Moods of warmth

Beautiful though the world may be, we find our greatest happiness when we are in the company of our own kind, when we can reveal ourselves without inhibition, and relax in the warmth of friendship and the service of love. How many friends have we? The person who is young in the world's ways will identify most of the people he or she knows as a friend, unless, of course, there is manifest hostility between the two of them. This would be the response of a young child; later in childhood and adolescence a friend would be one who shares a common interest in sport or academic studies, especially if the common interest is accompanied by a scarcely definable rapport that makes the one feel at home with the other. The test of a growing friendship is a developing trust that will allow the one to reveal themself more explicitly to the other, and be able in turn to accept and guard the revelations so received.

Friendship is a priceless gift; the true friend is more to be sought than all the prosperity that the world holds dear: prosperity is an evanescent state, whereas the friend will support one up to the portals of death. Jesus says, "There is no greater love than this, that someone should lay down his life for his friends" (John 15.13). When one views this criterion in terms of the fleeing disciples at the time of the betrayal, one can say with heartfelt sadness that the greatest friend of humanity went to his death bereft of all friends: they took easily enough but they gave little in return. And yet in the very recording of this fact, we see its sheer inadequacy: friendship looks for no response, its free gift is its reward. What a long way we have gone from simple, undiscriminating childhood friendship to the love that sacrifices itself without reservation for its friends, who ultimately are the whole human race! I would go even more deeply into the fullness of the created order were it not for the fact that only humans can respond in emotional and spiritual depth to one another. Thus it is far easier to love a pet whose means of response are strictly limited and who depends on its human master for its sustenance, than a fellow human whose ways are often devious, whose responses are frequently unpredictable, and whose loyalty can be like shifting sand before a desert wind. How wonderful it is, nevertheless, to communicate with a friend, unburdening oneself in trust to someone who knows the common passions and can listen with sympathy to one's problems and aspirations! To have even a few friends of this depth of commitment is a great achievement; one can judge the value of what one has given in one's life by the number of people whom one can in all humility number among one's friends. Friendship is cultivated by becoming a good friend oneself: to be sufficiently quiet to listen in attention to the other person is the way ahead, to lose oneself completely in that person's company is the moment when friendship is declared. One's life is bound to that of the other individual, and then one may be able to consider the self in its identification with the other, who is now one's friend. The friend's concern is for our happiness, and the essential criterion of this is the implicit trust in the relationship and the caring shown for our well-being.

Trust is the criterion of all real relationships. I am at my most trustworthy when I can throw myself open to the trust of my neighbour. The less I possess, the more open I can afford to be to those around me, for I have little to lose in the transaction. To become open to this degree, I have above all to lose concern for my image in the eyes of my fellows. Jesus says that it is hard for a man of wealth to enter the kingdom of God, easier indeed for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Luke 18.24-25). Paradise is an atmosphere of such peace that we can enjoy each other's company in the glowing presence of God without any need of dissimulation or protection of our own imagined interests. As long as I am burdened by possessions that I feel obliged to guard at all costs and a personality which must be protected against all criticism, even from those people who have my true interests at heart, I cannot enter the peace of God's kingdom, the passport to which is complete childlike trust. This is indeed the faith that saves: accepting God's undemanding love, which the Christian would see as demonstrated incontestably in the sacrifice of Jesus for the whole world. He was the friend to all, even when they were incapable of reciprocating that friendship. There is only one reason why I should be accepted, and that is my origin in the divine mind and my creation by the divine love. When one remembers that origin and creation, one's personal attributes and possessions are seen as God's gifts to us that are to be used for the benefit of those around us. We are their stewards, not their owners, let alone their masters.

This understanding of the riches that life has granted us - and I speak of many more attributes than mere money, the particular commodity that prevented the rich man from entering heaven in the account to which I have already alluded (Luke 18.18-27) - gives them a finer significance. We are to take care of them in order to give freely to others, not as a duty laid down by spiritual counsel but as a great pleasure. To witness the faces of those who have been given food in their extremity of poverty is as moving as being among the audience at a really satisfying concert or play. All of these experiences lift us beyond the selfish gluttony of the market-place to the portals of heaven, where our common humanity is illuminated by rays of divine splendour. But we are no longer there merely as isolated spectators; we are part of a much greater whole in which we can begin to sense our full identity as part of the body of God. This is the body of Christ that the believer affirms during the course of the Eucharist. The gifts of God to us are therefore to be our way of participation in the Mass of life itself, where Christ is the eternal celebrant. "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is God's gift to you? You do not belong to yourselves; you were bought at a price. Then honour God in your body" (1 Corinthians 6.19-20). This fundamental teaching of St Paul is to be extended to all the gifts with which we have been endowed. Only then do they cease to be our private property and become instead the concern of the entire community. A responsibility of ownership is lifted from us as a joy of preservation falls to us in the company of all those around us. This is the way stewardship works within the caring community.

The emotion evoked by deep friendship is affection: there is a glowing warmth of affect that causes friends to embrace one another. Touch has often been evaded in human relationships as if it were invariably the portal of lust. This is very sad, because the touch of warm regard not only affirms the value of the other person's body (by which, after all, we all function while we are alive in the world) and therefore of themself as a whole person, but also has a healing quality when it is conferred in the sheer joy of recognition. The exchange of a sign of peace during the Eucharist is on this account to be welcomed, but in such a situation, when we greet stranger and friend alike, we have to take care that the embrace has a real quality of welcome and is not merely a ritual act. In this case the stranger is apt to be ignored after the service when the regular congregation meet for refreshment and conversation together. This common example shows the limitation of affection, no matter how enthusiastic it may be. It resembles the great affection the disciples had for their Master in the events leading up to his passion. They were quite sure that they were ready to give up their very lives for him, and there was no guile within the hearts of these simple working men. I suspect that it was for this quality that Jesus chose them for the very difficult assignment ahead of them during his death and the events that were to follow his resurrection and ascension, and the pouring down of the Holy Spirit upon them shortly afterwards. They had to learn that good intentions were not enough; indeed a popular proverb states that they pave the road to hell. Affection is a labile quality dependent largely on the attitude of the other person; if they, like Jesus, disappoint one, one soon becomes disillusioned, and rejection may follow in the wake. Peter's thrice repeated denial of Jesus is a terrible example of such a volte-face, though here it seems that fear rather than rejection lay at the heart of the disciples' attitude. As Jesus said of the three disciples who accompanied him to Gethsemane but could not keep awake while he was in agony, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mark 14.38).

Love, unlike affection, is not an emotion, though it nearly always is accompanied by an emotional response. Love is an action of the will whereby one gives of oneself that the other person may come fully into their own being as people fashioned in the image of God. On a more mundane level, the loving person cares for their friend under the guidance of God, not their own self-will. How can we be sure it is not our own will assuming a divine omniscience? By the dedication to the highest we may know, which is sacrifice and renunciation up to the submission to death itself if the situation demands it. The essential qualities of love are expressed in 1 John 4.16-21, crucially important statements among which are that God is love, and the person dwelling in love is dwelling in God. We love because of God's prior love for us. Perfect love banishes fear, because fear has punishment at its basis, while in love there is no room for such an attitude. Finally, our love for God is proved by the love we have for our fellows: we cannot love the invisible God while hating our fellow creatures. It must be admitted that in this passage the fellow creature is identified with a fellow Christian, but in the vastly more pluralistic world of the present time it is our duty to extend our love to all people, and to all that lives according to its nature and function in the world.

The type of loving situation that is highly emotional is the sexual experience of "falling in love" with someone. The spiritual value of this emotional response lies in its effect in shifting the consciousness from ourself to another person, who, at least temporarily, becomes the centre of our thoughts and hopes to the extent that their absence is intolerable. Somehow we project all our desires on to this individual. If the response satisfies the test of time, it is right that a permanent union should be sought. Once such a union has been effected, the scales of self-imposed illusion rapidly drop from the eyes of the couple, and then follows the long journey to real self-giving love. The discipline of married life is much more valuable in this respect than a mere casual living together which can be terminated at any time according to the whim of one of the partners. The termination of marriage is nowadays very common in most countries, but a wise couple will see this as a positively final resort after all channels of reconciliation have been exhausted. We grow through conflict patiently borne; love emerges in the recesses of our souls when we have let God into the pain of the present situation, and then a new way is shown to us in coping with apparently irreconcilable incompatibilities: where there is a will, there is a way. Of course sometimes the way is clearly one of separation and divorce, and this too has to be faced with courage and as little rancour as possible. If we are wise, we thank God for all our experiences, even the nasty ones. They can, if properly accepted, form the basis of a kinder, more understanding type of person than we were when at the threshold of adult life. It is this person whom we take beyond death's portal to the mysterious world awaiting us.

Love is usually accompanied by strong affection, but sometimes it is neutral and even punitive. One may be sure that the father of the prodigal son was grievously upset by the way his foolish child took his money and left home without so much as a thought for his family. But the father did not interfere; he let his son get on with his own life, and did not even try to get in contact with him in an attempt to entice him to a more comfortable home. But when the prodigal came to himself, the father was ready to receive him with joy. His love had not grown sour, and was simply waiting for the return of the beloved. Numerous parents have had similar experiences in real life with children who have "gone to the bad" with drugs, sexual promiscuity, occult involvement, and association with unpleasant cults that seek to seduce children from their families. They have learned to await events like the prodigal son's father, and not infrequently there has been a happy home-coming. On other occasions, it must be admitted, the outcome has been less fortunate, the children being permanently alienated from their own kind, but I believe the parents' caring has not been dulled. All this reminds us that we have no ownership of our offspring; we are their stewards as were Mary and Joseph when Jesus stayed behind in the temple at Jerusalem when he was twelve years old, oblivious of the consternation his absence was arousing among his relatives on the way back to their home in Nazareth after going to Jerusalem for the Passover (Luke 2.41-51).

"My son, do not spurn the Lord's correction or recoil from his reproof; for those whom the Lord loves he reproves, and he punishes a son who is dear to him" (Proverbs 3.11-12). This injunction emphasizes the sternness of love. It was seen especially dramatically in the story of Job. He was tested by Satan under the protecting presence of God; his trials were appalling, but he came through without blemish, and was privileged to see God as the supreme creator of all the wonders of the world. Compared with that understanding, all his suffering was a mere trifle, and the last part of his life had a placidity about it that was absent at the beginning of the story, when he was never quite sure of the degree of God's beneficence. Thus he felt impelled to make special sacrifices after his children's parties in case they had inadvertently made a blasphemous remark. If his trust had been perfect his love would have ensured that he had no such fear about divine retribution. It is when we have been deprived of those things that we regard as the very basis of our life that truth is given an opportunity to be heard, and then we may be silent with the divine presence and shown the way to personal transcendence. An obsessively clinging attitude to possessions and those whom we believe we love is the basis of our unhappiness. When we are able to let go we can at last relate in true love to our friends and relatives, for then they come to us as integral people who can give of their own essence to us, speaking the truth in love to both their and our benefit.

St Paul in his famous rhapsody on love in 1 Corinthians 13 stresses the patience and kindness of love (even when it is quite stern as in the consideration above). It does not envy other people, nor is it boastful, conceited, selfish, or hot-tempered in seeking its own justification. Thus it is not quick to take offence or to keep a score of grievances. It does not gloat over other people's sins, but always delights in the truth. Indeed there is no love where subterfuge prevails. Love can, on the contrary, face anything, and its faith, hope and endurance are limitless. Above all else it will never come to an end; this is surely the ultimate test of a person's love, as I am sure it typifies God's love towards his creatures. Some of us who are not conspicuously demonstrative in our emotional responses to other people are filled with love towards them; actions speak louder than words, as the saying goes. The emotion that bridges affection and love is compassion, the ability to enter into another being's suffering. The word "being" brings in a greater range of concern than a merely human one, but I have no doubt that our first concern must be to our human fellows. If we truly love each other, that love is sure to overflow to all the creatures around us, and the same is true of the gentler compassion. On the other hand, there are some exponents of "animal rights" who hate at least some of their fellow human beings. Love in fact is always universal in scope, since it comes from God and is the essential divine attribute. Inasmuch as God loves all his creatures, so does true human love have no limits. We can hardly help liking some people more than others, liking in this context having close affinities to affection, but we are bidden to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Even people of low spiritual calibre may act lovingly to their friends and relatives (and even for this we should be grateful, for at least the attitude is right even if its scope is limited), but full love knows no favourites. Matthew 5.43-48 spells out these requirements of the godly life.

When we consider our poor showing in relation to these demands, we may feel very dispirited; the ideal is an immeasurable distance from our capacity. But then we should remember that God is the source of love and not we ourselves. Our great work is to become more open to the divine compassion, and then the love of God will pour into our souls. This openness is cultivated by the constant practice of silent prayer and a more balanced view of our frailties. A sense of humour is an invaluable adjunct, without which "good" people become hard, censorious and painfully insensitive to the world's tragedies. What we can face without flinching, we can serve with compassion, and the first person for whom to have compassion is oneself. When we cease judging ourselves and can simply be still, a ripple of gentle humour can be allowed to play through ourself, and then we can entertain a smile at our deficiencies and start to love ourselves for what we are, not for our future achievements. It is in fact God's love for us that now becomes available to our own consciousness, and that love cannot be dammed within ourself as a selfish acquisition. Love's nature is to circulate freely and initiate the act of creation, whether in living form or in a plenitude of mental or artistic inspiration. The more we can love ourselves, the more we begin to love our fellows and the world in general.

It must be admitted that the act of loving people whom we greatly dislike is not easy; Jesus, for that matter, did not like many of the scribes and Pharisees whom he met in the course of his work. Furthermore, love does not flourish in an atmosphere of deception; we must maintain the truth in a spirit of love (Ephesians 4.15). There are unfortunately some people with whom nearly everybody has a difficulty in relating; the unanimity of response exonerates our own dislike. Such people will remain outsiders until they are prepared to investigate their own psychological condition. Usually they are either very obtuse or very proud, often both together, and nothing can be done to relate better with them. But one can still care about them in prayer, while awaiting a change in heart in their lives. If the matter is one of a more personal vendetta, it is right to try and bring the situation to an open discussion. Often this is impossible because of the intractable disposition of the other person. In the end the wisest and best way is that of forgiveness, so that one may devote one's attentions to one's own affairs rather than dissipating them on evil thoughts and obsessive plans for revenge. Wisdom may be provided by a kindly friend: what was lost, whether a spouse in the course of infidelity or money through dishonesty, can be replaced if one sets one's mind squarely to the matter. In respect of infidelity, the spouse has exposed themself as inadequate in any case, while the experience of financial loss can be of great future value in the course of one's life. Needless to say, a criminal offence should be brought to the notice of the law, as much for the offender's ultimate good as for the welfare of society. A failure to do so is an act of sentimentality, not of love. We remember the strong dictum of Proverbs 3.11-12 once more, to the effect that we should not spurn God's reproof and correction, for God loves those whom he reproves, even punishing a son who is dear to him. Inasmuch as we are all God's beloved children, we must accept punishment when we clearly go off the rails.

The heart of the matter is the experience that life provides the open-hearted type of person: we all start as self-centred children, but as we work in the world, so we can appreciate other types of people with tastes other than our own. These include religious belief (or unbelief), national allegiance, life style, political commitment and artistic appreciation. Some of these categories may remain closed books to us, while others are the very life of the spirit within us. As we grow older, an overriding wisdom should direct our attention, seeing all the above categories as essentially focuses of personal growth. Our opinions are certain to change with the advent of age and its concomitant experience of the nature of people and society. What ought to grow even as the body declines is compassion for all life, so that our concern may be the fruit of deep commitment to the sufferings of our fellows, and a determination to relieve their pain as much as possible. This is the apogee of love, and if we have actualized it for even one person, we need not be ashamed of our contribution to the whole. "Anything you did for one of my brothers here however insignificant, you did for me" (Matthew 25.40). We have noted this dictum before.

To continue giving oneself in love to a person who cannot respond is a great test of relationship. How can one continue to take a real interest in a spouse who is languishing in hospital in the last stages of Alzheimer's disease, when the rational response is so minimal that it is extremely doubtful whether the patient even recognizes their visitor? One has always to be honest in one's reactions; play-acting simply increases the sense of ultimate alienation. I believe that when the brain is so damaged by the degenerative changes of Alzheimer's disease or the frank destruction of tissue that follows a stroke or an injury, the essential being of a person may be intact but unable to communicate intelligibly through an irremediably damaged brain, the master organ of the body that controls all responses while we are alive in the flesh. If one considers this possibility one may still address the person with the hope that there is a deeper recognition even if the response is negligible. True love embraces the entire person and looks for no response to justify it.

A similar attitude should inform us in our relationship with a chronically mentally ill person, but here the hope of amelioration is often quite strong. There have been instances of victims of manic-depressive psychosis who so irritated their spouse during a hypomanic phase with its hyperactivity and loquacity that they were bidden to keep quiet rather brusquely by their exhausted partner. All did indeed become quiet, but the person was found hanged elsewhere in the house! How careful we have to be in dealing with the mentally ill! True love can bear all things, but can one dare blame the husband or wife vexed almost beyond control, especially when the psychosis has been continuing for a long time? Needless to say, the sense of guilt that hangs over the spouse whose impatience has precipitated the insane suicidal act is worsened by the love the two shared during periods of lucidity and living together. The lesson to be learned from this is to practise self-control and be quiet within oneself even when one is provoked to breaking point. In that quietness the love of God can soften and warm the tense heart; a tragedy is averted as one grows more fully into the serenity of a holy person, something of the measure of fullness of the stature of Christ.

George Herbert's glorious poem on love seems to say everything about the subject.

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here:"
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat:"
So I did sit and eat.

And yet Shakespeare still has something more personal to add in one of his sonnets.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom: -
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Yes indeed, charity never faileth, to quote the Authorized Version's lovely rendering of 1 Corinthians 13.8. Love will never come to an end, in the words of the Revised English Bible.

Chapter 8
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