Light and Life – May-June 2019, Vol 72, No 3 – A Publication of the Western Dominican Province
[Br. John Winkowitsch, OP was born and raised in Cut Bank, MT. A convert to the Catholic faith, Br. John was baptized during his freshman year at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA. After earning his B.A. in Liberal Arts, he began graduate philosophy studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Upon completion of a Ph.D. in 2016, he promptly joined the Western Dominican Province and has lived happily ever after.]
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” (Redemptor Hominis §10)
What is Intimacy?
The 40th anniversary of Redemptor Hominis, Pope St. John Paul the Great’s first encyclical, was celebrated on March 4th, 2019. I want to begin this reflection on the nature of love and intimacy with the above quotation because it helps us see not only the importance of love, but also provides a guide for how to grow in love so that we are able to “participate intimately in it.” Without love, we are lost. In such a void, the first experience that draws us towards intimacy is a revelation of love. That revelation is then encountered, which gives us our first opportunity to experience love. We must nevertheless actively receive that love to make it our own, and then, once we have our own ability to love, we are able to love in return and thus participate in loving intimacy.
The process of growth in love, from first revelation to intimately participating, is the work of an entire lifetime and the ultimate vocation of every human being. Whether you are single, religious, married, or in Holy Orders, your vocation is to love, and to love intimately. St. Catherine of Siena, the great Dominican mystic, expressed this same truth in her Dialogue, albeit with a gardener’s touch: “All of you are trees of love: You cannot live without love because I made you for love.” St. Catherine wisely recognizes that, like trees, we grow in love. We grow in love with other people and with God. However, grace builds on nature, so first we will look at how we naturally grow in love and intimacy with other people.
Intimacy with Others: Friendship
I would like to suggest three practical ways of growing in intimacy with other people in your life. Whether you are married or single, a priest or a nun, these three important activities are vital to living your vocation well and loving your neighbor, as Jesus taught us.
First, we must spend time communicating with other people. In today’s world, we have many ways to communicate. Unfortunately, social media, texting, and email tend to leave us feeling empty inside. Why is this? I think part of the problem is that we are failing to communicate on all the nonverbal levels, and thus much of our communication is emotionally and spiritually empty. To grow in intimacy in our relationships with our loved ones, no matter if we’re celibate or married, we need to communicate fully and make choices that give us the opportunity to do so. Invite friends over for a dinner party. Start a book club to discuss ideas with friends, or a writing club to discuss stories with friends. Make the effort to always eat dinner around the table with others. Set aside time to discuss your day with people, such as a lunch break or a drink after work. All these suggestions will provide opportunities to communicate naturally and fully so that we can develop a fulfilling intimacy with others.
Second, we must spend time doing things with other people. As counterintuitive as it may sound, working side-by-side with someone on a common project or task draws you together in a way that simply communicating cannot. There is a bond of trust that develops when you work with someone on the same task, play with each other as teammates in a sports league, or help each other out in a remodeling project. Whereas communicating leads to an intimacy of ideas and feelings, doing things with friends leads to an intimacy of wills.
Third, we must spend time just being with another to grow in intimacy. One wise priest I know would commonly give the same advice to couples who were having difficulties in their marriage: take a daily walk together. Sure, conversation would arise naturally, but even if no words were said, the simple act of just being together on a walk would draw the couple closer together. If you can sit comfortably in silence with another person, that is a sure sign of intimacy in the relationship.
Connection: Grace Builds on Nature
One of the most beautiful truths found in the Catholic faith is that grace builds on nature. Thus, as we strive for intimacy in our natural human relationships by the three ways listed above, we are growing in natural virtue and our capacity to receive the grace necessary to grow in intimacy with our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to love God and our neighbor. We cannot focus entirely on our relationship with God while ignoring our neighbor and expect to grow closer to Christ. Rather, by growing in intimacy with our friends, family, and loved ones in our daily lives, we are also building a natural foundation upon which the grace of supernatural charity can be built. But what exactly is charity?
Intimacy with the Lord: Charity
At the very heart of the Summa Theologiae, question 256 of the 512 questions that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, he asks, “What is Charity?” At this exact midpoint of the Angelic Doctor’s most famous theological work, he explains that the supernatural virtue of charity we all strive for as Christians can be understood as an intimate friendship with God. Thankfully, because we know that grace builds on nature, we can also identify three ways of growing in intimacy with the Lord that mirror the three ways discussed above that allow us to grow in intimacy with other people.
First, just as we should spend time communicating with other people, so also must we spend time praying to the Lord if we desire to grow in intimacy with Him. In Fr. Romano Guardini’s classic book, The Art of Praying, he informs us in the introduction that “anyone who takes his relationship to God seriously soon sees that prayer is not merely an expression of the inner life which will prevail on its own, but is also a service to be performed in faith and obedience. Thus, it must be willed and practiced.” True intimacy is faithful in both good times and bad times. If we only prayed when we felt like it, our communication would be just as superficial as our temporary feelings. Rather, we must make a habit of prayer, such that we spend time talking with our Lord not only when things are great (or a disaster!), but also during the normal, boring, and everyday events of our lives. Intimacy with our Lord is found in regular, consistent prayer. He wants to be part of our everyday lives.
Second, just as we should spend time doing things with other people, so we should also spend time doing things with God by striving to conform our wills to His. While communicating with others allows us to share our thoughts and feelings with them, doing things with others allows us to share our wills with each other. It is the same in our relationship with Jesus. One of the fruits of regular, intimate conversation with our Lord in prayer is an awareness of His will for our lives. Of course, it is important to remember that communication is a two-way street, so we must spend as much time listening as speaking in our prayer with the Lord. If we listen well, we will recognize His will, thus giving us opportunities for doing things with Him.
Third, just as we should simply spend time being with other people, so we should also simply spend time being with our Lord Jesus in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Fr. Norris Clarke relates an adorable story in his article, “The Creative Imagination.” He asked a group of grade school children to explain what they do when they pray. One girl answered, “When I pray, I make like a flower before God.” Although not everyone will relate to this image, it is nevertheless very effective at expressing the importance of spending time just being in the presence of God in adoration. The intimacy borne of adoration is not a knowledge of thoughts or feelings, nor even a union of wills, but rather an intimacy that reaches to the very essence of ourselves: our very being.
Conclusion: We were Made for Intimacy
Intimacy is the fruit of growing in our vocation to love. The foundation of this process is God’s love for us, out of which we were created. As Jesus says to St. Catherine of Siena in her Dialogue, “I created you without your help, without your ever asking me, because I loved you before you even existed, but I will not save you without your help.” The “help” here that Jesus is talking about is cooperating with His grace to make His love our own. Once we see that we are loved by God, we can participate ever more intimately in our relationships with other people and with Jesus Himself. As St. Catherine says about the human soul: “she loves every person with the same love she sees herself loved with.” Once we recognize the love Jesus has for us, both in creating us and laying down his life in love on the cross to save us, we can return that love to others.
However, as we continue to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) by striving to love God and neighbor, we must always remember to have patience, “the queen who reigns over all the virtues because she is the heart of love” according to St. Catherine. We must be patient with ourselves and others in the wake of our many failures. We live in a fallen world where everyone is learning to grow in love and intimacy. Our patience in bearing with our own failings and the faults of others is a good yardstick by which we can measure how far we have grown in our vocation to love intimately. As Jesus says in Dialogue with St. Catherine, “patience is a sure sign that the soul loves me perfectly and without self-interest.” So, trust in the love of Jesus, strive to love intimately, and always be patient my friends!
He shepherded them with a pure heart; with skilled hands he guided them.