A Love Supreme

Updated: Apr 7

by John O’Brien, Frater, OFM (Franciscan)

Reviewed by Francis Etheredge Profiles in Catholicism



'Everything in this life is imperfect and has, as it were, a crack in it; however, that crack lets the light in!

John O'Brien's book, A Love Supreme, takes up the opening theme that 'The saving events of God in the past can be made present for us today' and wonderfully weaves together the Scripture, cultural and personal threads that together say that the 'words of God' are 'true today for those who read' them. Drawing on others, O'Brien goes on to say: 'Poetry and music are important for us because they help us accept our brokenness and allow God to shine his light in our hearts'. In other words, there is an opening for God in our experience of suffering; and, indeed, it is an opening that raises the possibility of His word making sense of our lives - but more, even, than making sense of our suffering 'We are called to hear his word and live.' Thus there is a constant traversing of the human experience of woundedness, the history of Israel, the life of Christ and the development of Christianity through the turn from our closed selves to an openness to God; however, there is a profound sense of other people's perseverance through their suffering being a part of what helped the author 'to rebuild [his] life of faith'. At the same time, drawing on the history of Israel is not just a biblical word, as it were, for our sake, it also speaks to a real people in the present to whom the Christian, and indeed the whole Christian Church, is called to develop a relationship of love and understanding. In a wider sense, though, dialogue exists because religious life needs renewing if it is able to answer or to speak to the 'indifference' and crises of our times.

Drawing on a particularly dear source, O'Brien goes on to explain: 'It is through human deeds says Heschel that God becomes present in the world as the God who cares; “God is hiding in the world and it is our task to let the divine emerge from our deeds” (God in Search of Man, p. 358). And, developing this point, O'Brien complements what he has said with Karl Barth's expression: God 'does not allow His history to be His and ours, but causes them to take place as a common history' (Church Dogmatics, IV/I, p. 8). Indeed, given the inspiration of the Holy Scripture, this gives a profound origin to the word as an inextricable act of God and man (cf. Dei Verbum, 13). God's search for man, then, which emerges prominently in O'Brien's book, is by way of explaining His love as lived among us: 'Without a God who cares, our universe would become an inferno'; and, indeed, he goes on to say that the prophet's reaction to injustice, of whatever kind, 'is expressing the profound care of God and is calling us to understand the pain of the person.'

As we progress through the book we see how much O'Brien has, as it were, written with the word of God; indeed, very often quoting lengthy passages, we begin to see that the opening theme, that the 'words of God' are 'true today for those who read' them, is fulfilled in the very literary dependence of his book on the diverse words of God upon which he draws; and, at the same time, there is a chapter dedicated to exploring the nuances of the expression, "word of God" which, like the Second Vatican Council's document, Dei Verbum (DV), resounds with the understanding that the word of God is Jesus Christ: the ultimately personal 'sum total of Revelation' (DV, 2) who, as we shall see, takes up the theme of suffering as we suffer - and so just as His suffering transcends ours so His saves us! And, although rather slowly, perhaps imitating the structure of Scripture, the book reveals a trinitarian development as it unfolds from God to the Son of God and then on to the Holy Spirit; and, indeed, this movement becomes explicit in the closing contemplation of the beauty of God. In a very moving passage, O'Brien contrasts the exultation of Christ in the transfiguration with the pain and abandonment in the Garden of Gethsemane (a word which means 'oil press': as if the suffering of the 'press' delivers the Spirit to us). But then, turning through the sufferings of Christ, O'Brien meditates on their expression in the life of Christians - taking suffering further than what is inflicted upon by sin to what is undergone through love!

Just as in Christ and, therefore, through the Gift that gives all gifts, 'The Spirit ... [is] all the time working, creating something new'; and, quoting St. Paul, there is an experience in which the limit of being human is an opportunity for God: 'But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead' (2 Cor: 1: 9). This new work is particularly what O'Brien explains by quoting from St. Thérèse of Lisieux: 'You know very well that never would I be able to love my Sisters as You love them, unless You, O my Jesus, loved them in me'. John Coltrane, a jazz saxophonist, is a modern example of one whom God delivered from his addiction and out of gratitude he wrote the psalm from which O'Brien's book takes its title: A Love Supreme: a witness to the greatness of gratitude to God.

As I say, the book concludes by bringing together the love which saves from the squalor of sin's suffering with the beauty which we begin to behold, as if through the Franciscan works upon which O'Brien draws and which increasingly open us upon the mystery of God; and, therefore, perhaps in the glimpse of the medley of excerpts and reflections we see something of the ecumenical community of the Church through which we come to the glory of God.

I have the impression that the author has let in the light through a crack and described the journey of faith that followed.'

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