credentials. Ned worked on finalizing the divorce from his first marriage, which had effectively ended in separation seven years earlier. Although Ned's first wife was vengeful and wanted to make divorce difficult for him, the final divorce decree was signed only seventeen days after the hearing. "It was a record," says Sarah. As potential obstacles to their union miraculously cleared, Sarah felt reassured that her marriage to Ned was "given the go ahead by the powers that be."
Both Sarah and Ned were members of the Bahai faith, which emphasizes the essential unity of all religions. Sarah recalls, "Definitely we had laid ourselves open to God's will, and I thought, 'Well, it is for my benefit that this is being done.' But I found out it wasn't." Although Ned's ex-wife had previously demanded custody of their three sons, she suddenly abandoned the boys, leaving Ned and Sarah to raise them. Ned's youngest son was openly hostile to Sarah, believing she was the reason he had lost his mother. The workload and complexity of relationships increased when Sarah gave birth to a daughter, and Sarah remembers many difficult years as the youngest children were growing up. Today, after thirty-two years of marriage, Sarah has a good relationship with all the children, "But it was a long, long, very hard struggle. I think the lesson I got out of it was that yes, you do God's will, but that doesn't mean it's easy. There were parts of the plan I would never have dreamt of or thought to do for myself." She explains seriously, "It isn't as though, if you're doing God's will, it's just all going to be done for you. Something is required of one."
Even when circumstances are not as difficult as Sarah's, marriage still requires something of us. At the very least it requires us to nurture someone else's life and growth along with our own. Seeking the choices that honor God, self, and others expands our capacity to love, but this stretching is sometimes painful. Sarah was given her dream of marriage and motherhood, but she gave at least as much as she received. As she points out, there were many parts of the plan she would never have imagined for herself, a reminder that even marriages made in heaven must be lived on earth. Letting God surprise us means opening ourselves to challenges as well as blessings.
As Michael pointed out in the last chapter, discernment does not create blessings. It is not a way to manipulate God, a new technique for getting what we want. Discernment is simply a way of opening ourselves to the blessings meant for us. By learning to recognize the unloving impulses within us, as well as the social pressures that fuel our anxiety, we become more likely to hear the deep, true voice within us. Listening to this voice will not help us to acquire love; it will help us be guided by the source of love. Whether we feel led to marriage or to some other way of life, discernment can continue to guide us on our journey.
Although a loving partnership can help us grow spiritually and psychologically, I have argued that we need not wait for a partner to begin this growth. In fact, the search for romantic love itself can be a powerful agent for self-discovery and transformation. Waiting for a relationship to evolve can teach us trust and patience. Listening to a lover's discernment, even when it conflicts with our own, can help us appreciate the mystery of another. And realizing that we cannot make romantic love happen can help us realize the limits of human control, prompting us to seek divine assistance and guidance. When we see the search for romantic love as an opportunity for growth in and of itself, any partnership we develop will be fundamentally different from one born of guerrilla dating tactics or psychological strategies.
The approach to loving presented in this book stands in sharp contrast to the consumer view of love. Instead of seeking the way of life that will give us the most, we search for the path where we can love most fully. Instead of fearing scarcity, we trust in abundance. Instead of putting a partner at the center of our lives, we put God there. This last point is perhaps the most radical. As Thomas Moore writes at the end of Soul Mates, "Relationship to the divine, hardly discussed in these days of personalism and secularism, satisfies the soul in ways that no substitute can touch. We may well be preoccupied with the theme of interpersonal relationship precisely because we are stuck in a shallow pool of love, unable to arrive at the mystic's view in which the divine is the only satisfying lover, the only true soul mate."
The promise "seek and you will find"-used as a section heading in Searching for Courtship - originally referred to this infinite, divine love. Yet even a shallow pool can remind us of the boundless depth and motivate us to search for it. The quest for human love, and the living of romantic relationships, can be part of this spiritual search or act as a substitute, depending on our attitude and awareness. Most of us will have moments where we grasp at love, forgetting that love cannot be possessed. If we are aware of them, these moments can strip the false self and help us to grow as a lover. By leading us through our own depth to the other side of self, even the follies and failures of human love can lead us to the fountainhead, the source of all real loving.