Friday, August 23, 2013

The Stairs to Perfect Love

St. Catherine of Siena is one of thirty-three Doctors of the Church. She lived in 14th century Italy, and although her writing is quite prolific, she died at the young age of 33 and couldn't write without a secretary transcribing her words until her last three years. I have been reading her book, The Dialogue, for at least 6 years. It's quite dense, so a few pages at a time is all I can digest. Every time I pick it up, though, it speaks to me - seemingly as if I'm being given advice about my current situation.

One part of her dialogue with God that keeps coming back to me is the idea of climbing stairs out of a river to reach perfect love of God. I wanted to summarize the analogy so others could read a slimmed down version (and so I could have my own Cliff Notes!).

God explains to St. Catherine that there is a river of selfishness and pleasure which has three stairs leading out of it up to the bridge that is Christ's teaching.

To climb the stairs...
  1. You have to be thirsty for God's love. If you don't have enough perseverance to overcome suffering and adversity, you'll turn back and won't make it to the ultimate goal.
  2. You can't do it alone. God is present when two or more are gathered together. There's a lot to be said about the support of a community, not to mention that you can't show love if you have no one to show it to. Love of neighbor is intimately linked with love of God.

The River... This is where sinners are suffering and chasing sensual pleasures, but not turning to virtue or considering their future - punishment or purpose. Eventually, if they don't climb out, they will drown in their selfishness.

The First Stair... Once they realize there may be punishment for their actions, they decide to change their ways. This is born out of fear of suffering, and is described as imperfect or "mercenary" love. It's still selfish, but there is some thought to consequences.

The Second Stair... Once they get a taste for virtue, they start to follow because of their love of virtue instead of fear of punishment. This is a more perfect love, described as the love of a "faithful servant". They begin to love God and neighbor and to keep commandments. It's still selfish, as they are focused on delighting in their own profit because of virtue. The way you know it's still imperfect love is to see what they do when they are troubled by adversity - do they keep up their commitment or waiver because they aren't getting the reward for their goodness? A specific example is Peter's denial - when the going got tough, he ran away. That's not to say he was a bad disciple; he just wasn't there yet.

The Third Stair... Through perseverance and growing in self-knowledge, they can grow to perfect love. This love is described as "filial", where they have become more than friends to God but children of God, showing love free of selfish interest. There is a unity with God, where they strive for his will, aligning their own with it completely. They don't just follow the commandments but also understand its wider context and live according to the spirit of the law. No matter what adversity may come, they do not waiver from their steadfast love of God and neighbor. They treat all with love to reflect their love for God, not expecting anything in return and not growing weary or agitated when others do not act in kind. The example of this type of love was when the disciples emerged from the upper room after the Holy Spirit descended upon them; they went out, fearlessly proclaiming Christ's resurrection and glorifying in their suffering for their faith.

The Bridge... At the top of the third stair is the bridge that is Christ's teaching. This is more an extension of the third stair, as the two go hand-in-hand. A perfect union with God brings about a unity with the Word.

Each time I think back to this analogy, I try to determine where I am along the journey and what is holding me back from reaching the next stair. What keeps you from advancing toward God's love?

Sioux Falls, SD

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