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Trinity + 5: Love

12 July 2009
2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19; Mark 6.14-29; Psalm 24 The earth is the Lord's
But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Corinthians 13.13

In today's first reading we have King David dancing in the street before the Lord, with the only reaction of Michal (or 'Michelle' as I like to think of her) being to despise him in her heart. And in the second reading, when Herodias is offered anything she likes by Herod, 'even unto half my kingdom', she chooses the head of John the Baptist on a platter. What lesson are we meant to draw from this? - well, perhaps that when relations between the sexes turn sour, they can turn very sour indeed, with women being notoriously vindictive.

But, while bearing that in mind, it may be more profitable to concentrate instead on when these relationships go well. Without human love, great art is scarcely imaginable: with it, our souls reach the greatest imaginable heights, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach...
Sonnets from the Portuguese

Of course, reaching these heights depends on having a soul in the first place as A E Housman described:

The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.
Oh grant me the ease that is granted so free,
The birthright of multitudes, give it to me,
That relish their victuals and rest on their bed
With flint in the bosom and guts in the head!

Or, as Walter De La Mare put it:

Most wounds can Time repair;
But some are mortal -- these:
For a broken heart there is no balm
No cure for a heart at ease -
At ease, but cold as stone
Though the intellect spin on
And the feat and practised face may show
Naught of the life that is gone;
But smiles, as by habit taught;
And sighs, as by custom led.
And the soul within in safe from damnation
Since it is dead.

Unrequited love is no fun for the sufferer but, as W H Auden said, Let the more loving one be me:
The man who is loved by a woman is lucky indeed, but the one to be envied is he who loves, however little he gets in return. How much greater is Dante gazing at Beatrice than Beatrice walking by him in apparent disdain! [Anon]

Possibly the nation's favourite definition of true love is Shakespeare's sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

So, what is love?

Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. We can only learn to love by loving.
Iris Murdoch

Love comes surging from the power of God,
Its source, its mountain spring, the human heart.

William Langland
, 'Piers Plowman'

Poets down the ages, but particularly in England, have explored the parallels between love of men and women for each other, and their love for God - John Donne and Christina Rossetti to great effect, for example. And here is George Herbert:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here';
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'

Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,'says Love, 'who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.

A medieval poet makes the comparison explicit:

All other love is like the moon
That waxeth or waneth as flower in plain;
As flower that blooms and fadeth soon,
As day that showereth and ends in rain.
All other love begins with bliss,
In weeping and woe makes its ending;
No love there is that's our whole bliss
But that which rests on heaven's king.
His love is fresh and ever green
And ever full without waning;
His love makes sweet and gives no pain,
His love is endless, enduring.
[Anon], c. 1350

Almost all our examples so far have been in verse, but here is a modern one in prose:

Brian thought of the day when they had gone walking in Winchelsea marshes. The hawthorn was in bloom...overhead, the sky was alive with white clouds gliding in the wind. Unspeakably beautiful! And suddenly it seemed to him that they were walking through the image of their love. The world was their love, and their love was the world; and the world was significant, charged with depth beyond depth of mysterious meaning. The proof of God's goodness floated in those clouds, crept in those grazing sheep, shone from every bush of incandescent blossom -and, in himself and Joan, walked hand in hand across the grass and was manifest in their happiness. His love, it seemed to him, in that apocalyptic moment, was more than merely his; it was in some mysterious way the equivalent of the wind and sunshine...His feeling for Joan was somehow implicit in the world, had a divine and universal significance. He loved her infinitely, and for that reason was able to love everything in the world as much as he loved her.
Aldous Huxley
, 'Eyeless in Gaza'

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