Love and the Divine
Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted Podcast. This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity, and purpose.
I’m your host, Catherine Cowell.
This episode is just me, and we’re thinking about something which is really at the centre of Christian spirituality, so if that’s not your bag, then you might want to give this one a miss. What it is that I would like to think about is this idea of Divine Love. Of both being loved by the Divine and loving the Divine. That thing which is absolutely central to the idea of Christianity is this concept that we have a relationship with God. A relationship of love. The idea of loving God and being loved by God is something which is spoken about a lot. But I don’t think we often realise what that actually looks like in practice.
There’s a couple of things that have made me want to talk about this, it’s something that I have been thinking about and pondering for some while. I spend quite a bit of time as a spiritual director talking to people about their prayer life, their relationship with God, and a fairly common kind of thing is “I would like my relationship with God to be better, to be deeper, to be more intimate.” There is an element of that which is absolutely right – of course we want to grow in our relationship with God.
But the thing which makes me pause is when people are having that desire out of a really natural sense of comparing what is going on for them with what they see going on for other people. Quite often what happens is that somebody is wanting intimacy, and they’ve heard other people speak about their experiences of prayer where there was intimacy in a way that they haven’t experienced themselves. Maybe somebody wants an experience that is something different to the one they are actually having. There is an element of that which is really healthy, that desire to grow, to become more intimate, but actually there can be an element of thinking “the grass is greener, this person really seems to be close to God, and I’m not, and I really wish I was, and I must be inadequate because my relationship with God isn’t like that.” What’s interesting to me is that there are elements of relationship with God that whatever it is somebody has a lot of, they can be looking over their shoulder and thinking “they seem, when they talk about their prayer life, they seem to have things that I don’t. I’ve only got this going on, and they seem to have all these other things going on.” And in thinking about that and in listening to people, it has occurred to me that when you look at the bible that there are lots and lots of different ways in which God describes Godself. Lots of different metaphors are used. So Jesus speaks about being a friend, a brother, He speaks of God as Father. There’s lot’s in the bible which gives us a picture of God as Mother. There’s a huge range of different images. Jesus has analogies where God is like a Shepherd, or like a Housewife, seeking something precious, or there’s that beautiful parable of the Running Father, responding to the prodigal son who has come home. Lots and lots of different metaphors and ideas. That makes me think that our relationship with God can potentially have lots of different aspects to it. It can be expressed in lots of different ways. My purpose here really is just to reflect on some of those things, using the analogy of human relationships, in order to do a couple of things. One is to help you to notice where you do have intimacy with the Divine. What are the aspects of relating to the Divine which you have really grown in? So helping you to see where it is that your relationship naturally gravitates towards, and maybe you’ll be able to think “oh yes, I’ve had a little bit of an experience of that thing, maybe I would like to lean into that a bit more”, and also to think about the way that our relationship with God can ebb and flow and change and develop over a lifetime. So one way of looking at it would be to think about a really good marriage. It’s not the only way of looking at it, but to think about the different elements that you might have with somebody who is a life partner. That love relationship where you’re sharing life with someone and you’re doing all sorts of different things. That will have different aspects to it. If that’s not a helpful analogy to you, it might be helpful to think about a range of different relationships and to think about the fact that actually your relationship with the Divine might be like any of these over different periods of time. If you want to deepen your relationship, it’s great to start by understanding and noticing what that relationship actually is like for you. One of the things that I’m hoping is that as we go through this, hopefully you will be less likely to worry that your relationship isn’t like other people’s.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s just a snapshot of a few different ways in which we tend to relate to the Divine. It may be that you would describe your relationship differently to any of these things. Your communication might be entirely different, but what I’m hoping if that’s the case is that this will have got you thinking, it will have got the mental juices flowing. You can think, “ah, yeah, yeah, yeah, actually I can think it’s not like any of these things, but it is like … that. ok.”
I’m going to start with something that can easily be undervalued, and that is the sense of a working relationship. Of being in partnership with the Divine on an everyday basis. When I was thinking about this, I was reminded, just a moment that happened in the context of listening to a sermon. It was a sermon on a fairly common passage in the bible. There is a little vignette of a conversation between Jesus and a couple of sisters called Martha and Mary. You’re probably familiar with this. It is frequently used to beat people around the head for not being more contemplative. And quiet, and calm, and reflective in their relationship with God. So in this scene, Jesus is at home with some friends. Lazarus – yes, that Lazarus, the one that Jesus rose from the dead, and his sisters Mary & Martha. He is teaching His closest followers, and Mary is amongst them, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening. Meanwhile Martha is in the kitchen working hard, probably preparing food. She thinks that Mary ought to be helping. There are a couple of reasons why she might think that. One is that Mary is taking the place of a disciple and is listening to Jesus, and it may be that Martha thought that as a woman, she shouldn’t be doing that, she should be helping her out in the kitchen. We don’t know what was in Martha’s mind. Or it might simply be that she was a bit frustrated. But anyway, she thinks Mary ought to be helping, and she asks Jesus to tell her off, basically. She says “Tell her to come and help me.” Jesus’ response is to tell Martha “You are worried about many things. Mary has chosen the better thing, and it won’t be taken from her.” The reason I say this is often used to beat people around the head, is that it is often taken to mean that the most spiritual thing to do is to sit at Jesus’ feet in adoration. If you are rushing around ‘doing stuff for God’, then that is ‘less spiritual’. So I was listening to a sermon about that, and I was about to disappear down a guilt rabbit-hole of thinking “oh no, I should be spending more time sitting at Jesus’ feet” – metaphorically – “and listening, I don’t do that, I don’t seem to be able to be quiet, and I’m obviously too busy”. And then suddenly I had a picture in my mind of me and Jesus making sandwiches together. I used to facilitate something called church without walls; we were a really open space for people to come on a Sunday afternoon, it was in the middle of the city, and people could come, whoever they were, from wherever, to meet together. Because quite a lot of the people who came didn’t have anywhere permanent to live and didn’t have ready and regular access to food, a really important part of what we did was that we made sandwiches for people. As I was facilitating most Sunday afternoons at that time, I would go to the co-op down the road from me, where they would be selling off their posh bread on a Sunday afternoon. I would buy really nice bread and things relatively cheaply so I could make really nice sandwiches for people. Quite often I would spend as long making the cake that I was going to take with me, as I would spend planning what I was going to talk about. That element of hospitality felt really important to me. It was deeply precious that the picture that God gave me as I was listening to this sermon, about to go into a moment of guilt, was the picture of me and Jesus standing at the kitchen counter of the building that Church Without Walls met in, making sandwiches for the people who were going to come. In that moment really what was heightened for me was my awareness of the companionship of Jesus in my work for Sunday gatherings. There was a lot of love, actually, that went into choosing the nice bread and making the victoria sponge. I remember the big joy I felt when somebody who was living on the streets came with a packet of bread rolls for us to share with other people. I thought “this is somebody who’s moved from being a recipient of a service, to somebody who’s being part of a community, because he’s come and he’s brought something, and he’s brought it with pride.” There was a real sense of connection with God in that moment. So our work for God, our working in the world, we might not even consciously be thinking “I am working for God”, but if you remember that thing when Jesus is asked by His followers, “well, when did we see you? When did we help you?” And He says, “every time you gave a glass of water to somebody who was thirsty, you were giving it to Me.” So there is a dual love thing going on there, I think. Both of working with Jesus to love the people Jesus loves, and serving Jesus in the people who we meet and we serve and we give ourselves for. There’s that dual thing going on.
Quite a number of years ago I worked in the health service, and again I was doing it because it I thought it was where I was meant to be, and I used to get in early sometimes, if I was there first, and pray for the department. I’d walk through the building and pray. I wasn’t particularly aware of loving feelings, but there was a real sense of “I’m doing something which is about serving God in this place.” So I would say that a working relationship might include talking to God about your work, there might be a sense of companionship during your work, or hearing from God about what it is that you’re doing, so there might be insights that you get. There might be moments when you’re working with people and you just sense that God’s Spirit is working through you. I believe that is an aspect of love. If you think about the loving relationships you have with people, some of those definitely will involve doing things together, working together, producing things together, and there’s a deep sense of companionship and love that comes along with that. There are those moments of flow, actually, when that becomes quite mystical, quite spiritual, you get a real sense of moving into a slightly ‘other’ space because what you’re doing is just flowing through you so naturally. I do believe that in those moments, there is a real love connection between us and the Divine.
So the next thing that I want to talk about in terms of ways that we can express a relationship of love with God, is intellectual conversation. This may not be your thing at all, you may think “oh, for goodness sake!” But actually learning together, or understanding things together, or having a really deep and meaningful conversation, can be part of deep friendship. It can be part of a relationship of love, and I have definitely experienced that in my relationship with God. So a fairly typical pattern for me would be that I read something or hear something, and I ponder it, I think about it, and as I am doing that consciously in a prayer space, there are new insights or ideas that come. It’s like somebody’s given me a bunch of flowers and I can take it with me and I might come back to it and look at it and think about it. In that moment there is a real sense of connection, just as there is when I’m speaking with friends and sharing ideas and insights. Just as there is with my fiance when we’re having a really deep and meaningful conversation, there’s a real sense of love in that. I think it’s beautiful. And earlier in my Christian life, that was very, very core to my relationship with God. Because the other things which we’re going to talk about later kind of weren’t there nearly so prominently. I used to think “I wish I could feel loving in the way that some of my friends do, and I kind of don’t.” But that intellectual conversational element of intimacy was there from the get-go. That may be something that you have, and I would say, do not devalue that. Do not undersell that in terms of understanding how you connect with the Divine in love.
Then for some of us, there is a real sense of intimacy, of intimate friendship, in the way that there might be, and I’m thinking particularly amongst female friends, although not necessarily just amongst female friends. When you’re having a good conversation with somebody and you’re maybe talking about people you’re both concerned about and thinking about them and thinking about the everyday things that happen in your life, what colour you’ll paint your walls, what kind of things you’ll plant in the front garden, all those natural nitty-gritty bits of how life happens. For many people, simply inviting the Divine into those moments, and being aware of God in those moments, is just part of how it is. So just… chatting… about the stuff that’s going on in the day. Talking about what’s on your heart. It’s sort of a safe space to be yourself, hopefully.
And then intercession. Intercession is when we’re praying about people, and praying about things. You can almost see that as gossipping with God and sharing your concerns about the work that you’re doing or about the people that you love, and the things that you would like to see for them. In a friendship with somebody, there is something very profound that happens when we are honestly sharing what we’re concerned about and what we care about. I think we get that in intercessory prayer and praying for other people. I know people for whom it is really very intimate, that that kind of praying for others and that sense of the kind of world that the Divine is wanting to bring into existence through you and you’re praying some of that out, you’re simply sharing your love of other people. So that intimate friendship, often there is a sense of companionship. You may have a sense of the closeness of the Divine as you go for a walk. Or you admire the natural world around you, You noticed things that remind you of God. There was a moment a few years ago now, a really profound moment and I’d gone for a walk and was consciously wanting to go for a walk with the Divine, so inviting God into that space, and I was feeding some ducks. Suddenly the place I was in felt transformed. It felt like I was experiencing something of the peace that there was. There’s a poem by Wendall Barry when he talks about going into nature when he needs to connect with a piece of the universe. I just had a real sense of God’s intimate relationship with nature and the fact that the ducks I was looking at were content. The ducks aren’t always content, sometimes they’re quite contentious, but there was a real sense of peace about the whole thing. Just a little pond on a council estate down the road from me and it was beautiful. Real kind of companionship. I know people who use companionship imagery in the context of their prayer. So it might be that you imagine sitting on a hill and you imagine looking at the scene with Jesus, or you imagine sitting at a picnic table with Jesus, with the Divine, so there’s that sense of companionship, you’re noticing things that remind you of God as you go about your day. Not particularly working together, just kind of hanging out. That might be something you are drawn to and that happens quite naturally for you.
And then there is that relationship of deep love and affection. Often I think we get to that in the context of sung worship. Not everyone does, but it’s a context where people do get to that deep love and affection point. There is a criticism that is hurled at modern worship songs that express love in this way, they’re pejoratively referred to as the “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. Whilst that might not be the only thing we ever want to sing, I don’t think it’s a fair criticism, actually. I think I would like to stand up for the “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs on the grounds that they can help to release in us a sense of affection and love which is easier to express when you’re singing than when you’re not. And in that context it can sometimes be that we’re able to have a sense of receiving that back from God. Not everybody gets there, but if you do, then enjoy it, it’s great. And if you don’t, that’s fine too. But I think let’s not criticise people who do find that they connect deeply with God in those moments. And like any love song, they don’t always make sense. If you take apart a lot of the songs that are sung in those guitar-y led worship sessions, there is still in the context of singing in the way that helps us to connect with our emotions. Often that is a way that people really connect with God. Sometimes that love and affection is expressed in other ways too. It may be that you simply speak to God in a way that is full of heartfelt affection.
Maybe that you draw things and paint things. Another way of looking at God would be a creative partnership. So there are people who engage in artwork and stuff, and it may be that art and craft and song and writing and things are things that you do, and in the context of that creative activity, you have a real sense of the Divine. Again that connection with the Divine is a connection of love. In fact one of the things I would say in the context of all of this is that any connection with the Divine is a love connection, it can’t be other, because God is love, and within us is that presence of God that connects with the God of love. Our souls are designed for that level of relationship. So it really doesn’t matter how you do it, there will still be within that a connection of love.
Then there is something which is referred to, technically, as love-mysticism. So something of the sensual and the erotic. And as we talk about this, you might find it weird and odd and unsettling and bizarre. If it’s not part of your experience that’s absolutely fine, but the reason I want to talk about it is that it may be that it is part of your experience, and actually having somebody name it and talk about it could be really really helpful, which is why I’m going to do it. Because actually if it is something you’ve experienced, you may also find it a bit weird and odd and bizarre and if nobody’s ever talked about it it can be a little bit unsettling if it’s something you do find yourself drawn to or find yourself experiencing. But it is perfectly normal. So I was reminded of thinking about this by a conversation I had with a couple of other Christian women and we were talking about prayer and a longing for deeper intimacy. One of these women – we’ll call her Jane, and we’ll call the other one Karen – Jane said “I really long for a deeper sense of intimacy, I want more intimacy with Jesus, more intimacy”, says Jane. “Yeah, that’d be great” Karen says. “You mean like sitting around the kitchen table at home having a cup of tea?” And Jane says “oh, no, no, no, I mean like being on a desert island and making love on the beach”. And among other things we are sexual, sensual beings. It might make sense that within the context of our relationship with God, this is something we experience. So I’m just going to read something, this is a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, it’s called An Altar In The World. She’s talking about encountering God in everyday life; I highly recommend it. But she describes this really well. She says this:
One of the most remarkable conversations I have ever had about the physics of Divine love took place in a far country, where a male colleague and I were involved in a month-long service project. We were done with our work for the day. We were enjoying a good dinner over a bottle of equally good wine. After 2 glasses of it, the conversation turned to our physical attraction. Not for each other, but for God. Sometimes, he said, when he was preaching a sermon he really cared about, he grew so aware of God’s presence that he became physically aroused. He rose too God’s presence as to the presence of the Beloved. He said the spiritual intimacy flowed straight through to his sense of physical intimacy. They were not 2, but 1. He was not 2, but 1. He and God were not 2, but 1. Inspired by his divine audacity, I allowed as how I had experienced the same thing myself, although with different physical equipment. Sometimes when I was praying, my body could not tell the difference between that and making love. Every cell in my body rose to the occasion, so that I felt the prayer lift my breasts and warm my belly, lifting every hair on my body in full alert. Body and soul were not 2, but 1. I was not 2, but 1. God and I were not 2, but 1.
So the reason this kind of connection with God is sometimes referred to as love-mysticism is because it was very much a part of the writings and the experiences of quite a lot of the mystics and the saints of the middle ages. People like Theresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen and John of the Cross wrote about these things and wrote about these kind of sensual erotic experiences connection with their prayer life with the Divine. So that again is a natural part of the way that we connect with God and it’s, as I say, not something that everybody experiences, but it can be quite unnerving if you think that it’s something that you experience and that nobody else does. And I can tell you that other people…do.
So in summary we’ve looked at a number of different ways in which our connection with God, with the Divine, that love-connection might occur. Exactly how that happens for you will be the product of a variety of different things. It will be partly to do with your personality. If you are somebody who is more intellectual than you are emotional, it’s likely that intellectual conversation will be a bigger part of your love relationship with the Divine than it might be for somebody for whom that just isn’t something that particularly bothers them. There is also something about the length of relationship that you’ve had with the Divine. Consciously had. So if you have been engaging in spiritual practices and wanting to develop a relationship with the Divine over many years, then that allows space for things to grow and different things to grow. So there was a Christian conference that I used to go to called Spring Harvest and they used to divide their morning sessions into different streams, so you could go along to different things, if you wanted something that was intellectual they did a think-y intellectual stream, if you wanted something a bit more spirituality based you could go to one of those, if you wanted something that felt more like watching morning tv there was one that would do that. The first few times I went to Spring Harvest I definitely wanted to go to the intellectual think-y ones, and I found that really fulfilling. Then there was a gap of a number of years and then I went back. The first morning I went along to the same seminar I had done before and suddenly that thing which had previously gripped my attention, I looked around the room and I just thought “this is not the right place for me. This feels so dry”. So I went and found the spirituality stream. There was much more heart affection, contemplation with God kind of related things, and that was feeding my soul much more on that occasion, I felt it much easier to connect with God in that than I had in the more intellectual one. But that’s a shift that I’d seen over a number of years. Part of that shift is, I think, about becoming more and more comfortable, and feeling more and more safe with the Divine. So it may be that the things that you feel safe to connect with God are maybe things which are more related to what you’re doing, more practical. It may be that you find intellectual conversation easier to connect with. It may be that the more intimate companionship chilling out stuff is much harder for you, because you’re not yet at a point where you’re ready to let your defences down to the extent that those things are easier to enter into. I think that’s ok, because our relationships will grow at the pace that they’re meant to. Your relationship with the Divine will grow with you as you grow. There’s no harm in spending some time
if you feel like there are things that are getting in the way of that or reasons why you feel scared to draw close to God, then absolutely talk to the Divine about that, bring those things into God’s presence, chat to Jesus about them, whatever imagery helps you. That’s ok. And I think if you do that, you can allow things to develop at the pace that is right for you. If we’ve had experiences in early life that tell us that people and relationships are not safe, then it is absolutely no surprise that engaging in a relationship with the Creator of the Universe might be a bit threatening. Yes, if you found your teachers at school and your Mum and your big brother threatening, then it really isn’t a surprise then it really isn’t a surprise that you might find letting your defences down to God really quite difficult to do. And that’s ok, because as healing comes and as time goes by, if you sort off dip your toe in the water, it’s likely to become easier.
So there we go. I hope that that gives you some insight and some helpful thoughts about what a love relationship with the Divine might look like. It may be that as you listen to this, you had a real sense of yearning for something I was talking about that you haven’t experienced. Or for more of that. I would say there’s no harm in asking God for that and beginning to experiment. But don’t rush yourself, and don’t feel bad if things don’t happen as you would like them to. We can’t force these things to happen, we can only put ourselves in the position where they might. So you can take some time out and have an experiment with some things. And it may be that you want some spiritual direction and that that’s something you want to explore. There’s a little bit of information about that on my website, which is lovedcalledgifted.com. You might want to have a little bit of a look. But the other thing I would say is that quite possibly as I’ve talked about these things, you might possibly be saying “oh, I can really see how this thing is part of my love relationship with the Divine and I hadn’t really seen it as that.” So what I would say is that if you notice that, then enjoy it! Notice that element of love connection that occurs, even with those things that don’t on the surface sound like they are, like working together and working companionship and those sorts of things.
So I hope that’s been helpful. And one last thing to say, if any of the episodes that you’ve listened to, if you’ve got comments or thoughts or feedback, or thoughts that you would like to share, then that would be great to hear from you. You can get hold of us at email@example.com
Thank you for listening.
Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org You can find a transcript of this podcast at lovedcalledgifted.com and that’s also the place to go if you’re interested in the Loved Called Gifted course or if you’d like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching.
Thank you for listening.