While studying theology here in Madrid I occasionally shout down the hall and a fellow community member patiently comes to help me sort out the intricacies of the Spanish language. On one recent occasion, when help arrived, I smiled and said, “I’m trying to translate this question: How can I be a better lover?” The look on his face was somewhere between confused and Is there something you need to tell me? I suppose this isn’t exactly a question Jesuits are used to asking, let alone translating. “It’s for our community night,” I said. His state of confusion did not immediately improve.
“Are you sure this is what you want to say? ‘Como puedo ser un mejor amante?‘” His concern was that amante (lover) is a word reserved exclusively for adulterous affairs. I thought, but did not say out loud, ‘Yes, actually. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I want to say.’
“What is it like to be you?” and “How can you be a better lover?” These questions bracket the movements of the Spiritual Exercises which begin in honest self-scrutiny – particularly in our places of disorder and unfreedom – and end in absolute self-donation, in offering ourselves completely in a life of love and service. This is the goal of our spirituality: to love and to serve. Sometimes Jesuits get caught up in their work and focus only on the service part, even collapsing love into an adverbial ‘loving service’, but Ignatius says, “In everything, to love and to serve.” I think he wants us to be lovers.
Jack Dullea, SJ, was eighty when I met him. He lived with us in the novitiate as the self-proclaimed “geezer in residence.” During our first year he had his hips replaced. Returning from the hospital he proudly reported that his surgeon had told him that he had the bones of a bull elephant. He needed help every morning (as any bull elephant would) pulling his compression socks on over his gnarled feet, but even in this, Jack was without a doubt one of the most flexible people I’ve ever met. Intelligent and humble. Honest and joyful. Simple in his appreciation of the gift of this life and the goodness of this world, and yet, without a touch of naivete about its many complications. Jack was a lover of this Jesuit life and he inspired us to be the same.
I remember one homily in particular. We were about to set out on yet another short term mission – a key part of our two-year novitiate, our Constitutions call them ‘experiments.’ Jack sat in his wrinkled vestments and his orthopedic shoes with his cane at the ready and, as gracefully as one can speak, he said, “There can be a temptation in our life to live as aloof bachelors, but we are called, as everyone, to be faithful lovers. We are called to be lovers.”
Jack was encouraging us, in our years of ‘experimentation,’ not to become emotionally detached men who merely skimmed across the surface of the many places we visited without care or affection for the people we met along the way.
Jack died about a year ago. It’s been almost seven years since he delivered that homily. And yet, unlike most homilies, I can still hear his voice and see the sly grin on his face as he delivered that wonderful line — We are called to be lovers. I’ve yet to let go of his words and I have no intention of doing so.
How can I be a better lover? Is this question such a scandal? I understand that it’s rhetorically provocative. The problem is that we’ve allowed the title ‘lover’ to be used exclusively for sexual intimacy and doing so we’ve narrowed our understanding of what it means to be one. The phrase ‘to be a better lover’ has been co-opted by the pseudo-sex-industry and appears with regularity on magazine covers with promises of 50-new-mind-blowing-tricks or in Buzzfeed listicles comparing love-making styles to states of the union. When I pose this question in a spiritual context I’m trying, intentionally, to reappropriate the language, to let us be lovers in a more comprehensive and meaningful way.
For example, I consider myself now a lover of Spanish. I don’t speak it well. I struggle to understand it. It’s a mystery basically all of the time. But I enjoy listening to it. I admire those who speak it. And I spend a lot of time trying to get to know it. It feels very much like my other experiences of love. It’s a wonderful struggle. I fill my mouth with words I don’t yet fully understand and the feel of them there is satisfying. I wait for the moment when they will fall in love with me, revealing to me not only their rhyme but their reason as well. I’m learning a language and it feels very much like love-making. Sometimes awkward, always mysterious. I am, in no uncertain terms, a lover of Spanish, a passionate amateur.
There are far more than fifty ways to please a lover because love shows itself in a million ways and, if we’re doing it right, we make love more often at the dinner table than in the bedroom. We are all called to be faithful lovers. To know this, to believe it, would be enough.
These days love is very much in the news and yet we’re so confused that we can’t seem to affirm it without either conflict or further confusion. For Christians love ought to be familiar, recognizable in merciful acceptance and total self-gift. Dorothy Day said it well and simply: Love is the measure. She was speaking of the foolishness of love in a time of war. But the Gospel principle she proclaims is true in all things. Self-giving love is the measure by which we judge all things, including sexuality, and yet, all too often we view love through the lens of sex rather than the other way around.
We should not fear to ask ourselves how we can be better lovers — lovers of the stranger, of the homosexual, of the prisoner, of the poor, lovers of the natural world and all who live in it. In each instance we can begin by asking the first of the two questions I mentioned above: What is it like to be you? We can learn about humanity from other humans – no matter their creed or culture, their age or orientation – by asking this question, and by truly listening to the answer, we will enrich our own.
And more. Because of the great gift of the incarnation and the mysterious work of the Spirit we can learn something about God when we turn to one another and ask, What is it like to be you? And we can learn to be more like God when, upon hearing the response, we turn to ourselves and ask, How can I better love this person who has revealed something of humanity to me?
Cover image: Corazon Bloqueado by José Manuel Ríos Valiente via Flickr.