If you talk to an old-school Trappist monk, he’ll tell you that “adoration” is something properly given to God alone.
I learned this the hard way, when in the acknowledgements section of my book Answering the Contemplative Call, I wrote a comment about how much “I adore” my wife. Reading this (in manuscript form), my old monastic mentor Fr. Anthony said, “You can love your wife all you want, but you should only adore God!”
It seemed like semantic word-splitting to me, but I didn’t want to offend the elderly monk, so I searched my inner thesaurus and changed the wording to tell my wife “I cherish you.”
Why is adoration something special we offer to God? Like so many words with spiritual or religious meanings, the secret is in etymology. Adoration comes from a Latin root that means not only “to love” but also “to worship.”
Nowadays, when many Christians and other spiritual seekers tend to stress God’s intimacy rather than God’s majesty, this kind of linguistic hair-splitting may seem arbitrary or silly. But perhaps it can be a helpful reminder that, since God is the Source of all Love, then perhaps there’s something to reserving a type of worship — adoration — strictly for God alone, even while we recognize that all forms of love ultimately have their origin in the Divine Heart.
With all this in the back of my mind, I’d like to share with you a quote I discovered that offers an interesting insight into the spirituality of adoration.
But now see what it is to adore God: it is, in the Christian faith, with great reverence and above reason, to gaze in the spirit upon God, the Eternal Power, Creator and Lord of heaven and earth and all that in them is.
— John Ruysbroeck, The Seven Steps of the Ladder of Spiritual Love
The Anglican contemplative Maggie Ross is well known for her advocacy of beholding as a core expression of contemplative practice, as seen in the title of her 2011 book, Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding. The Curé D’Ars famously defined prayer as “I look at God, and God looks at me.” Anyone who’s ever had a lover knows the delirious joy of simply, wordlessly, gazing into the eyes of your beloved. Heaven on earth.
So it’s a delight to reflect on this little quotation from the fourteenth century Flemish mystic, John Ruysbroeck (also spelled “Ruusbroec”), whom Evelyn Underhill called “one of the greatest of Christian contemplatives.” Ruysbroeck equates adoration with beholding, by highlighting the humbly central role that simple gazing plays in contemplative prayer. He goes on to explain the heart of this contemplative beholding, using two concepts: reverence and reason.
“With great reverence” — in other words, such gazing is not lazy or indifferent — “and above reason” — which is to say, contemplative beholding is an expression of metanoia, that place “beyond the mind” where Divine nonduality may be apprehended intuitively but not “thought about” discursively.
So with great reverence, and beyond all ordinary reasons, we are invited, in love, to simply be present to the already-present presence of God. God gazes upon us, and we return the gaze. Love inspires love, and love meets Love. This mutual gaze: this is the heart of adoration.
In our gazing we do not seek to find God, but rather relax into the fact that God has already found us. And there we may cherish and relish, in a single moment within which all eternity unfolds, the boundless silence of union with Divine Love.
So cherish all your earthly loves: do so joyfully and exultantly. And recognize that the very love you cherish comes to you, lavishly and infinitely, from the One whom you are invited to adore, in the wordless silence of contemplative beholding.