Monday, February 14, 2011

A Pilgrim's guide to Love

I’ve spent a long career learning about and experiencing love. I’ve been and continue to be on a journey, a spiritual journey. That makes me a pilgrim. So, I’m calling these remarks “A Pilgrim’s Guide to Love.” And, oh, yes, you're a pilgrim, too.

Without a doubt, love is among a handful of significant universal religious values. It is the central positive value of the Christian tradition.

My remarks before the hymn summarize my sense of Christian love, as a cultural norm, and a starting place on the journey for me and for many of you.

I first looked seriously at the notion of love in theological school, though it was not a theme emphasized as much as might be expected. A course in the New Testament mentioned the notion of Christian love, known as agape, meaning the unconditional, all encompassing love of God. The Greek sources of Scripture make distinctions among this sort of unconditional love to brotherly love (philia) and erotic love (eros).

The words attributed to Jesus in response to the lawyers challenge regarding the great commandment impressed me then and stay with me: Love God (or Life or Nature) and to love others as you love yourself. I took it as the Christian love trifecta and focused on the notion of self-love as a given leading to an empathetic love of others who are like one’s self.

When I interned at an historic Syracuse Universalist Church in 1976-77, I made a study of the doctrine of love at the heart of Universalism’s distinct and radical theology. "God is love," was the traditional motto carved over Universalist Church entrances. Universalist doctrine once maintained that Jesus’s atonement, a manifestation of Divine love, was not for some but for all, hence the doctrine of Universal Salvation. God’s love is thus parental and as brothers and sisters, we love one another.

It was then, thirty-four years ago, that I began to acquire the lore of this liberal tradition of ours. I began accumulating materials circulating among my colleagues. Several pieces made great and lasting impressions on my formation.

First a poem by one of the poets of the lost generation who perished in the First World War, Rupert Brooke titled “The Great Lover:”

I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love's praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and silent content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,

…These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair's fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year's ferns...

I love that poem.

A second influence, Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, has not been surpassed in my well-developed humanistic and psychological understanding of love. In The Art of Loving, Fromm thoroughly explored the various sorts of love, maintaining that actualized, mature love is a power. Among the many quotes I could use from this remarkable book everyone should read is this, Mature love is union under the condition of preserving one's integrity, one's individuality. Love is an active power in man, a power which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow men, which unites him with others; love makes him overcome the sense of isolation and separateness, yet permits him to be himself, to retain his integrity. In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.

My early years as a minister coincided with a burgeoning feminist theology in Unitarian Universalism. My favorite feminist work remains Anne Morrow Lindberg’s extended meditation on being a modern woman—wife and mother in her extraordinary circumstances, called Gift from the Sea. I’ve used the following excerpt in so many weddings I can recite it without notes:

When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity - in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.

The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now. Relationships must be like islands, one must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits - islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides.
One must accept the security of the winged life, of the ebb and flow of intermittency.

A fourth influence was a parable by the founder of the Ethical Culture movement Felix Adler:

There is a story told of two brothers, sons of the same father, who grew up in the same home and were deeply attached to each other. It happened that the older wandered away and fell into the power of an evil magician, who changed him into a ravening wolf. The younger mourned his loss, and treasured in his heart the image of the brother as he had been in the days before the wicked spell fell upon him. Impelled by his longing, he at last went out into the world to find his brother, and if possible to redeem him. One day as he passed through a lonely forest, a hungry wolf set upon him. The horrid, brutal face was near to his, the hot breath breathed upon him, and the fierce eyes flamed into his own. But by the might of his love, the younger brother was able to detect beneath the wolfish disguise the faint outlines of the brother whom he had long ago lost, and by the strength of his gaze, which saw only the brother and refused to see the wolf, he was able to give shape and substance to that faint outline. The outer frame of brutishness gradually melted away, and the human brother was restored to his senses and to his home. This is a parable of the spiritual attitude toward oppressors, toward those who oppress the people in public, as well as toward those who oppress us in our private lives. We must liberate them from the brutal frame in which they are inclosed; we must give them back their human shape!

Adler’s parable resonated to Gandhi strategy of non-resistance, what he called the Science of Love. (Gandhi’s inspirations included the Bhagavad Gita, the teachings of Jesus, and the life of Tolstoy.)

In more recent years, I have learned a different Science of Love, centered in the rich insights of contemporary biology, psychology and neuroscience. I now know that love has evolved through millions of years of our mammalian evolution and is hardwired in us as certain instincts that, through brain chemistry, register as powerful bonding emotions.

It is through the natural alchemy of our mind’s imagination that we speak of love in such a richness of literary and religious expressions. On one hand, this scientific understanding is reductionist and threatens to trivialize love as a highly developed aspect of the human condition; but on the other hand this lifts up an aspect of you and me and all our kindred to find and make meaning. We are meaning makers and what we know as love is arguably the greatest measure and finest outcome of our meaning-making abilities. Thus we say that love is the meaning of life—to love and yes, to be loved.

When I cast myself as a pilgrim on the journey of love, that journey includes these intellectualized realizations I’ve mentioned. But the depth of what I’ve found, proving without a doubt the truth of these realizations, to those who have embodied love in my life, particularly my mother, my wife, and my daughter. There are a host of others, too, in little or greater ways who have taught me about the existential meaning of love.

In my musings about love, I find myself returning repeatedly to a line from the Rupert Brooke poem, “the Great Lover,” in the midst of the litany of things loved: “... and all the dear names/men use, to cheat despair.”

Love makes the meaning of our lives. It triumphs over all obvious despairs. And I have concluded the more that I love, the more I live while I live, as well as contribute to the creation of the world that will endure after I'm gone. I believe that "love never ends."

Love is a flame;—we have beaconed the world's night.

A city:—and we have built it, these and I.

An emperor:—we have taught the world to die.

[Rupert Brooke, “The Great lover”]

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