“The fig tree puts forth its figs, / and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance. / Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, / and come!
O my dove in the clefts of the rock, / in the secret recesses of the cliff, / Let me see you, / let me hear your voice, / For your voice is sweet, / and you are lovely.”
Song of Songs 2:13-14
“And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”
Luke 1: 43-44
Yesterday I began reading an early Christmas gift, a book entitled The Will to Change by the feminist writer bell hooks. In the first chapter of that book, Hooks quotes the psychotherapist John Bradshaw as pointing out that “patriarchal rules still govern most of the world’s religious, school systems, and family systems.” One of the rules that Bradshaw notes is “the repression of all emotions except fear” (p. 23). I experienced something of the truth of Bradshaw’s comment this morning in my experience (reaction?) to the reading from the Song of Songs and the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in Luke 1. For at least some of us, brought up in our own religious traditions, the eroticism of the Song of Songs is a bit of a shock. What does this have to do with religion and morality? Isn’t this kind of appreciation, if not actual beatification, of love in its erotic dimension antithetical to the fear of body and life that has been the foundation of our religious formation?
In the early 90’s there was a film loosely based on the life of singer Tina Turner entitled “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” This morning, as I read the excerpt from the Song of Songs and heard the words of Elizabeth to Mary, this title, and question, came back to me. The answer, of course, is that love has everything to do with it. The problem lies in the degree to which so much of our religious thinking, feeling, and acting so often represses the very essence of our lives and our calls to serve the world. We are so often driven by duty, fear, ambition, demand, responsibility, obedience, subservience, power, achievement, success, fear of failure, and on and on, but often so little aware of and moved by love. We live and act toward ourselves, others, and God as if love had nothing to do with it.
The repression of patriarchy is not merely experienced in religious systems but also in our politics. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said of Franklin Roosevelt that he had “a second class intellect but a first class temperament.” An aspect of that first class temperament was evidenced in Roosevelt’s ability to summon what was best in people and to evoke hope in them even in truly perilous times. It was common to hear the common person suffering the afflictions of the Depression say that Roosevelt, a man born of privilege, understood them and spoke directly to them. The extreme mourning experienced at his death was due to the fact that people felt connected to him, perhaps it is fair to say loved by him and so loved him in return. In this day and age, however, the language of politics is the language of fear, anger, and resentment. Most of our leaders seem more interested in evoking our hatred and resentment of each other than our love of and care for each other. The result is that fear and anger become increasingly pervasive not only in our political discourse but in our relationships with each other. Even as we approach Christmas, we are encouraged to throw the words “Merry Christmas” as weapons at those with different beliefs and sensibilities from ours. Rather than words of love they become weapons of power and dominance.
In today’s gospel, however, Elizabeth speaks of the experience of being surprised by love. “And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” It is the very nature of love that it comes unbidden, that it is always a joyous and life giving surprise. As I think of my own life this past year, I feel very much the wonder and sense of gratitude for the undeserved and unexpected love that has evoked in me a joy and deeper life than I could have predicted. As the poet of the Song of Songs describes, there is ever greater loveliness and sweetness, joy and life at the heart of our being that the approach of love in all its unexpected and unbidden ways stirs in and draws out of us. The truth that we are always and everywhere in formation is the truth of a love that comes to us at each moment of life, as Mary and Jesus came so surprisingly and undeservedly to Elizabeth and John.
The greatest obstacle to receiving the love we are offered is our fear of the vulnerability receiving love requires. In my experience, the one who bears love to me comes always in vulnerability. It is their willingness to be vulnerable that allows me in turn to overcome my fear and so to share my own vulnerability with them. The deep beauty, loveliness, and sweetness of the other I am only able to recognize in their vulnerability, which in turn evokes from me a care and generativity beyond what I had known before. The formation, reformation, and transformation of the world, God’s ongoing act of creation and recreation, happens only in love. We mistakenly, and patriarchically, believe that the mode of power is the way to renewal and transformation. Yet, as we are reminded today, it is precisely the opposite that is the case. John stirs in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice and the presence of the Lord within her. He is brought to life, and receives his call, in the love that comes to him. This love, which comes to him so early but that he never, in his core, forgets is the source of his life and mission. He points toward, as he himself strains toward, that love that effected his call and stirred him from the beginning.
We are always learning about love and the ways of love in us and with us. When love awakens us anew, it is always a surprise to us. We may have thought that the days of our longing for more were behind us, that our life of desire had long since diminished. Yet at any point, out of the clefts of our hardened hearts or the recesses of our repetitive minds a sweet and lovely voice may beckon us to dare once again to open up in the vulnerability of our own desire and longing. The bearer of that voice to us is a bearer of “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” He or she is a reminder to us that it is love and not fear that sources creation and re-creation. Love always comes to us as a call to give all we have, and an evocation of the more that we have to give than we had even realized, a source of new and inspired work in us.
Yesterday I learned that the crèche in St. Peter’s Square is very controversial in some quarters. This year’s crèche represents not only the birth of Jesus but the corporal works of mercy. The figures include the head of a man in jail as well as the naked body of a man symbolizing the summons to clothe the naked. Some say that these are a distraction from what should be the center of attention, the infant Jesus. Perhaps this is the very point, however. Jesus as the manifestation of God’s love lives in the vulnerability of the child but also in the vulnerability of all of humanity. We are not to turn the celebration of Christmas into an occasion for nostalgia and sentiment. Love and its call are always coming to us. The experience of love is that of longing to lose ourselves in the life of the beloved. It is to give all we have, until we are empty, in service of the possibilities of the one we love. It is, in fact, our vulnerability that makes love possible, that is the space that is able to receive love. God comes to us in love that we may serve the beloved as we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit prisoners, bury the dead, and give alms to the poor.
So, love has everything to do with it. In the fear and discouragement that tend too often to dominate our consciousness, however, we can forget that we are not slaves but friends. To know love is to experience more powerfully and painfully our longing to befriend the world. This can be a frightening prospect, when we realize that it requires of us to be yet more vulnerable with the truth of who we are. Yet, by grace, there shall always be in life “sweet” and “lovely” creatures who dare to be real with us, to ask for love from us and to offer love to us. As Mary and Jesus, they shall come to us and stir the deeper and truer life within us. Their love will be a call to us to give away yet more of ourselves that we might know the truth that God is love, and that we are within “a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.”
Beauty calls to ecstasy, while its act of love opens in us the possibility of awareness, of a journey, of a known and embraced vulnerability.
Beauty strikes the human person, it wounds him and, precisely in that way, gives him wings and raises him up with a longing so powerful it desires more than what is opportune for a person to desire: “It is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound.” This is how Nicolas Kabasilas refers to the beauty that wounds and in it recognizes Christ’s presence and the “vulnus” that cries within us as a longing for fulfillment. A wound that calls us to our ultimate destiny and our mission. Pope Francis reminds us: “Whoever wants to preach must be the first to let the Word of God move him deeply and become incarnate in his daily life [. . . ]; we need to let ourselves be wounded by that word that will also wound others.”
Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Contemplate: To Consecrated Men and Women on the Trail of Beauty, pp. 71-2