Saturday, 26 November 2011

Love: 1 Corinthians 13

    As verger of St Stephen's Anglican Church, Newtown, I attended innumerable weddings. The Reverend Don Meadows and I made a good team.  While he welcomed, reassured, celebrated and preached, I parked cars, secured slipping veils, took flower-girls to the toilet, retied sashes, sorted out spats between mothers-in-law, distracted the odd drunk from disrupting the service, kept the neighbourhood kids quiet and played the carillon.

    Don had just one marriage sermon. He had refined it over the years and used it on every occasion, except when a member of his own congregation was getting married.  He preached it, at different degrees of complexity and with different inserted references to couples ranging from members of the law fraternity to a couple who met at a workshop for the intellectually disabled.  The sermon sought to encapsulate the Love of God in one easy and memorable lesson.

The personification of Charity and other Virtues
drew on the Classical tradition of the Muses.
    Of all the various wedding experiences that I had over the years, I most treasure an occasion when I heard the passage on Faith, Hope and Love from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, read superbly.  I was asked, before the service, to look out for the woman who was reading, because she was running rather late.  She was an actress, and they had asked her specially, because they were sure she would do it well. The Rector, I believe, had advised on a suitable passage of scripture.  

    The actress arrived in time, and when she stepped up to the lectern and smiled graciously, it was clear that something special was about to happen, but the impact of it upon the verger was unprecedented. This woman read St Paul's letter as if it was addressed to her personally, as if she had just received it from far away, opened it and was devouring it eagerly.  She read with growing excitement, with discernible joy, savouring each precious phrase of this, one of the best-known passages of the Bible, as if she was discovering it for the first time.    I was simply thrilled by the power of this actress, to convey all that, within the context of reading an epistle in church.  I told her so, after the service.
    The actress looked at me with a mixture of astonishment and delight. 
    "But, Dahling," she said "I was reading it for the first time! They left it till the last minute to ask me, and, as I don't own such a thing as a Bible, I had never read it before in my life!" 

Khalil Gibran and his spiritual poetry
    A later priest, under whom I served as verger, used often to include within the service a poetic reading by Khalil Gibran. I supposed I heard it almost as many times as I heard Don Meadow's sermon. But the sentiments, urging the married couple to stand apart like trees and let the wind blow through their love, never spoke to me of what I considered married love ought to be. I became convinced that, despite all the writing that he did on the subject, perhaps Khalil Gibran didn't understand love at all, and that some of his advice, taken in the context of marriage, may very well be seriously misconstrued.

    Gibran was born in the 19th century to a Maronite Christian family and migrated from Lebanon to the US. Much of Gibran's writings deal with Christianity, especially on the topic of spiritual love. But his mysticism is a convergence of several different influences : Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Hinduism and theosophy. His best known work is "The Prophet", 1923, and he is said to be the third most widely read poet in the world.

   Today I found a lengthy poem posted on another blog page.  Here is an excerpt:

When love beckons to you,  follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.

    The poem rolls on, piling image upon image, sometimes mentioning God, sometimes appearing without explanation, to have jumped from spiritual love to carnal desire and back again.

    Various comments have been made in praise of the beauty and spirituality of this poem.  However, I have quite a few problems with it. While the language uses appealing and seemingly deeply meaningful images, taken as a whole, it means nothing whatsoever. It is as intellectually satisfying as a mouthful of fairy floss.

    The poem obviously draws in part upon 1 Corinthians 13, and like much of Kahlil Gibran's writing, assumes pseudo-Biblical language and phrasing (in much the same way as 19th century translators of the Quran worded it in antiquated King James Version English to give it a "scriptural" feeling.) The words and imagery roll on in a most enticing manner. The content, however, is as hollow as the proverbial sounding brass and as shallow as the clashing cymbal.

    What is actually being said? What sort of love is being referred to?  Is this the profound love of God?   Is it the love that Christians are encouraged to have for one another?  Is it an all encompassing love for humanity?   Is it romantic love?  All these aspects of love are hinted at in passing.
If this poem is about spiritual love, then it fails to inform, to encourage or to sustain. It doesn't tell us that we are loved. It doesn't tell us how we should love. 

God as Love 

      In Christianity "God is Love".  Love is a primary attribute of God.   God is love just as God is truth and God is life.  Moreover, the love of God is distinguished in the Greek by the use of the word "agape" meaning that it is selfless, all-encompassing and voluntary.

    I am drawn to compare Gibran's poem with Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven".  In this poem the writer is pursued by Love.  It becomes increasingly clear that the love which ceaselessly follows, despite all attempts to avoid, to hide, and to find satisfaction in other loves, is the Love of God. It is the selfless, enduring, forgiving love that is offered again and again, and eventually must be accepted.  
Love says:

Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, 
I am He Whom thou seekest! 
Thou drivest love from thee, who drivest Me.

Christian symbols for Love 

The Pelican.  A symbol of Christ's love, dependent on a
misunderstanding of the habits of Pelicans. 
      Within the context of the Christian Church, there are a number of symbolic images that stand for "Love".  One is the image of the crucified Christ which says to the Christian, in the most graphic terms: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life." 

     Another image of love, used since Medieval times, is that of the pelican with a nest full of young.   It was believed that the pelican so loved its young that it would pluck feathers from its own breast and feed the hatchlings on its blood.  The image of the pelican became the symbol of Christ's sacrificing love for the Church, and the pictorial motif is used particularly at churches with the dedication "Christ Church".

    The third image is that of Charity,  the "caritas" or caring love that evolved with the Latin translations of the Greek scriptures.  Charity, with her sister virtues of Faith and Hope, was to adorn many fresco, tomb and stained glass window, from the late Middle Ages through to the early 20th century.  All three, like other virtues, were given feminine persona.  Fide (or Faith) is depicted clinging to a large cross,  Spes (Hope) staunchly carries an anchor, while Caritas (Love) is a breast-feeding mother, often shown with twins.

Loving others

     In 1 Corinthians, chapter 13,  the message and its context are perfectly clear.  The context is not about what love can do to or for a person. The whole context of this passage is the necessity for a Christian person to have love for others.  Not a lustful love, not a one-on-one reciprocal love, but an enduring, selfless Christ-like love.     

    The Christian teaching does not make "love" an Eros-type persona, and talk about how it affects the one who yields to it.  In Christianity, the affect upon oneself is always down-played. The importance of love, and the reason why one needs to possess it, is entirely how it affects others.

    1 Corinthians 13 shows love to be a quality that a Christian person is fully obligated to possess, because if they do not, then all other gifts that they may have, are of little value.

"Love bears all things.....endures all things....
Love never ends." 
What are we told, in 1 Corinthians 13, are the characteristics of Love?

"Love is patient and kind; 
love is not jealous or boastful; 
it is not arrogant or rude. 
Love does not insist on its own way; 
it is not irritable or resentful; 
it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 
Love bears all things, believes all things, 
hopes all things, endures all things. 
Love never ends..... 
So Faith, Hope and Love abide, these three; 
but the greatest of these is Love." 

The Crucifx of Archbishop Gero of Cologne, c. 970, Cologne Cathedral, is possibly the oldest extant large sculptured crucifix. The backing mandorla is modern.

The personifications of Faith, Hope, Charity, Truth, Justice, Temperance and other Biblical virtues or gifts of the spirit had a practical purpose. They were often publicly displayed, with their various attributes, such as the sword and scales of Justice, and the jugs of wine and water of Temperance, as statues around the exterior of public buildings and as decoration inside venues such as town halls, to remind both the public and those in power of their duty towards each other.

The pelican with its young formed part of the rich iconography of the Medieval Church and takes its place among the many and diverse small images that may be found as carvings in wood and stone within ancient church buildings. However, where one may find foxes, cats, bears, and wolves in all sorts of odd places, the pelican is nearly always displayed in an elevated position, having direct association with both the sacrificial nature of Christ's love, and with the Church itself.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Wandering Monarchs

Life in Newtown,  No. 1 

I lived with my small son in a little two-storey Newtown terrace house with a cheerful yellow kitchen where the low winter sun poured in through the window and across the table on frosty mornings.  I had a little yard where roses and lavender and white daisies grew, as well as an enormous pumpkin vine that fed us all the winter.
Into my garden fell a little seed, blown on the wind.  It grew into a scraggy ugly plant.  But somehow I did not have the heart to pull it out, with the other weeds.  At last, at the ends of its stems formed some little red buds. In the Spring they grew into clusters of little red and yellow flowers. Not large, not decorative. It was not a very attractive garden plant. 

Then one day, when I was hanging out the washing, I noticed a butterfly hovering over that plant. It was a black and orange Monarch, some of which flew across the Pacific from California in about 1870 and now breed prolifically in Australia.  As I watched, it flew and sat, flew and sat over my scraggy little bush.  It was laying eggs.  Now, I didn't care about that bush very much.  I had no interest in protecting it from insects and soon it was covered with twenty-five munching, crawling, black and yellow striped caterpillars.  They did not spread to the other plants.  They only ate the bush they were born on.  As they chewed and munched from leaf to leaf the plant bled white sap like milk. They stripped the leaves off one by one and made piles of green droppings.  They ate the flowers for dessert and made piles of red droppings. Then they started eating the smaller branches. The plant  looked so ugly and untidy.  But the greedy caterpillars were fat and as ravenous as wolves.
One day I went out and found only twenty-two fat caterpillars.  The others had turned into chrysalides and were hanging in a row under the bar of the fence.  The chrysalides were so beautiful!  I was afraid that a bird might eat them.  I found a little branch which I put into a blue bottle on my table, in the morning sun.  I carefully pulled away the white silk that held the chrysalides onto the fence and wound it onto the twigs of the branch.  Soon there were twenty-five chrysalides hanging from the branch. It looked like a rare tree with the most exquisite buds or decorations hanging from it! 

Each chrysalis was the colour and transparency of pale green jade and was shaped like an exotic helmet.  Around the edge of each tiny helmet was a band of purest gold decorated with raised knobs like shiny black lacquer.  They were like magic things, like birds in eggs and babies in the womb.  How did those fat waddling hungry caterpillars turn into these beautiful things, and how would the developing creature inside break out?
With joy and agony we watched these two things happen.  If you have never seen a caterpillar turn into a chrysalis, you cannot imagine the process or the struggle.  The grub must pull itself up, contract its body and burst out of its stripy, caterpillar skin.  This can take hours of pain like birth.  What at last comes forth is a helpless soft pale green wriggling thing which must go on contracting and changing its shape, pulling itself slowly together until at last it hardens into the beautiful jade helmet.
There on the twig they hung for days and weeks.  When we looked against the light we could see the dark shapes of the creatures that were growing inside.  Then one day, when I came home with the shopping, I saw that three of the chrysalides were empty dry plastic shells, no longer beautiful. And there, on the curtain, on the cupboard and on the tea canister were three Monarch butterflies.  When I opened the door they flew out into the sunlight! 

           But how did they turn into butterflies? My son and I watched the process of transformation.  Through the transparent shells we could see the green interior becoming dark and growing folded bits.  As with the splitting of the skin to bring out the chrysalis, so did each butterfly have to break from the beautiful case that sheltered it and in which it could find its new being.  Once it had emerged from its case the butterfly was once again a vulnerable thing.   It could not fly; it could only crawl slowly away from its shell.  Its wings were crumpled and its body was swollen like an ugly grub.   Bit by bit the wings unfolded as the nourishment taken from the milk weed and preserved through all those weeks in the shell was slowly pumped into them from the swollen abdomen.  At last the butterfly attained its true proportions and its full beauty.
Suddenly the transformation ceased. The change was complete. The butterfly walked strongly forward and sat, gently fanning its wings until they were completely dry. At last it flew joyfully out the door and onwards to its life of fulfilment .  

There is another part to this story. Butterflies have a very strong sense of smell. They are guided by this sense to other butterflies and to flowers full of nectar and the plants that they need for survival.
           Now, some of these butterflies crept out of the chrysalis and onto my finger.  They hung there while they made their transformation.  I did not know it, but these beautiful creatures were becoming mysteriously imprinted with my scent.  For these butterflies, I became the life-giving milk-weed bush.
All that long summer, when I walked out into my little garden at night to look up at the stars, I would suddenly find myself in the company of butterflies.  They would flutter out of the night sky and sit on my hair, my hands and my shoulders and cling to my face, fanning their wings. It was a most strange and mystic sensation, my butterflies in the starlight. 

Copyright: Tamsyn Taylor, 2002
Pictures from Wikipedia Commons. LIcenses shown at links.  Acknowledgements: Korall, 2009; Antilived, 2006;  Greyson Orlando, 2007
Captain Tucker, 2008; Louise Docker, 2008.  Louise Docker's photo has been colour adjusted.