Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Love Human and Divine: A Meditation on the Occassion of the 50th. Wedding Anniversary of Cecil and Leah Forbes

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
They give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away." (Song of Solomon, 2:10-13) Amen.

As Bill Countryman points out in his lovely meditation, Love Human and Divine, the Song of Solomon has often been a source of some consternation to Christians. Here we have, right smack in the middle of our canon of Holy Scripture, an enchanting, evocative, and highly erotic love poem. It has been cause for more than a little embarrassment, not least because in the Song the lovers are not married.

As Countryman notes, the tendency has been to “distance its overt sexuality by insisting that it is an allegory of the love of God for the church or for the individual soul. Christian liturgy has largely ignored it and seldom assigns it to be read at public worship. Too much heavy breathing!”[1]

While such allegorical readings are not “wrong,” they don’t tell the whole story by a long shot, and in fact miss the central point: eros is to be celebrated. The desire for passionate, physical connection with another human being is not necessarily a distraction from a proper focus on loving God. It has a revelatory power all its own. Erotic love is itself a path to holiness. Love of God and love of another particular, human being are by no means mutually exclusive.

Notice that in the passage we heard this afternoon, the beloved speaks of her lover calling her to arise, to become aware of and delight in the beauty of the present moment. Passionate love is depicted here, not as a self-centered, exclusive preoccupation with the beloved, but as a way to wake up, to become fully alive and connected with the beauty and wonder of creation. Passionate love evokes awe and as such transcends, without at all diminishing, the particularity of the beloved. The particular passion of the lovers for each other can awaken in them a passionate connection with the whole creation.

In their fierce mutual possession and dispossession, their self-offering and reception of each other, the bond between lovers can become, over time, an indissoluble seal, of greater value than any amount of wealth we can imagine. The power of this seal lies not only in its binding of the lovers to each other, but in its capacity to root and connect them in the earth and in God. The fire of passionate love is one with the creative fire at the heart of the universe.

Of course, the flame of passionate love waxes and wanes; the trick is to keep it from going out! Recently, a good friend of mine, who was married in April, was speaking about how lonely he felt and how much he missed his wife during the week now that she is taking classes in the evening. He has taken to riding his bike from their home in Oakland near Lake Merritt all the way to Cal State in Hayward, so that he can surprise her in the hallway after class.

"How very sweet," I thought. But after twelve years of marriage and an eight year-old son, I’d be delighted if my husband took a class so I could have an evening to myself! I can only imagine how Cecil and Leah feel after 50 years of marriage, three kids, and the mutual omnipresence of retirement. “Arise my love and come away [with me]” can readily become “Arise my love and go away – I need some space.” Or in the words of that immortal show tune, “I told you I love you, now get out!”

The trick, if there is one, to keeping the fire of passionate love alive is to remember that the bond of love is not restrictive, does not close us in on the beloved in a suffocating way. Rather, the bond of love between two persons is a door that opens onto the love of God in all things.

Here, we would do well to recall today’s Gospel admonition: “You are the salt of the earth,” “You are the light of the world.” Our loves, even in their passionate particularity, are meant to add flavor to life for others, to illuminate the world with the light of love. This is what Cecil and Leah have done so magnificently; keeping their relationship passionately salty, brilliantly illuminated by love, so that their good works might benefit others and glorify God. We love God through our love of particular persons and things, and vice-versa; not for our own sake, but for the sake of the healing of the world.

Thomas Traherne has expressed this beautifully in one of his poems:

“What life wouldst though lead?” he asks. “Wouldst thou love God alone? God alone cannot be beloved. He cannot be loved with a finite love, because He is infinite. Were He beloved alone, His love would be limited. He must be loved in all with an illimited love, even in all His doings, in all His friends, in all His creatures. Everywhere in all things thou must meet His love. And this the law of nature commands. And it is thy glory that thou art fitted for it. His love unto thee is the law and measure of thine unto Him: His love unto all others the law and obligation of thine unto all.”[2]

It is our great joy to celebrate Cecil and Leah’s half-century of marriage, not because longevity is a virtue in and of itself, although it is true that many things of value can only be learned patiently by attention over time; we celebrate their marriage because it has served us all so well as a sacrament of God’s love, a sign of that “illimited love” through which God loves us in all things.

Leah and Cecil, it is indeed “thy glory that thou art fitted for that love.” We bask in that glory today, giving thanks for your life together and for the way in which it reminds us that we too, are fitted for that same love, human and divine. Amen.

[1] L. William Countryman, Love Human and Divine, p. 21.
[2] Thomas Traherne, Centuries, 1.72 quoted in Countryman, Love Human and Divine, pp. 33-34.

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