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Bearing the Beams of Love


Christmas Sunday 2008

I: — I played hockey for twelve seasons. I never weighed more than one hundred and fifty-five pounds. I regularly played against two hundred and ten pound gorillas who were as mean as a junk-yard dog. I survived the twelve seasons inasmuch as I always knew how to protect myself on the ice. I took to heart the advice which Ted “Scarface” Lindsay gave to Stan Mikita when Mikita moved from junior hockey to the NHL. Mikita, a smaller fellow, had voiced his fear that he wasn’t tough enough to play in the NHL. “Stan”, Lindsay said, “as long as the stick is in your hand you are as tough as anyone on the ice. Never drop your stick.”

Because I could always protect myself on the ice I was all the more surprised to learn, years later, that I couldn’t protect myself politically, institutionally. Politically I was as defenceless as a first-time skater standing on wobbly legs at centre ice: he’s unable even to get out of the way, never mind run down anyone else.

Subsequently I learned that not only could I not protect myself politically, institutionally, I couldn’t protect myself psychologically. I seemed to get bushwacked emotionally — or felt I got bushwacked — in a way that most people seemed to avoid, or at least disguise. I seemed unable either to avoid it or disguise it.

I concluded that I had to learn to protect myself. Detachment was to be my first piece of armour. “Be laid back”, I told myself over and over. “Be detached (by now it was a mantra); stay cool; keep your gut unhooked.” It all went exceedingly well, and I thought I was really progressing at remaking myself psychologically; it all went well, that is, for three hours. Then the phone rang. A forty-three year old woman had called me from Mississauga ’s Credit Valley Hospital out-patient department. She needed a ride from the hospital to work. Take a cab? She wanted to talk to me. She was riddled with tumours, skinny as a broom handle, and had just had her pain-killer dosage increased. Her skin-colour was a ghastly yellow-green-brown and she was struggling to keep upright a marriage that was close to capsizing. End of detachment. End of being laid back. Gut hooked all over again.

Then I recalled the words of Gerald May, MD. Gerald May is an American physician, now living in Washington , who has written much in the field of spiritual direction. (A spiritual director, different from a pastoral counsellor or a psychotherapist, is someone who helps individuals discern and assist the movement of God’s grace within them and God’s way for them.) Professionally Gerald May is a psychiatrist who served, at one time, with the United States Air Force in Viet Nam . In one of his many books May has written, “Some wisdom deep inside us knows it’s impossible to love safely; we either enter it undefended or not at all”. We can’t love safely; either we love defencelessly or we don’t love. Instantly I admitted to myself what I had known in my heart all along, despite my short-lived efforts at detachment and coolness: I admitted that a disciple of Jesus Christ whose preoccupation is survival is no disciple at all. Dr. May is correct. We can’t love safely.

Next I pondered the two lines from the poet, William Blake, which May quoted in his book, The Awakened Heart.

And we are put on earth a little space

That we might learn to bear the beams of love.

Gerald May says only three things about this quotation. We are to bear love in the three dictionary senses of “bear”. (i) We are to grow in our capacity to endure love’s beauty and love’s pain. (ii) We are to carry love and spread it around — “as children carry and spread measles and laughter”, he adds. (iii) We are to bring love to birth. When I read this I was so startled that I didn’t move. Slowly my mind spun out what it is to bear love in this three-fold sense.

II(i): — We must grow in our capacity to endure love’s beauty and love’s pain. Love’s beauty we understand. But love’s pain? Does love pain? Can it? Yes. And in my older age I have come to see that beauty brings with it its own pain.

When the Shepherd family was last in England we travelled into the Yorkshire moors. Everyone has some picture of the Yorkshire moors, thanks to the writings of the Yorkshire veterinarian, James Herriott. He hasn’t exaggerated. We Shepherds walked together upon the moors as the sun was setting. I shan’t attempt to describe it. Suffice it to say it was so beautiful as to leave us dumbfounded. The beauty was so exquisitely beautiful as to border on the surreal. In the next instant the beauty seemed so intense as to make us ache. The beauty surrounding us contrasted so very sharply with the unbeauty we find on so many fronts in life that this wordless beauty brought with it a peculiar kind of pain.

In the midst of the unlove which we find on so many fronts in life we are startled when we find ourselves loved with a love whose intensity is beautiful, to be sure, and whose beauty makes us ache. When we are loved not because we are useful to someone else, not because we are needed or convenient; when we are loved for our own sake, loved for love’s sake — this is when we learn what it is to endure the exquisite beauty and ache of love.

It’s easy to confuse love with other linkages. My adult daughters love me; they are also counting on an inheritance. My wife loves me; she is also legally bound to me. My mother loves me; she is also old and sick and has made me executor of her will and granted me power of attorney. What’s more, all of these people to whom I am related by blood or marriage would be considered nasty, deficient themselves, if they didn’t love me. At the same time, none of this means that they don’t love me for my sake, love me for love’s sake.

Still, there are circumstances where the love with which we are loved can only be love for our sake, love for love’s sake, because we aren’t linked in any way to those who love us. I marvel at the love with which I am loved when this or that person who loves me will never profit from my estate, never be the beneficiary of my life-insurance, never have any legal tie to me; when in fact there is no material advantage to loving me, no social advantage — no advantage of any kind in loving me. Yet they continue to pour upon me a love whose beauty is so beautiful as to make me ache. Not only is there no advantage accruing to them; there is every disadvantage. For I have embarrassed them in public on occasion. I have committed social gaffes in their presence that left them wishing (for a few minutes, anyway) that I was at someone else’s party. I have plunged them into emotional anguish just because they were so closely identified with me in my emotional anguish. And I have perplexed them as they stood speechless before my incomprehensible spasms of irrationality.

The longer I live the more amazed I am at all of this; which is to say, the longer I live the more I must grow in my capacity to endure love and not flee it, not find it so strange as to be foreign, not resist it inasmuch as I can’t control it, not allow its singularity to diminish its glory. The longer I live the more I must cherish it and grow in my capacity to endure it.

We must bear love in the sense of growing in our capacity to endure love’s beauty and love’s pain.

(ii) — In the second place we are to bear love in the sense of carrying love and spreading it. Surely we are to carry it and spread it chiefly unselfconsciously. I know, there are situations where we have to clench our teeth and resolve that contempt won’t consume our love. There are days when we have to fight the temptation to despise or hate as surely as our Lord fought assorted temptations in the wilderness. But we can’t be fighting all the time. We can’t have our teeth clenched and our resolve clothesline-taut all the time — or else we’d be grim, grim as death. We carry or spread love chiefly unselfconsciously.

Ever since Louis Pasteur published his discoveries we have known about the transmission of communicable diseases. Such diseases move throughout the human population by means of germs; invisible to the naked eye, but no less real for that. In a fallen world disease is naturally contagious. And in a fallen world contempt is naturally contagious too. No one has to be taught to despise others; left alone, humankind does it naturally in this, the era of the Fall. Then love can be spread only by an infusion of God’s Spirit. Only the Spirit (everywhere in scripture the Spirit is the effectual presence of God) can cause the love we pour out on others to do something besides run off them like rain slicking off an umbrella. Only the Spirit of God can cause love to stick to others, to penetrate, to swell, and to declare that love has brought forth its increase in someone (all of us) who is, in some measure, love-deprived.

The body’s immune system is a good thing. It keeps us from falling sick with scores of different diseases in the same day. Yet there is one place where the body’s immune system is counter-productive: when we need a heart-transplant. Here our immune system has to be overridden or we shall reject the one thing we need most.

We human beings have an immune system, as it were, of a different sort as well. It keeps us from being “suckered” by every last fad, notion, idea, ideology, ploy, scheme, deviousness. And yet there is one place where our beneficial immune system (it renders us rightly suspicious) must be overridden by the Spirit of God if we aren’t to reject love. Only God himself can do this. And this is precisely what he has promised to do. We shall leave him to do it, even as he leaves us to what we must do: bear love in the sense of carrying it, spreading it.

(iii): — We are to bear love, finally, in the sense of bringing it forth. Once again it’s the case that of ourselves we can’t. Just as we, of ourselves, can’t make our love for others adhere to them, so we can’t, of ourselves, quicken love in them, bring forth in them that love which is soon to be love from them. Of ourselves we can’t render someone else a loving person. Once again only God can; and once again he has promised to do this as he takes up and honours our unselfconscious commitment to people who find in our commitment to them what they have found nowhere else.

Gerald May once more, the psychiatrist whose work has meant so much to me: May was with the United States Air Force in Viet Nam where he worked in the psychiatric ward of a military hospital, then returned home where he worked in an American prison before moving on to a state psychiatric hospital. Working in these three venues occupied twenty years of his life. He says these twenty years were bleak, indescribably bleak. Every day he drove to work wondering what on earth he was doing, even what on earth he thought he was doing. For instance, every day he spoke with a woman, a patient in a state hospital, who never said a word. This patient not only said nothing; she appeared so vacant as not even to notice him when he was speaking to her. Still he didn’t ignore her (even though it’s difficult not to ignore someone who is utterly unresponsive) but always did his medical duty by her, changing medications and writing up charts, speaking to her every day, mute though she remained. This situation continued for six months. One day, in the course of the same hospital routine, he was fishing in his jacket pockets for a “light” when this unspeaking woman walked out of the room into the corridor and wordlessly, silently beckoned a nurse to her. “Dr. May needs matches for his pipe”, the psychotic woman said. Only God can bring love to birth; and God does precisely this as he takes up and honours the commitments we make to others.

III: — It is Christmas Sunday. Today we praise God for incarnating in the babe of Bethlehem that love which God is himself, for the Incarnation is the outer expression of the innermost heart of God.

Unquestionably the Incarnate One bore love in the threefold sense of “bear.” Jesus most certainly received love from others; he endured that love which is so exquisitely beautiful as to ache. When the adoring woman poured the costliest perfume on his feet he remarked, “She has done a beautiful thing to me…. she has anointed my body beforehand for burying.” (Mark 14:6,8) (There we have both love’s beauty and love’s pain.)

Just as certainly Jesus carried love, spread it, spread it with his crucified, spread-out arms. As the gospel writer attests: “Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.” (John 13:1)

And just as certainly Jesus brought love to birth. Matthew was a tax-collector who had “sold out” to Rome and now stood to gain financially by collaborating. Simon was a zealot, a terrorist who had vowed the assassination of every last collaborator he could safely stab. What kept these two men in the same apostolic band except the love which Jesus had brought to birth in both? What else kept Jews and Gentiles in the same congregation when Gentiles had always regarded Jews as anti-intellectual and inflexible, while Jews had always regarded Gentiles as bereft of God and shamelessly immoral? What else keeps any congregation in one fellowship?

You and I are to “bear the beams of love”, in the words of the poet, William Blake. We can bear love in the three-fold sense of enduring its beauty and its pain, carrying it and spreading it, and committing ourselves to those in whom God will bring it to birth; we can do this just because he whose birth we celebrate in this season has done it already and done it in us.

Then come, let us adore him, for he is Christ the Lord.

The Reverend Dr Victor Shepherd
Advent IV 21st December 2008
Church of St. Bride, Anglican Mississauga