For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him,
Fought him, starved with him.
For twenty-five years my bed is his —
If that’s not love, what is?
— Fiddler on the Roof
“Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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This is the question we fear on airplanes, the question we recoil from in doorbell encounters. Most Catholics I’ve come across don’t use this language. Should we? What can be gained by thinking about faith as a “personal relationship”?
The obvious criticism is that “relationship” is a cardboard word, flexible yet thin. Think of the difference between the man who confides to his friend, “I want to have a relationship with her!” and the man who says, “I want to marry her.” Which one do you want to say to God? The language of “personal relationship” lacks the fervor, the Divine madness, of bridal mysticism. It sounds, to many Catholic ears, like the Song of Songs rewritten by the Hallmark Corporation.
And yet thinking in these terms can be illuminating, if we allow ourselves to be honest about all of our relationships. Think of your spouse, your brother, your parents, your friends, your children — anyone to whom you bear a duty of love. These are your “personal relationships,” and they are importantly similar to your duty of love of God.
All of these relationships have their seasons: sudden startled appreciation, hot anger, serene comfort, resigned indifference, renewal. All of these relationships can involve us in resentment, humiliation, annoyance, and anguish. This is true even though we recognize our duty to love these people. In fact, it’s often true because we’re so painfully, unavoidably aware of that duty.
Why would we expect our personal relationship with God to be any less fraught?
That relationship is a vow, not a feeling — or, more accurately, a vow that encompasses the entire range of human feeling. Too often, we pretend that our feelings about God are fluffier than they are; or else we mistake a sense of abandonment by God for proof that there is no God. But unfluffy feelings, and even anguished feelings of abandonment, are often part of loving relationships. God didn’t promise, “I will never break your heart.” Instead, we have the words of Psalm 51: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
We need to keep in mind that it’s okay to challenge God — Abraham did it. It’s okay to howl at God in desperation — Job did it. It’s even okay to laugh at God — Sarah did it. All of them still understood themselves to be bound to God, to hold Him as their Lord, even as they expressed themselves in ways that wouldn’t make the parish council happy.
We shouldn’t be content to remain in a place of anger at God, or ironic distance, or willful rejection, just as we wouldn’t be content with those attitudes toward the humans we’ve pledged to love. But we should be able to acknowledge that those emotions are often part of our loving relationships. Fighting with your wife doesn’t mean the marriage is doomed (let alone that it’s “already over,” in the modern divorce parlance). Even the bride of the Song of Songs sought her lover in the streets “but did not find him.”
It would be hard to argue that Therese of Lisieux, or Mother Teresa, lacked a “personal relationship with God.” And yet, for both of them, that relationship was often experienced as loneliness and abandonment. Therese said she had been “assailed by the worst temptations of atheism.” Mother Teresa wrote that she experienced “just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” She wrote of a feeling of “terrible separation.” She lived in the moment of Christ’s cry from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?”
And yet both Therese and Teresa spoke of God as someone real and known, someone Whose withdrawal left salt water in the footprints of His past consolations. All Christians must seek to enter into the life of Christ, to be baptized into His death so that we might rise in His life; Mother Teresa received the terrible gift of being baptized into His crucifixion. That is one way to have a relationship with God. It is a real gift, just as martyrdom is a gift.
This interpretation of the “personal relationship” language might help us remember that the best place to wrestle angels is in church. The best place to box with God is on your knees before the Eucharist. Fight like you fight with the people you love, heartfelt and raw and needy. Be willing to submit, to admit you were wrong, to kiss and make up; but be unwilling to give up or go away.
If that’s not love, what is?