Friday, November 20, 2009

The Full Glory of Love

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken

- Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Many are well-acquainted with these words. They fall over us in a splendid sigh that is filled with hopes for such a love to prove so true. Love: The great marvel of souls. It is either zealously sought after or vehemently rejected. Either way, all souls have, in some way, been affected and touched by the idea, desire, or feeling of Love. Time after time, we think we have grasped it. We convince ourselves that we finally know it, that we truly understand it. It is so beautiful that we believe that it can transcend all time. To the romantic, Love is the ultimate God - self-sufficient and eternal. And then somewhere along the ecstasy of such a journey, it dies. It always dies. Even for those whom it has proven true, through many years or many trials, there comes a moment when it ceases to be.

Recall the scene in the film, Sense & Sensibility, when Marianne staggers over the hill facing Allenham (the estate of her lover and betrayer, Sir Willoughby) and recites Sonnet 116 in remembrance of what she and Willoughby once shared in "true Love." The tears streaming from her eyes are mingled with the icy rain falling around her. She stands there, unfeeling of the harsh elements that she finds herself in. In the love that she knew, there only awaited death. To her, there was nothing of value, worth, or meaning outside of that love. She was ready to die for it; to die a death that simply amounted to nothing. Instead of becoming a conqueror through love, she became conquered by love.
So it is with many of us. Never are we victorious. We are merely victims of that which we faithfully follow and call love. And like fools being led to the slaughter, we would rather meet that same piercing defeat again and again than ever dare to consider that maybe that "Love" is not truly Love. That, perhaps, our understanding, vision, and ideas of love are distorted, artificial, and empty. That true Love is not meant for base fools such as ourselves, who fondle cheap trifles and fanciful ideals that fall short of eternal worth.
And then our gaze is drawn ever upward, held captive, and fixed upon one whom we despise to think of as the fulfillment of the purest, truest Love.

Calvary, the word pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit.
It is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. It searches our love for our beloved. It discovers the quality of that love.
An Indian refiner puts his glistening gold into a small earthen crucible.
He blows up the fire, the grey scum floats to the surface of the gold.
The grey scum of selfishness in our human love will float to the surface of our soul and be discovered by us, if we are willing to allow the Refiner to blow up His fire.
There is a rooted possessiveness about much of human affection. “My loved one for myself” - that is the underlying thought of much that looks so beautiful.
God’s thought was different.
The love that our Lord asks for us is different.
His Father’s love was a giving love.
- Amy Carmichael

On the evening of His betrayal He did not desire for us the less costly lover, the natural love which shrinks from a hard way for a beloved one, and never contemplates anything approaching shame.
Human love with its loopholes of escape from the supreme demand was not in His mind, It was Divine love that He desired should be in us, the love wherewith He Himself was loved, Divine love with all its agonizing possibilities - but with great certainty of eternal joy.
We have lowered the standard. That which should be usual has become so unusual that we are surprised and stirred, and write books about these bright particular stars in our firmament who have shone mightily in loving. Such lives should be the rule, the others the exception. Have we in our refusal of the Crucifix refused also the Cross? We do refuse the Crucifix. The sign of our faith, as Westcott said long ago, is an empty Cross, an empty tomb; He is not here, He is risen. But it is strangely possible to decorate that empty Cross, to smother it in flowers, even (but surely this borders on blasphemy) to use the symbol as an ornament. And yet the great law stands: “Whosoever doth not bear his Cross, and come after Me, cannot be disciple.”
We who follow the Crucified are not here to make a pleasant thing of life; we are called to suffering for the sake of a suffering, sinful world. The Lord forgive us our shameful evasions and hesitations.
His brow was crowned with thorns; do we seek rose-buds for our crowning?
His hands were pierced with nails; are our hands ringed with jewels?
His feet were bare and bound; do our feet walk delicately?
What do we know of travail? Of tears that scald before we fall? of heart-break?
Of being scorned?
God forgive us our love of ease.
God forgive us that so often we turn our faces from a life that is even remotely like His.
Forgive us that we all but worship comfort, the delight of the presence of loved ones, possessions, treasure on earth.
Far, far from our prayers too often is any thought of prayer for a love which will lead us to give one whom we love to follow our Lord to Gethsemane, to Calvary - perhaps because we have never been there ourselves.
Lord, we kneel beside Thee now, with hands folded between Thy hands as a child’s are folded in its mother’s. We would follow the words of Thy prayer, dimly understanding their meaning, but wanting to understand….
"That the love wherewith Thou hast loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:26)
- Amy Carmichael

The natural loves are not self-sufficient. Something else, at first vaguely described as "decency and common sense," but later revealed as goodness, and finally as the whole Christian life in one particular relation, must come to the help of the mere feeling if the feeling is to be kept sweet.
To say this is not to belittle the natural loves but to indicate where their real glory lies. It is no disparagement to a garden to say that it will not fence and weed itself, nor prune its own fruit trees, nor roll and cuts its owns lawns. A garden is a good thing but that is not the sort of goodness it has. It will remain a garden, as distinct from a wilderness, only if someone does all these things to it. Its real glory is of quite a different kind. The very fact that it needs constant weeding and pruning bears witness to that glory. It teems with life. It glows with colour and smells like heaven and puts forward at every hour of a summer day beauties which man could never have created and could not even, on his own resources, have imagined. If you want to see the difference between its contribution and the gardener's, put the commonest weed it grows side by side with his hoes, rakes, shears, and packet of weed killer; you have put beauty, energy and fecundity beside dead, sterile things. Just so, our "decency and common sense" show grey and deathlike beside the geniality of love. And when the garden is in its full glory the gardener's contributions to that glory will still have been in a sense paltry compared with those of nature. Without life springing from the earth, without rain, light and heat descending from the sky, he could do nothing. When he has done all, he has merely encouraged here and discouraged there, powers and beauties that have a different source. But his share, though small, is indispensable and laborious. When God planted a garden He set man over it and set the man under Himself. When He planted the garden of our nature and caused the flowering, fruiting loves to grow there, He set our will to "dress" them. Compared with them it is dry and cold. And unless His grace comes down, like the rain and the sunshine, we shall use this tool to little purpose. But its laborious - and largely negative - services are indispensable. If they were needed when the garden was still Paradisal, how much more now when the soil has gone sour and the worst weeds seem to thrive on it best? But heaven forbid we should work in the spirit of prigs and Stoics. While we hack and prune we know very well that what we are hacking and pruning is big with a splendour and vitality which our rational will could never of itself have supplied. To liberate that splendour, to let it become fully what it is trying to be, to have tall trees instead of scrubby tangles, and sweet apples instead of crabs, is part of our purpose.

The loves prove that they are unworthy to take the place of God by the fact that they cannot even remain themselves and do what they promise to do without God's help....Even for their own sakes the loves must submit to be second things if they are to remain the things they want to be. In this yoke lies their true freedom; they "are taller when they bow." For when God rules in a human heart, though He may sometimes have to remove certain of its native authorities altogether, He often continues others in their offices and, by subjecting their authority to His, gives it for the first time a firm basis.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.

We are all receiving Charity. There is something in each of us that cannot be naturally loved. It is no one's fault if they do not so love it. Only the lovable can be naturally loved. You might as well ask people to like the taste of rotten bread or the sound of a mechanical drill. We can be forgiven, and pitied, and loved in spite of it, with Charity; no other way. All who have good parents, wives, husbands, or children, may be sure that at some times - and perhaps at all times in respect of some one particular trait or habit - they are receiving Charity, are loved not because they are lovable but because Love Himself is in those who love them.
Thus God, admitted to the human heart, transforms not only Gift-Love but Need-Love; not only our Need-love of Him, but our Need-love of one another. This is of course not the only thing that can happen. He may come on what seems to us a more dreadful mission and demand that a natural love be totally renounced. A high and terrible vocation, like Abraham's, may constrain a man to turn his back on his own people and his father's house. Eros, directed to a forbidden object, may have to be sacrifice. In such instances, the process, though hard to endure, is easy to understand. What we are more likely to overlook is the necessity for a transformation even when the natural love is allowed to continue.
In such a case the Divine Love does not substitute itself for the natural - as if we had to throw away our silver to make room for the gold. The natural loves are summoned to become modes of Charity while also remaining the natural loves they were.
One sees here at once a sort of echo rhyme or corollary to the Incarnation itself. And this need not surprise us, for the Author of both is the same. As Christ is Perfect God and perfect Man, the natural loves are called to become Charity and also perfect natural loves. As God becomes Man "Not by conversion of the Godhead into the flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God." so here; Charity does not dwindle into merely natural love but natural love is taken up into, made the tuned and obedient instrument of, Love Himself.”

And yet, I believe, the necessity for the conversion is inexorable; at least, if our natural loves are to enter the heavenly life. That they can enter it most of us in fact believe. We may hope that the resurrection of the body means also the resurrection of what may be called our “greater body”; the general fabric of our earthly life with its affections and relationships. But only on a condition; not a condition arbitrarily laid down by God, but one necessarily inherent in the character of Heaven: nothing can enter there which cannot become heavenly. “Flesh and blood,” mere nature, cannot inherit that Kingdom. Man can ascend to Heaven only because the Christ, who died and ascended to Heaven, is “formed in him.” Must we not suppose that the same is true of a man’s loves? Only those into which Love Himself has entered will ascend to Love Himself. And these can be raised with Him only if they have, in some degree and fashion, shared His death; if the natural element in them has submitted – year after year, or in some sudden agony – to transmutation. The fashioned of this world passes away. The very name of nature implies the transitory. Natural loves can hope for eternity only in so far as they have allowed themselves to be taken into the eternity of Charity; have at least allowed the process to begin here on earth, before the night comes when no man can work. And the process will always involve a kind of death. There is no escape. In my love for wife or friend the only eternal element is the transforming presence of Love Himself. By that presence, if at all, the other elements may hope, as our physical bodies hope, to be raised from the dead. For this only is holy in them, this only is the Lord.
- C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Dearest Lord, transform our feeble hearts. Transform these lowly, natural loves.
That which you have justified, Lord, glorify!
Purify these loves and make them victorious through Thy Divine Love!
May our loves on earth be seated beneath Thee, reflections of Thy Glory!
Through Him, who loved us, we are more than conquerors in all things.


Anodos said...

So beautiful and so true. God is love. Love is not a quality but a Person and a Reality. He gave Himself, and the way that He gave was through death. Have you ever read Phantastes by George MacDonald? He turns the "romantic" idea of love on its head, and a lad taken by the beauty of a woman eventually learns the true meaning of love. This lad was broken when he forever lost the object of his love to another. I will quote from the book, where a wise old woman speaks to him:

O light of dead and of dying days!
O Love! in thy glory go,
In a rosy mist and a moony maze,
O'er the pathless peaks of snow.
But what is left for the cold gray soul,
That moans like a wounded dove?
One wine is left in the broken bowl! —
'Tis — To love, and love, and love.

Now I could weep. When she saw me weeping, she sang:

Better to sit at the waters' birth,
Than a sea of waves to win;
To live in the love that floweth forth,
Than the love that cometh in.
Be thy heart a well of love, my child,
Flowing, and free, and sure;
For a cistern of love, though undefiled,
Keeps not the spirit pure.

I won't spoil the story here - but the book has a rather surprising end. A display of the very truest love.
And of course, there is this poem by Amy Carmichael,

Love through me, Love of God,
Make me like thy clear air
Through which unhindered, colors pass
As though it were not there.
Powers of the love of Good,
Depths of the heart Divine,
O Love that faileth not, break forth,
And flood this world of Thine.

Erika said...

Amen, Anodos. I have never read Phantastes by George MacDonald, but it sounds very captivating. I have always meant to read his stuff, but I haven't actually looked at my library, yet. Thanks for the recommendation! :)

Elizabeth J. said...

In eight grade I memorize Shakespeare's Sonnet 16 and I thought it was such a tender and meanigful poem.