Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Landscape of Love: Affection


Behold the one beholding you, and smiling. - Anthony DeMello

Our cat Blackie’s breath routinely reeks of all sorts of ungodly foulness.

He snores, day and night, like a bear in hibernation. 

He leaves small puddles of drool on the bed and couch.

He bosses the dog, bosses the other cat, bosses me.

He does all of these things and more, and yet I love him. Not despite of these things, but for them, in the midst of them.

When I lay awake at night, listening to him sawing logs at the foot of the bed, my affection rises and falls gently, like my own breath, moving in time with each of his foggy inhales and exhales. When I lean in to hug him on a quiet afternoon, he turns his head and yawns, blasting me with a wave of vile stench, and somehow I still feel tenderness, even as I hold my own breath and turn my face aside.

The love I feel for this silly, grand cat is more than a gravitation toward that which pleases or offers a good return. What I feel might be best referred to as affection or fondness, a feeling that occupies one small corner of the wide and wild landscape of love. 

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Online dictionaries tell me affection is a feeling of liking or caring, often associated with gentleness or tenderness.  

My favorite definition describes affection as:

“a bent of mind towards a particular object, holding a middle place between disposition, which is natural, and passion, which is excited by the presence of its exciting object. affection is a permanent bent of the mind, formed by the presence of an object, or by some act of another person, and existing without the presence of its object.” 

There's a steadiness to affection; it persists despite arguments and evidence to the contrary. Affection is more than a feeling or reaction, it’s a persistent and consistent orientation.

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As a parent, I suppose affection could explain the way I feel about my children’s stinky feet, that strange disgust mingled with pride. Or the way I simultaneously dread and delight in their small rebellions and even, when the heat of the moment has passed, their flaws. For these, along with their beauty and graces, are the things that make them human and, if we are to love well and wide, we must find a love that somehow encompasses all, even while wishing and working toward wholeness.

Affection also might describe the source of the gentle sympathy I sometimes feel toward my own flaws and mistakes and the feeling I’m working to conjure toward my stretch-marked belly, and my slowly but steadily graying hair.

If affection lies between natural disposition and passion, then it is a feeling that can be cultivated, learned and employed; injected into one’s relationship with self and others.

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And affection, of course, must be what DeMello had in mind when he referred to our relationship with God: "Behold the one beholding you, and smiling." God's smile, God's affection, has nothing to do with our worthiness and everything to do with God's steadiness toward us, with God's inexplicable predisposition to a love that's deep and wide, encompassing even our own most devastating flaws.

God looks and leans toward our humble humanity and we are all encompassed in God's gaze - behold the one beholding you, with deep affection.  

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