A Many-Splendored Thing
To love deeply in one direction makes us more loving in all directions.
I do love I know not what;
Sometimes this and sometimes that.
There is only one kind of love, but there are a thousand different versions.
François de la Rochefoucauld
Love, it is said, is a many-splendored thing. The various experiences of love, as well as the effects of each experience and the interplay between them, give love its claim to splendor.
There are a variety of loves, but they all have the same spirit. The selections in this chapter suggest that this spirit is the generic ingredient in every type of love.
Love’s splendor is most obvious in its effects, in the way it moves us out of our narrowness to another level of existence.
Love, like the stories, poetry, and songs that proclaim its joy and its sorrows, does not lend itself to rational, scientific analysis. Why do two people fall in love? Why is it that a beautiful sunset can dispel the frustration of a rush-hour driver headed home after a busy day? Why does a teenage boy, given to monosyllabic answers and careless dress, suddenly become concerned about his appearance and sound a bit more civilized after a certain young woman smiles at him? Why is it that the birth of a grandchild turns staid, mature adults into euphoric grandparents? Why is it that when we are loved we begin to open ourselves to heretofore-undreamed-of adventures? Why do memories of certain places stir glad feelings? Why does the concern of a friend during a time of trial lighten our burden? Why do all these things happen if not because just even a hint of love arms us against our need always to be on guard, fearful of a loss of self.
True love, no matter what its focus, entices our spirits to move out of the constricted confines of self. It impels us to sing a song that encompasses not only our own souls but also the soul of the other, be it a spouse, a child, a neighbor, our community, our neighborhood, the stranger, all humanity, the universe, and beyond. The narrow circle widens each time we feel we are loved as well as each time we allow ourselves to love something or someone.
At times the term love is misapplied. People are said to love everything from fame, fortune, power, and prestige to the latest fashion, movie, television show, rock star, or novel. These are false loves when they are based in a compulsion or a sense of greed. Compulsion and greed focus our energies on the acquisition of things as a means of satisfying the ego. We are shaped by what we love, even when these are false loves. The circle narrows. The spirit withers.
The dichotomy between our expressed desire to love and be loved and our actions to protect us from what we imagine to be a loss of self sets up obstacles to our participation in the feast of love. Yet, when properly nourished, our ability to love grows. We work our way up to participation in the feast of love when we explore the various love challenges and love opportunities available to us. The spirit thrives.
When the spirit thrives, both individuals and communities are open to the splendor of the varieties of loves. When we are mindful of love’s possibilities, good things happen. We have a hint of what it means to be real.
* * *
We seek to understand what it means to love, thinking that once we have the wisdom we will conquer all life’s obstacles. Unfortunately, like the he-mouse, we want things our way. Our self-centered desires often make it difficult, if not impossible, to recognize love when it is waiting for us to embrace it.
* * *
Love took up the glass of Time, and turn’d it in his glowing hands;
Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.
Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;
Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, pass’d in music out of sight.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
from Locksley Hall
* * *
The He-Mouse and the She-Mouse
This tale appears in Indian, classical, midrashic, and medieval fable literatures, as well as in modern oral tradition.
* * *
Thus said a mouse: “What good is a male without the female who is his wife? I have seen every kind of thing that is alive, yet among all these I have found none that is fit to be my wife.” And he did greatly desire to seek for himself a wife most fair, and he could find none to suit his thought and aim except the sun, who was fair beyond all compare. So he said: “If all who dwell on earth are in darkness when she is not there, the good sun brings healing with her when she comes.” And when the sun began shining again, she found much favor in his eyes, and he said to her: “I love you with an everlasting love, therefore I beg you to come down from above and I shall pay your bridal price and wed you in a trice.” And the sun answered with guile and deceit: “Surely it would not be meet to take the light which grew dark yesterday and shines again today, and then sets in the evening. As soon as you look at it, it will pass away and clouds can conceal it anyway, and so I am but a servant to the cloud for whenever it desires I am clad in darkness. But if you should offer your pleas to the cloud, I am sure that it will not turn you away.”
The mouse thought it over and hastened away to seek the cloud and said to her: “Indeed, I have toiled and found, O cloud most fair and fine, and by counsel of the sun I wish to make you mine, and I shall never forsake you.” But the cloud answered and said: “He who is high above the high has placed me in the hands of the wind which bears me wherever it finds to be best, whether north or south or east or west. With might and main it carries me away. Now if a wife like me you desire, you will be wandering to and fro on earth until you tire. Forsake the maid and the lady take, for the wind can make me or she can break. Go to the wind and dwell with her, entice her if you can.”
So the mouse went away to the wind and found her in a desolate land and to her he did say: “Have no fear. But haste away to the hills with me for of all the females I did see in these times and our present age you are the best and most fit for me, so you be mine and I shall be yours.” But the wind answered: “Why do you come to take me? You do not know how abject I be for I have no strength or power to blow down a wall at any hour, whether of stone or earth it be. I am not strong at all, you see, when a wall is stronger than me. So if it should seem fit to you and you can persuade her to be faithful and true, let her be your citadel and stay.”
So he went to the wall and this did say: “Listen to me, for I would have you know the counsel of the sun and the cloud and the wind and they advise that I should ask you to be sweet and kind to me, so that we may wed, you see.” But the wall answered in rage and wrath: “They sent you to me to display my shame and reproach. You have come to remind me that they are all of them free to rise up and go down while my stone and wall cannot move at all, and I have neither strength nor power and any mouse or worm can make me bare and dig into my base and make themselves a ladder and a stair. Though I may be an upthrust wall, they injure me with their mouths and feet as though I had no strength at all, and the mice come here with all of their kin and dwell in me, the mothers and their litters. And they have many a hundred nests, and I cannot stand against them at the best. And do you desire a wife like me?”
So when the mouse saw that his hopes were in vain, he took a wife of his own kith and kin who had been born not far away, and she became his helpmate on that day.
from Mimekor Yisrael: Selected Classical Jewish Folktales
* * *
If we are willing to risk love, to let love arm us, we will eventually find the answer to the ultimate questions.
* * *
To love “very much” is to love poorly: one loves—that is all—it cannot be modified or completed without being nullified. It is a short word, but it contains all: it means the body, the soul, the life, the entire being. We feel it as we feel the warmth of the blood, we breathe it as we breathe the air, we carry it in ourselves as we carry our thoughts. Nothing more exists for us. It is not a word; it is an inexpressible state indicated by four letters.
Guy De Maupassant
* * *
From the soul’s proper loneliness love and affection seem
part substance and part dream
held in the mouth in the same way the snake carries its eggs
if gripped too hard they break,
leaving a few grains of dust
and a heart crippled by its weight of lust.
* * *
Even though love often disappoints us from every direction, in the end love will triumph.
* * *
He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
* * *
A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins—an art lover’s woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.
This is what love does to things: the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love’s mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.
* * *
Love is one of the great mysteries of human experience. Religious traditions from every time and culture offer insights into the meaning of love. Though they sometimes look at love from different perspectives, they all acknowledge the essential role of love in our lives. As we consider the various experiences of human love, we will turn to the wisdom of these traditions for their insights.
* * *
Love of Enemies
But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone hits you on one cheek, let him hit the other one too; if someone takes your coat, let him have your shirt as well. Give to everyone who asks you for something, and when someone takes what is yours, do not ask for it back. Do for others just what you want them to do for you.
If you love only the people who love you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners do that! And if you lend only to those from whom you hope to get it back, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount! No! Love your enemies and do good to them; lend and expect nothing back. You will then have a great reward, and you will be children of the Most High God. For he is good to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.
* * *
You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you. And to all these qualities add love, which binds all things together in perfect unity.
* * *
Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. And God showed his love for us by sending his only Son into the world, so that we might have life through him. This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven.
Dear friends, if this is how God loved us, then we should love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in union with us, and his love is made perfect in us.
1 John 4:7-11
* * *
Then said Almitra, Speak to us of Love.
And he raised his head and looked upon
the people, and there fell stillness upon them.
And with a great voice he said:
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.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires of love:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.
from The Prophet
* * *
Prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light
and where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I might not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born
to eternal life.
* * *
There is one who sings the song of his soul, discovering in his soul everything—utter spiritual fulfillment.
There is one who sings the song of his people. Emerging from the private circle of his soul—not expansive enough, not yet tranquil—he strives for fierce heights, clinging to the entire community of Israel in tender love. Together with her, he sings her song, feels her anguish, delights in her hopes. He conceives profound insights into her past and her future, deftly probing the inwardness of her spirit with the wisdom of love.
Then there is one whose soul expands until it extends beyond the border of Israel, singing the song of humanity. In the glory of the entire human race, in the glory of the human form, his spirit spreads, aspiring to the goal of humankind, envisioning its consummation. From this spring of life, he draws all his deepest reflections, his searching, striving, and vision.
Then there is one who expands even further until he unites with all of existence, with all creatures, with all worlds, singing a song with them all.
There is one who ascends with all these songs in unison—the song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the cosmos—resounding together, blending in harmony, circulating the sap of life, the sound of holy joy.
Abraham Isaac Kook
* * *
Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on those two commandments.”
* * *
Set your hearts, then, on the more important gifts.
Best of all, however, is the following way.
I may be able to speak the languages of human beings and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell. I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets; I may have all the faith needed to move mountains—but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have, and even give up my body to be burned—but if I have no love, this does me no good.
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail.
Love is eternal. There are inspired messages, but they are temporary; there are gifts of speaking in strange tongues, but they will cease; there is knowledge, but it will pass. For our gifts of knowledge and of inspired messages are only partial; but when what is perfect comes, then what is partial will disappear.
When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child; now that I am an adult, I have no more use for childish ways. What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-to-face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete—as complete as God’s knowledge of me.
Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13
Copyright © 2002 by Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises and Mary G. Durkin