Imagine a young couple intoxicated with each other in the early stages of love. Imagine a religious neophyte in love with God, praying ecstatically. Imagine an idealistic young person working tirelessly with the poor, enflamed with a thirst for justice. Are this young couple really in love with each other? Is that religious neophyte really in love with God? Is this young social activist really in love with the poor? Not an easy question.
Whom are we really loving when we have feelings of love? The other? Ourselves? The archetype and energy the other is carrying? Our own fantasy of that person? The feelings this experience is triggering inside us? When we are in love, are we really in love with another person or are we mostly basking in a wonderful feeling which could be just as easily triggered by countless other persons?
There are different answers to that question. John of the Cross would say it is all of these things; we are in fact really loving that other person, loving a fantasy we have created of that person, and basking in the good feeling this has generated inside us. That is why, invariably, at a given point in a relationship the powerful feelings of being in love give way to disillusionment – disillusionment (by definition) implies the dispelling of an illusion, something was unreal. So for John of the Cross, when we are in love, partly the love is real and partly it is an illusion. Moreover, John would say the same thing about our initial feelings of fervor in prayer and in altruistic service. They are a mixture of both, authentic love and an illusion.