This past Sunday as my husband and I entered church, the door greeter beamed as my husband and I passed: “Man, I like to see that. Keep doing that!”
Keep doing what? I wondered, bewildered, as we passed him – and then followed his gaze and realized that we were holding hands. It made me smile. It’s a habit of ours when we walk together, one we’ve blessedly never fallen out of. It’s so customary, in fact, that I don’t even think about it very often. It’s a part of my life.
But I do remember the first time he ever held my hand, and I remember that it was profoundly intense and a moment of great romantic significance. I remember walking across the college campus, being very aware he was holding my hand, feeling giddy about it, and hoping that every single person who passed us noticed it.
Now, almost fourteen years later, I’d get a jolt if he didn’t hold my hand. It’s not that the pleasure of hand-holding has faded or that I enjoy it any less; I love it. It’s special. It’s also a regular part of the rhythm of our lives now, a natural outcropping of day-to-day affection. The oh-wow-this-has-never-happened-before has become, over more than a decade, this-is-a-wonderful-thing-that-happens-a-lot.
I suspect that many people mistake this sort of shift in intimacy for an absence of it. I hear, all the time, people complaining about “losing the spark” in their relationships. Where, they wonder, are the butterflies, the explosions, the feelings that pinball all over the place? Where’s the intensity and the drama and the obsession? When that leaves, the assumption follows that intimacy has vanished, or faded, or died.
That’s not true. If you have a good marriage and you have been married a long time, then you will recognize this. Those fireworks that accompany the first reckless stages of a relationship don’t fade; they transform. The candle glow of firsts transforms into the sunrise of always. Love grows deeper, and more familiar: comfortable and known, but all the richer and more complex for that.
My husband holds my hand all the time: no, I don’t get the delighted shock from it that I once did. If I did, I’d never be able to anything done. But what I do get is the understanding of the curve of his hand and precisely how it fits into mine, and the strange feeling of my fingers curling around emptiness if his is not there. Hand-holding now is still a romantic act of presence, grace given, wordless communication that could not exist without years and years of our long conversations and long nights and laughter tied up into it. The handholding does not initiate our intimacy; it embodies it.
And so it is with God.
It’s not a terrible thing to be comfortable with God, you know. It’s not dull to have known God for a terribly long time. We will not always be fueled by the white-hot ardor of the Spirit. But when that white-hot ardor is absent, when we are not feeling the fire or the obsessive, reckless joy of our salvation, we must not always assume that intimacy has disappeared. It’s there. It permeates whatever we do. The veins of our rich relationship with God suffuse our everything. It’s just that, when it isn’t accompanied by a burst of positive feeling, we often don’t notice.
That’s why the fix is to start paying attention. When we approach our moments with God and bring all our history and understanding of Him to those moments, it’s impossible to forget fondness and the richness of what relationship means. I remember when You… or I was thinking about You… or I was thinking of when You told me that… suffuses all the “ordinary” practices that, once new, have become regular and common. Those memories and testaments lend them depth and meaning and richness.
It used to be that you went to study your Bible and to pray so that you could know God; you wanted to get something started. Now, although you still study and pray for those reasons, there is another, extra dimension: you study and you pray because you know God. In the beginning, affection is the nourishment that permits love to thrive. As time goes by, love is the nourishment that begets affection. We love Him because He first loved us, and the history of that cycle grows stronger and deeper with every moment.
There’s a marvelous G.K. Chesterton quote that sums up the spirit of this intimacy:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
This quote has always made me smile. God doesn’t tire of “the same old thing.” If He did, He’d tire of us repenting and returning over and over again: our predictable cycle. And we, graced with His spirit, don’t need to tire of it either. If we have the capacity to enjoy a sunrise or a sunset despite the fact that they have happened every single day for years and no longer surprise us; if we have the capacity to enjoy and find pleasure in our rituals and routines that have stretched on unchanged because of how precious they are to us; then why not find the same pleasure in our “routine” intimacy with God?
We mustn’t by into the lie that “exciting” always means “new.” We musn’t buy into the immature fantasy that pleasure need always be had in heart-wrenching swings of emotion or revelations or astonishing experiences. Sometimes deep love and great pleasure and profound joy can be had in the familiar, in the comfortable, in the long-known.
I’ll close with this. When I visit Ireland, I’m always staggered by some of what I see: marine cliffs, ancient stone monuments, imposing mountain ranges and pristine blue lakes. Those are the “highs” that come with every trip, just as spiritual peaks arrive for every believer. But inevitably there will come a point during my journey that I am doing nothing at all: my husband and I have parked the car some convenient roadside place and we are leaning against it, talking. The air is thick with burning turf and woodsmoke. The hills are dappled with sunlight and the shadows from low, quick-moving clouds. And in those moments, in the presence of nothing particularly remarkable, I am suffused with the most profound and deep-seated happiness. There is nowhere else I’d rather be.
A long intimacy with God can start to look a little something like that. You will find your cliffs and mountaintops and they will, truly, be staggering. But in the moments between that are quiet and calm, when His presence suffuses everything and you reflect on who He is, and who you are, and what your relationship is – you’ll notice it and feel it, that profound satisfaction and love that has aged and grown into something more wonderful by far than what it was when it began.
Pursue it whenever you can. Notice it. “Comfortable” intimacy is too precious to lose.
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