Gerald May on his book The Awakened Heart
The Awakened Heart is my seventh book, and it was the most difficult one to write, because it is all about love. For years, I had felt an inner prompting to write a book about love, but I had resisted the invitation; I had as many problems with love and being loving as anyone else, and I did not feel I could even say what love really is. After all, who does understand love?
In the summer of 1990, I was attempting to complete the final revisions on a book about Practicing the Presence of God. I had based the book on the teachings of Brother Lawrence, the 16th century Carmelite monk who practiced awareness of God during every moment of his life. Brother Lawrence was a simple man; all he wanted was to love God consciously as he went about his daily business, and I thought my book would be simple and easy to write.
But something strange happened. I was trying to be very prayerful and mindful as I wrote. I wanted to be aware -- if not of God directly, then at least of my own desire for God -- in the writing, and I wanted to be really receptive to any guidance or desire that God might have in my work.
As I was revising the manuscript, a whole new body of material came flowing out onto the pages. And it was all about love. For a long time I had no idea how all this love-stuff would fit into the book I thought I was writing, and it caused me great distress. I had a deadline at the end of the summer, and I knew I was not going to be able to meet it.
I could have stifled the new material and forced the book to meet the deadline, but to do so I would have had to harden my heart, end my prayerfulness, take it all into my own hands. I chose to hang in there with the process and risk that my publisher would think I was being lazy or irresponsible.
The book took an extra six months to finish, and when it was completed it contained both the suggestions about practicing the presence of God and the new treatise on love. The Awakened Heart is a book about practicing the presence of love.
My struggle about giving up meeting the deadline is an example of the larger life struggles I talk about in the book. One of the most profound struggles we face in our culture today is between efficiency and love. Efficiency is how we cope with our daily tasks, how we get our jobs done, how we manage our relationships and handle our feelings and adjust to the stresses we encounter. Efficiency has to do with how we function.
In contrast, love has to do with our deepest desires, what we are functioning for, what brings real meaning to our lives, real nourishment for our hearts. Efficiency is the how of life; Love is the why. We all know people who are very efficient but not very loving. We also know people who are very loving but not very efficient.
God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament are unequivocal about love being the most important thing in life -- love is where we come from and where we are meant to be heading. Love is the one thing necessary; we are here on this earth for the sole purpose of furthering and deepening love: for God and for one another. What are the two great commandments? That we love God with our whole being and our neighbors as our very selves. Such a thing may seem impossible -- and it surely is without grace, but there is no equivocation in it. There is no compromise. The eighteenth century poet William Blake said it well in these words: "And we are put on earth a little space, that we might learn to bear the beams of love."
The scriptures keep saying in countless other ways that our functioning should be determined by our deeper passion for love; our efficiency should be in the service of love. But our culture, for generations, for millennia in fact, has reversed these priorities.
We worship efficiency. It is how we measure ourselves and one another: what kind of grades we get in school, how productive we are on the job, how effective we are in maintaining relationships and raising children. We have spoken of children as products of their home environments. We have even come to speak of troubled families as dysfunctional families -- not unloving, not lacking in tenderness or warmth, but dysfunctional.
I have four children, grown now. I sometimes want to cry when I think how I communicated to them that I valued their performance more than their simple being. Sure, I told them I loved them no matter what, but too much of the time what they saw was my joy or disappointment in their performance. I could rationalize it by saying I was preparing them for getting along in the world, because the world will judge them on their function. But our world is wrong to idolize function and efficiency as it does. What my own efficiency-worship with my kids did was to help them adapt to an efficiency-worshipping world.
The message of the prophets of the Old Testament, and the Gospel message of Christianity, have nothing whatsoever to do with adaptation or adjustment to the world. It's true in the deep heart of every major religion: the message is not about adaptation but about challenge. The spiritual heart, grounded and loving in love, is a radical challenge that must go against the idolatry of function. It must risk being inefficient sometimes in the cause of love. It must risk vulnerability for love and to love. It is, as the apostle Paul said, "Foolishness" in the eyes of the world.
That's where The Awakened Heart begins. It goes on to speak of the many faces of love, the distinctions between love and dependency and co-dependency, the pains and fears and joys of really trying to live a loving life, and some practical suggestions about living lovingly in one's own life, at home, in the workplace, and in the world at large.
But it keeps coming back to the basic challenge of love and efficiency: where is your true
treasure? What is the one thing necessary for your heart? It is here, in your own heart, that you may find the courage and empowerment to choose love over efficiency in the real situations of your life -- and I tell you courage and empowerment are essential, for although love and efficiency can come together in a beautiful harmony, this can happen only with radical, painful changes in the systems of our society. Industry, Education, Politics, even most of Religion have adapted to the worship of efficiency. But those systems are made up of human beings: you and me. It is we who are challenged to put love first.
I would continue with a word about the book's title. The phrase The Awakened Heart is taken from Chapter 5, Verse 2, of The Song of Songs. "I sleep, but my heart is awake." In the fourth century of the common era, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a commentary about that verse. What he said should give hope to us all. What he said was that even though our minds may be caught up in the sleep of habit and adjustment and worry and dullness, even in sin, our hearts -- our deepest spiritual hearts -- are awake to God. No matter what our heads may be doing, our hearts are desiring love: to love, to be loved, to be in love. The real challenge of the spiritual life, as I see it, is for our minds to wake up to what our hearts have been crying out for all along. Brother Lawrence echoed it beautifully: "People would be very surprised," he said, "If they knew what their hearts said to God sometimes."
Interview with Gerald May Interviewed by David Hardin
David Hardin: Gerald, you talk about the conflict between efficiency and love. Thoreau once said, "I don't have time to be in a hurry." Some of the most successful people I know, especially the men, the CEO's say, "I have things I have to do." Their families are angry. Are they missing the boat or do we need people like that around to make the world happen?
Gerald May: I guess the question is, "How well does the world really need to happen for our quality of life to be good and what really brings a good quality of life?"
I think we have demonstrated in our very developed society that the quality of life is not accomplished by constant productivity and constant achievement. People like those you mention are often trapped in a mill of having to produce, being rewarded by that, their standard of living rising and then having to keep that continuing and continuing. It is a treadmill. It is a trap for people and they can't drop it and get out.
Hardin: When Archbishop Weakland was on this program, he said that if you take Jesus
seriously, you can be outrageously happy, you can be quite fearless, but expect to be under attack, expect to be in trouble. I guess there is some of that. We don't want to trust the journey. A performer says, "I've got to get hold of the journey." Is performing a bit of control?
May: Absolutely. We often don't feel this but it is a way of trying to take things into our own hands, I think. We feel that if we can perform well enough, function efficiently enough, then we will get something in return for that. The world will reward us. We even get to thinking that God will reward us. A lot of times when we grew up, our parents rewarded us for our performance and we kind of project that onto God. We have our own kind of personally neurotic theologies that come out of that which says that if we do a good enough job, God will love me and bring me some kind of happiness.
Hardin: But if I perform.
May: Right. If I do a good enough job.
Hardin: My mother used to say to me on occasion, "Make me proud of you." What can that do to a child?
May: I got the same thing. I have to tell you -- not quite in so many words -- I've communicated that to my kids at times. What it does, of course, is say, "You are what you do. Your value is based on what you can accomplish."
Parents truly love their children and they don't really feel that way. However, that is the language we keep using with kids and you get that message. Then if you think about God, you get the feeling that God is going to feel the same way. That is not what faith is really about. Faith is that you are loved first and then you want to make God smile.
Hardin: We carry the image our parents symbolized of what God is probably all about. I know people who have trouble with the perception of a loving father because they didn't feel theirs was. I guess the issue of parents trying to be better parents is a matter of letting go. There is something in that, isn't there? Let them make some mistakes.
May: Right. I think that applies to ourselves, too, in this whole arena of seeking to put love first. It implies taking some risks and trusting God's grace, even though things don't necessarily work out the way we expect them to, and realizing that we are going to have trouble and make mistakes. Our kids are going to make mistakes. We are going to make mistakes. If we don't take those kinds of risks for love, then we are going to have an efficient life that is absolutely pastel and has no meat, color or guts to it.
Hardin: When Harold Kushner was on the program, he said that the way you can avoid love is to avoid involvement, not be touchable with our children. You've raised four so you know the game. I suspect you would do things somewhat differently today.
May: I would try. I don't know if I would or not, but I would sure try.
Hardin: Part of that is somehow separating the events of their lives from who they really are. My kids want me to know the things they have done so that I will think they are good. I think I have really stuck them with that and I'm trying not to do that any more.
May: It's so hard, though.
Hardin: You have the same stuff?
May: Sure. It is so difficult because I want to try and back off from praising the kids, who are now older, for their accomplishments. I want to back off from that but then if I do, they are going to wonder why I am not even proud of that. Being a parent is not the easiest thing in the world. I think it is a matter of simply trying to feel the love, the caring, the tenderness that is there and operating on that basis. It takes a risk to live that way but that is it, I think.
Hardin: That's a great statement to end with. Thank you very much.