Today we remember Aelred, the 12th century abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. He is remembered especially for his writings on spiritual friendship and chaste fraternal affection. Quote: “No medicine is more valuable, none more efficacious, none better suited to the cure of our temporal ills than a friend to whom we may turn for consolation in time of trouble, and with whom we may share happiness in time of joy.”
https://www.azquotes.com/quote/1015945 Or, how about this: “As a result of a kiss, there arises in the mind a wonderful feeling of delight that awakens and binds together the love of them that kiss….” [https://www.azquotes.com/quote/773721] What do you think about that?
So…the focus this evening is love, that “many splendored thing”, which is the very essence of God [1 John 4:8]. Love, which is perfected in the lives of human beings when we love one another [1 John 4:12]. Love, which casts out all fear [1 John 4:18]. Love, which is the Summary of the Law and the Prophets.Love, which is central to Christian faith, life and understanding. I offer these reflections as one who stumbles along the way and very much depends on others for guidance. So, why don’t we just do it? Why don’t we love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength and our neighbors as ourselves? So many things get in the way of love. Some days we slosh around in a quagmire of conflicting passions: anger, frustration, irritation, contempt, arrogance, grandiosity, envy, jealousy, resentment, to name a few.
Fear may be the biggest culprit. Fear is certainly a prolific factory of passions: jealousy, resentment, envy are generated by fear: fear of want, fear of loss of status, fear of loss of dignity, fear of loss of control, fear of insignificance. Fear can do some very strange things inside our heads. I was visiting friends once who had another house guest who was a professional musician—“Don”. My host asked me if “Don” had heard me playing the piano in the living room. I said I wasn’t sure, but he may have. My host asked if I had played well. I said, I don’t think so — I hadn’t practiced for a couple months and I was only sight-reading and I have this issue with my left hand–so it was probably pretty awful. He said, “That’s good. If he had heard you playing well he would hate you.”
“Don” lived in fear of hearing someone play the piano well. Once we get past the absurdity of it, the best response to this sort of thing is compassion: imagine the fears and insecurities this person was living with, the absence of love he was living with. But let’s not judge too harshly: if we don’t have that particular dynamic going on in our heads, it may be something just as convoluted. I’ll hazard a guess that nine times out of ten, these strange, but all too familiar, convolutions of the mind have to do with our fears. Are we being bitter and resentful? We might ask what it is we’re afraid of. Are we being arrogant or grandiose? What is it we’re afraid of? Disdainful or contemptuous? What are we afraid of?
I wonder what community issues Aelred was addressing in his teachings on friendship, love and affection. I’m guessing he was well aware of the envy and jealousies and resentments born of fear that can infect any community—religious or not. Perhaps he knew someone who lived in fear of hearing someone else play the lute well.
Jesus. Jesus intrudes so graciously into our fearfulness, into our fretfulness, into the sheer cuckoo-ness of our so human condition.“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Mark 12:29-31]
Fear probably has served us well in the evolutionary process that has brought us to this point. There is probably a lot of survival value in fear—natural selection favors those who are afraid of poisonous snakes and saber-toothed tigers. But if fear has served us in the process of natural selection, it certainly complicates our emotional landscape today. But God speaks a new word in Jesus, who gathers words that had been on the lips of Israel a thousand years, give or take… These last three thousand years may be a kind of evolutionary moment, when something new is being infused into the human condition, that something new being the possibility of love, love that conquers fear.
I’m not a Biblical literalist—except when I am. Some of you have hear me unpack the Summary of the Law in Mark. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Although Jesus calls these “commandments”, the only imperative tense he uses is the word “hear”, as in “Hear, O Israel”. Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad—the “Sh’ma”, as it’s sometimes called, central to Jewish prayer and theology. He commands us to listen, to hear, to heed. But then he speaks in the future tense, not the imperative as he might have. “Hear me, everybody, listen up, heed me well (imperative tense!): you shall, you are indeed going to love God with all your being and you shall, you are indeed going to love your neighbor as yourself (future tense).” This becomes a promise rather than legislation—a prediction, a prophecy, if you will.
You are going to love God with all your being; you are going to love your neighbors as yourself. In God’s good time and in eternity, as God gives you the grace. If you are looking for the meaning and purpose of your life, a calling, here’s one for you: your vocation in life could be simply to love. All else may be incidental to that primary calling.
Love, however, means being liberated from the fears that bind us—which is, in a way, the goal of all spiritual practice. It’s not about visions and levitations and glamorous powers, but simply to be “rooted and grounded in love”, as Paul puts it.It’s to be the human being in whom God’s love is brought to perfection, to completion. The “one thing necessary” is to embody love, to incarnate love, in all we say and do—in all times and places, whatever they may be.
I wonder if somewhere in Aelred of Rievaulx’s writings there’s a counsel to show love and affection especially to the fearful and anxious, who can sometimes be difficult or off-putting, loving the unloving, being kind to the unkind. Come to think of it, wouldn’t that mean all of us being loving and kind to all of us? Who among us is not fearful and anxious? I wonder if Christian community isn’t a kind of conspiracy of the fearful to be mutually supportive.
It’s a simple notion to give ourselves over to love in all times and places, but not easy. It’s not easy being extricated from the complexities of our own psyches, from the fears that bind us. Which is why I find the future tense in the Summary of the Law so comforting—it takes time. It takes eternity. But the old humanity will give way to the new humanity. Fear will give way to love as the primary animating energy of our existence. You shall love God with all your being. You shall. You shall love your neighbor as yourself—and we all shall.
The way of love is both path and destination; love has set us out on our journey, love will meet us on the way, and love will bring us home.He is both Alpha and Omega, the first and the last. “Fear not”, his angels say to mortals—as they said to Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph in a dream, to the shepherds of the field.He shall indeed guide us in the way, the way that is both our source and final home.
“O God of love, we pray thee to give us love:
Love in our thinking, love in our speaking,
Love in our doing, and love in the hidden places of our souls;
Love of our neighbours near and far;
Love of our friends, old and new;
Love of those with whom we find it hard to bear,
And love of those who find it hard to bear with us;
Love of those with whom we work,
And love of those with whom we take our ease;
Love in joy, love in sorrow;
Love in life and love in death;
That so at length we may be worthy to dwell with thee,
Who art eternal love.”
[prayer of William Temple, 1881-1944 (Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-44)]
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