The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Love and the Sacred

Love and the Sacred

Every once in a while, the curtain of consciousness we mistake for reality parts and we glimpse what glows beyond it.

Some call it mystery.

Some call it God.

Some find it in the molecular structure of mycelium under a microscope.

Some in the color of the light after a summer storm.

Some in the gaze of an osprey.

Some in Bach.

Nowhere is our contact with the sacred more direct, or more disorienting, than in love — that strange and wondrous mirror for the mystery we are. “Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love,” the young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. And at the same time nothing reveals us to ourselves more completely or better maps our incompleteness. As we feel its mystery unfold in us, we touch the sacred. “Love is my religion,” Keats wrote in his letters to the love of his short life. “Gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being,” urged Rumi as he anchored his devotional poetry in love.

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, 1907-1908. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

This understanding of love as a portal to the sacred comes alive with great passion and poignancy in the poet Christian Wiman’s meditative memoir My Bright Abyss (public library). (As with Rumi, as with the gospels, one need not share Wiman’s particular flavor of faith to be moved by the spiritual truth in his writing.)

In consonance with the science of limbic revision and its haunting corollary that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love,” he writes:

There is a sense in which love’s truth is proved by its end, by what it becomes in us, and what we, by virtue of love, become. But love, like faith, occurs in the innermost recesses of a person’s spirit, and we can see only inward in this regard, and not very clearly.

With an eye to his own experience, he considers how any large and luminous love transcends the personal — the realm of the self — and unselves us into the sacred:

I did not know what love was until I encountered one that kept opening and opening and opening. And until I acknowledged that what that love was opening onto, and into, was God… In any true love — a mother’s for her child, a husband’s for his wife, a friend’s for a friend — there is an excess energy that always wants to be in motion. Moreover, it seems to move not simply from one person to another but through them, toward something else… This is why we can be so baffled and overwhelmed by such love… It wants to be more than it is; it cries out inside of us to make it more than it is. And what it is crying out for, finally, is its essence and origin: God.

The Dove No. 1 by Hilma af Klint, 1915. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Wiman’s God is the traditional Christian God, but the sentiment holds true — and perhaps even truer — if the word were mystery. Surrendering to it — to this transcendent not-knowing that beckons beyond the bounds of what we can hold on to — may be the essence of love. Wiman writes:

Love, which awakens our souls and to which we cling like the splendid mortal creatures that we are, asks us to let it go, to let it be more than it is… We feel love leave us in unthreatening ways. We feel it reenter us at once more truly and more strange, like a simple kiss that has a bite of starlight to it.

Perhaps this spiritual dimension of love stems from a simple equivalence: At its core, love is the quality of attention we confer upon another; and as Simone Weil observed in her timeless meditation on the nature of grace, “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” All of love’s gravity and all of its grace are found in our acts of attention.

Published January 3, 2024




Filed Under

View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the and affiliate programs, designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to books. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book from a link here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)