Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Heart is a Predicament

The heart is a predicament, the mind is no good at all. We all want love, we say. We all want love coming to us from another, from others. We all want love flowing from us to another, to others. So we say.

Yet we are lovers caught on the words of our lips, the frailty of our desires. We say we want love to give and to take. But given the opportunity, we fail. We cheat. We renege. We lie. We fall out of love and into it again like a little girl playing dress-up with clothes much too big for us. We are very, very bad at love.

Everything about us is impermanent. Our bodies are aging and decaying, as fleeting as the grass. Isaiah says, “The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” And as the Psalmist writes, “My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.” And again the Psalmist writes, “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”

We are contingent. That is, according to Webster’s, “dependent on or conditioned by something else.” We are contingent, not necessary says the dictionary, but rather verging on the incidental, the accidental. Living in the knowledge of this contingency of ourselves is a lot like living on the edge of the Grand Canyon for our whole lives. An awesome view, but a frighteningly long fall that we know is coming.

We did not begin by our own choice. And we will not end that way. Our life was thrust upon us, and our death will likewise come to us eventually or sooner. We say we believe that our death itself is only a doorway to a new, everlasting life… but how many of us actually love and live that belief?

To love someone is to hold them in the embrace of something that is more to us even than the fragile life we thought we treasured more than anything. Yet even as we hold them in the grip of this strange mixture of action, feeling, and fascination, we begin to love them less. The person is less than the love for the person; the love itself can become an idol, a lie, even a weapon behind the upraised fist of the man striking her of whom he says, later, with tears, “I love you.” The love is not the person, and the love either becomes the person more and more or less and less. There are only two ways, and one of them is not heavenly love, but its demonic counterfeit.

We are contingent, but true love is eternal. That is, love is unchanging, unshifting, unaltered by the passage of time except in a further growing and rooting of itself in the service of the beloved. We are anxious about the moment, about whether or not a friend thinks well of us, about whether he’ll stop preaching in time for lunch. Fewer of us are anxious about the future, about our own mortality, about what it means, existentially speaking, to be a human being.

Pascal noted that there is one reason behind the fact that we are so changeable, always hunting for diversion, never able to rest at peace in a room with only ourselves for company. It is, he writes, “the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.”

So love itself becomes a mode of travel, of escape from ourselves. No wonder so many marry and divorce over and over. No wonder so many don’t bother with marriage, admitting from the outset that constant love is not possible to an inconstant, mortal, ever-changing being.

In Him, in Christ, love came to us because we could not go to it. There was no hope for us until love killed us, a mercy-death that killed that abstracted, lost self in order that a new self alive in Him might be born. Yet as years pass we still are faced with the dilemma of choosing to remain in Him and grow in our ability to love, or to lose faith when faced with our still-present mortal body, our still-present weakness toward temptation, our still-occurring failures and sins.

We choose. Today. Will we love the Man of Sorrows? Today? In that way is the only way to love at all.

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