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Choosing to Fall – 5/31/2015

Earlier this year, an essay appeared in the New York Times by the author Mandy Len Catron. It’s title was, “To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This.” The piece was about a psychological study from the 1990s in which a team of researchers had designed a protocol – a set of exercises built around a list of 36 questions – in an attempt to see if they could engineer romantic love between two strangers. The two participants should be at least marginally viable romantic prospects for each other – each should be attracted to members of the others’ gender, for instance – and so long as this threshold is met, they sit facing each other and take turns asking and responding to each of the 36 questions.

These questions begin with interesting but minor personal details and progress to extremely intimate thoughts and feelings of the person answering: including what they think about the person. The exercise closes with the participants staring into each others’ eyes for four full minutes. Apparently, the study produced at least one happy couple: the two former strangers went on to get married, even inviting the folks who ran the study that introduced them to each other to their wedding. And Mandy Len Catron, the author of the New York Times piece, explained that she had begun her current romantic partnership by reenacting the study together with an acquaintance whom she had since come to love. The study and its protocol raise an intriguing question: when we fall in love, how much of it is something that just happens, and how much is something we choose?

Several years ago, I had my first real car accident. As these things go, it was a very minor event; I fishtailed while making a turn on a slick road and slid off into a ditch. I was driving alone, and no one else and no other cars were involved. I wasn’t hurt at all, and even my car was still drivable afterwards. Really, if I was going to have a car accident, I couldn’t have asked for a nicer one.

Nonetheless, it was still a car accident. Once I came to a full stop, I checked myself out and made sure I wasn’t hurt or sore anywhere. I got out of the car, inspected the damage, and confirmed that I couldn’t get back on the road without some help. I called for a tow truck, and called my family and the other folks I needed to call, to let them know what had happened, and that I was alright. I did all of that with calm and careful focus, but once all of those tasks were finished, I was left standing there, by the side of the road, with nothing but the morning mist and my own adrenaline for company.

Looking for something to focus on, I dug around in my bag and found a small, thin paperback book. It was a collection of poems by Hafiz, the 14th century Persian mystic. The book was a gift from a friend; it had been given to me just a few weeks earlier. What a fortuitous gift it was! How grateful I was, in that moment, to find something that I could focus my nervous energy on. To have something to do while my mind resettled and returned from a state of emergency to a state of rest. We almost never know how important, how valuable, how meaningful a gift will be, until long after it has been given, and received. On that damp morning, by the side of the road, I was very glad to have received the gift of the words of Hafiz.

Most of Hafiz’ work was composed on the fly, recited or sung to his friends and companions during or after meals or times of worship. Here is one of those poems:

How

Did the rose

Ever open its heart

And give to this world

All its

Beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light

Against its

Being,

Otherwise,

We all remain

Too

Frightened.[i]

The title of that piece is, It Felt Love. That encouragement of light which caused the rose to open was love itself to the flower. As Hafiz seems to say, the experience of love is a necessary factor for any of us to share our beauty with the world. Without it, we would never have the courage to move beyond our own fears.

This morning’s message is the final of three sermons considering the three great virtues put forward by Paul in the Greek Testament’s first letter to the Corinthians: faith, hope, and love. Love, according to Paul, is the greatest of these three, and it is also our subject this morning. In the film, Moulin Rouge, the main character is supposed to be a gifted poet, and this is symbolized to the audience by the fact that all of his verses are taken from 20th century pop songs. In one exchange with his hardened and cynical romantic interest, he testifies to her that, “Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love.” The word love has been repeated so many times, heaped with so much hollow praise, as to nearly lose all meaning. After all of the romantic comedies, and greeting cards, and jewelry advertisements, what meaning can possibly be left?

In the maze of language, particularly in the thick fog of undifferentiated information that surrounds us, all day and every day here in modern America, we can sometimes get turned around. It is possible, frighteningly easy, in fact, to lose touch with what matters. When that happens, stories about what is meaningful in life, often the very simplest sorts of stories, can help to ground us and remind us of our own core truths. So here is a story about chickens.

In northern California there’s farm of sorts. It has barns and pens and pastures, and there are a whole lot of animals – cows, pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys and others. They all live there, but the farm doesn’t generate anything for humans to eat. Those animals aren’t for sale or for consumption; they have been rescued from factory farms and other abusive living situations and brought to this particular place of safety called Animal Place, a farm sanctuary.

Some years ago, at Animal Place, they had a hen come in whose body had been pretty badly damaged by her life up to that point. She could only move slowly and she was missing most of her beak. They named her Mary. Soon after she arrived she began to bond with one of the other chickens who already lived there, a rooster named Notorious Boy. They would walk in the yard together, peck for food together, and even slept right next to each other at night, outside the coup, away from the other chickens. One day, there was a sudden, heavy rain. Most of the chickens were in their coup, but Mary and Notorious Boy were not, so their tender went out to help get them out of the rain. She found the two standing on top of a picnic table, huddled together. Notorious Boy had his wing out over Mary’s head, and he was shielding her from the worst of the rain.

Remember that these are two chickens that we are talking about here, and then take a second. Think about the people in your life that you would be willing to stand in the rain to protect. Think about the people who would be willing to stand in the rain to watch over you. That’s love. It might not be everything that love is, or all that it can be, but it is love. This world is not always easy, it is not always fun, it is not always good, and love is the thing that holds people together to care for one another and to face the world despite its difficulties and failings.

The author of the Hebrew Bible’s Song of Songs wrote,

Set me as a seal upon your heart,

Like the seal upon your hand.

For love is fierce as death,

Devotion is unyielding as the grave;

It burns like a blazing fire,

Like a mighty flame.

Vast floods cannot quench love,

Nor rivers drown it.

If a person offered all their wealth for love,

They would be laughed to scorn.[ii]

Love is fierce as death, and its devotion as unyielding as the grave not because it ignores or supersedes our mortal state, but because it drives us to act despite the truth that we will die. Love gives meaning enough to the lives we lead that we will risk failure, risk loss, risk death, to fulfill the demands of the heart.

Love unites people. It breaks down the barriers between “I” and “you”, and helps to form a “we”. Particularly in our ever-more individualistic and isolating culture, love is the most dynamic force there is; the one most likely to change the way in which people live and relate to one another. Yet love, even religious love, perhaps especially religious love, has a reputation as a passive and meek emotion. There’s another famous passage in the Paul’s first letter to the people of Corinth, that exemplifies this:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

          In the nearly two thousand years since those words were written, there has always been some voice or another from among the powerful using them to counsel the powerless. ‘Be patient with me, even when you are starving, and I have plenty to eat.’ ‘Be kind to me, even when you are suffering, and I am your suffering’s cause.’ ‘Do not be irritable or resentful, even when you are not free, and I have taken your freedom from you.’ In this way, the practice of love has been bent to serve the purpose of division rather than connection, to build one-sided relationships to the benefit of the few and the detriment of the many. But listen to some of those words again. Love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.” It, “hopes all things, endures all things.” It is not a practice of love to ignore what is wrong or unjust, or to accept it without speaking the truth and working to change the way things are. It demands receptivity, and a willingness to change, but not passivity or docility.

The first letter to the Corinthians, like the rest of the Christian Testament, was written in Greek, for a largely Greek-speaking audience, and although the Greek language had several words related to love, the holy texts of Christianity only use a few of them. There is agape, divine or perfect love, which applies to all beings equally, and is marked in particular by boundless charity and forgiveness. There is also philia, virtuous love based on loyalty to friends, family and community. But the Greek scriptures leave out two types of love more closely connected to the body: eros, passionate love, including sexual attraction but also the appreciation of beauty, and storge, which is natural, instinctual affection, such as the bond between a parent and a child. Each of these has a potential to form the basis of a healthy, life-giving connection, and each also has the potential to be followed in a harmful direction. It should be obvious that eros can be perverted to cause terrible harm; sex can be a crucial dimension of some profoundly loving relationships but it also frequently serves as a basis for exploitation and objectification. Philia – loyalty to those we know and love – can counsel us to care for, look out for, and respect one another and it can also narrow our moral vision to focus only on those in our immediate circle, to the detriment of everyone else. Storge, love born of natural instinct, may actually be the most essential of these: for how could human life endure without the instinctual love between parent and child? But we do not need to look far into the lives of the families we know to see that storge does not manifest evenly: from person to person, or from moment to moment. Even the noble ideal of limitless, universal love – agape – has potential problems. Over simplified and taken to an extreme, it can lead to a ‘loving’ acceptance of the status quo; a refusal to judge or confront even when that is actually what love and the situation demand.

It is a contradiction inherent it seems to the way we human beings love, that this impulse which can drive us to give of ourselves until nothing is left can also make us incredibly selfish: yearning for a particular love which is reserved only for us. In his poem, September 1, 1939, the poet W.H. Auden wrote, in part:

For the error bred in the bone

Of each woman and each man

Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone.

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.[iii]

We must love one another or die. Our exact feelings, moment to moment, are not exactly in our control. But we can choose how we train ourselves, who we focus our time, energy, and attention on. We can practice love even when that is not the strongest emotion in our hearts. Acting out of love, or falling in love, is not simply a matter of will, but there is still a matter of choice. We can choose to fall if we seek, again and again, to connect with the other person. If this is possible, we should be very careful who we seek to fall in love with romantically. But in terms of who we should develop our sense of philia and agape toward? We must love one another: it is what the world, and each of us in it, needs.

[i] From the collection of Hafiz’ poetry, The Gift, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

[ii] Song of Songs 8:6-7

[iii] From September 1, 1939, by W.H. Auden

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