Discerning Love, Discerning Hope

by Tim Muldoon


Tim Muldoon (A&S ’92) is a theologian and author/editor of nine books, including Longing to Love: A Memoir of Desire, Relationships, and Spiritual Transformation (Loyola Press). He and his wife Sue (A&S ’90) have been married for 22 years.


It is early morning one August, when there are hints that the night’s long darkness has buckled and given way to the first hints of a coming sunrise. I am awake, and have been for the past twenty hours. For the past eight, I have been reading.

I am a rising junior at Boston College, and know something about reading books. Yet seldom (if ever) have I been seized by a book as I have been this night. I cannot put it down. I am inhaling deep draughts of this story like a man rising to the surface of the water in which he has nearly drowned. I had begun reading a chapter, then another, watching the time. And before I know it, I am gripped and realize that I cannot allow another day to go by without knowing the rest of the story.


It is Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, given to me by a woman who had graduated from BC in May. Just days before Sue collects her diploma, I am stung by a frightening realization: I am in love with her, and unless I do something I may not see her again. Somehow I find the words to tell her this, and we scramble to figure out how to give this new relationship a try across two continents.


Within a few weeks I am leaving for a year in Oxford, while she heads to Ohio for graduate study. She shares with me Vanauken’s book in part because it is the story of love that takes place in Oxford. But it is also a terrifying story: boy meets girl; they fall in love and later secretly marry; boy loses girl to death and must reconcile how to go on without her. In the background are his letters to one C.S. Lewis, an Oxford don who himself will later write about facing the death of a beloved. And there is God, with whom the once-agnostic protagonist wrestles after his beloved finds herself drawn to him.


In this early morning my imagination is on fire. I am contemplating being in love, and being a continent away from her. I am anxious about whether our relationship has the stuff that Van and Davy (from the book) have experienced. I wonder what it would be like to lose a beloved.


In the coming weeks I will explore what has unfolded in my consciousness. I will call Sue nearly every day at her home in Connecticut, and we will find time to meet on weekends when our work schedules permit it. We will share many goodbyes before I board the plane for England. Once there, I will write often, sharing what I am seeing and doing and learning.


As the year goes on the memory of the book fades from view, but on some level it stays with me. I am experiencing wonderful things: an insider’s view of one of the most historic university cities in the world; choirs in centuries-old chapels; rowing eights on the Isis (the stretch of the Thames that runs through Oxford); biking to Stonehenge; traveling to the continent and seeing history and art and culture. Wonderful things—all clouded in my mind by the fact that Sue is not there to share them with me.


The seed that was planted by the book was a question: when is love really love? The hard answer that emerged, at the pace of a seed pushing through rocky ground, was this: when it finds its meaning not in the satisfaction of my own small desires, but gives rise to greater and deeper ones shared with a beloved. In those experiences I began to discern an ever-greater God who is the direction of those shared desires.


Today I teach at Boston College. My course in the Capstone program is called Desire and Discernment, and it aims on some level to recreate that experience of discovery that Sue shared with me all those years ago. What I hope for—both for my students and for everyone—is the discovery of love.


How small that is, with which we wrestle,

What wrestles with us, how immense….

Rainer Maria Rilke


I hope to invite imagination and even confrontation with the big questions, to explore how love always moves us in the direction of a grander way of living in the world. In a word, I invite that which is understood in Catholic tradition to be a theological virtue: hope.

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